by Steve Bantle
The Course: Laurel Hill Golf Course
The Rating: 4.5 Stars
The Price: $44 18 holes (twilight rate weekdays)
If you are the type of golfer that relishes courses played by the pros or used for national events, then Laurel Hill GC on the southern edge of Metro DC will not disappoint. Ranked nationally in the top ten for public courses, this 18-hole, par-71 venue in Lorton, VA was the site of the USGA Amateur Public Links Tournament in 2013 and provides a layout that fits every golfer’s eye.
There is an almost serenely eerie aesthetic value as well, as the course is set on the grounds of what was once a D.C. Department of Corrections facility. Many of the holes, especially on the back nine, feature conspicuous reminders of that prison heritage with everything from guard towers, to distant barracks now turned into new upscale housing. As for the course, designer Bill Love brings a distinct character to each individual hole, and the number of wide-open, links-style holes is delicately offset by tighter tree-conscious offerings. There exists an equally good ratio of risk-reward shots to test every club in the bag and mammoth greens are resplendant in subtle undulation, so a good putter has a chance to make a good score.
Although the wide fairways are inviting, errant shots will likely land you in the bountilful feskew – a place where much like the former surrondings, offer little chance of escape. As part of the Fairfax County Parks Department, Laurel Hill is public, but a membership package is available and tee times are accepted with a price range of $99 (in-season/weekend) to $44(twilight/weekday). The fee does include cart and range balls and the practice facility is better than average. Out of season prices run from $79 to $34 respectively, and there are occasional on-line deals to be found.
As someone who has seen a lot of courses in the Northern Virginia area, Laurel Hill stands out for several reasons. The first is that it is not ‘shoe-horned’ into a local community as many courses in the area are, so the trip from green to next tee is not through someone’s side lot, back yard, or across a public road. The other is that the layout provides the player with a hole unto itself – there are only a few places on the course where another hole will even be within normal view, so you can keep you hard hat in the trunk and admire the pristine nature at which this course is always kept.
You start your adventure with three par 4’s and each one very different from the previous. With five sets of tees and a slope ranging from 119 to 145, there is something for every level of player here – a word of advice is to stay within your ability – there was an 11-shot difference for me when jumping up a set on successive rounds, and I carry an GHIN index of 4 on average.
Hole number one seems harmless enough with an inviting fairway. A baby draw works best for positioning on the slight dogleg left, but the subtle incline to the green leaves many an approach shot short. Players can also note the first of several reminders that they are on an old prision ground in the form of the water tower used in the days of operation. It offers an aiming point off the tee and sits to the right of the green. Number two presents a short dogleg right and a chance for the long hitter to get inside a wedge approach. Get greedy and pull that tee ball, and you get to hit three from much farther out. The third is a scenic Matterhorn with the tee shot splitting two fairway traps and a steady, almost steep incline to a very narrow, very guarded, two tiered green. You will need to do math in public to figure out what club to swing. And speaking of guarded, this course will require some solid sand play or very accurate ball-striking because every hole comes with its share of bunkers both in the fairways and around the greens.
As high as you climbed to get to the third green, you drop even farther to the par three 4th hole. More math is mandatory as well as a lot of faith in wind for this medium-short length, but tenuous tee shot. The fifth is the first par five and although it isn’t very long, it can generate a double bogey very quickly. With only a 250-yard runout to a dropoff and subsequent hazard, keeping the driver in the bag off the tee is the smart play. The risk-reward is with the second shot, likely in the 200-yard range and definitely in need of carrying 11 bunkers – yep 11 – to another double-tiered green. Play this like a three-shot hole and avoid most of the trouble. Number six is an interesting links-style hole where the wind can be the biggest factor. The USGA actually pushed the tee back to 500 yards but kept it a par four and made it the hardest hole for the Publinx tournament. In the yardage book available in the pro shop, it indicates that if you make par, it’s a great score; if you make birdie, call ESPN. Number six is the big hitter’s paradise, but the pesky feskew that is all over the course will come up quick if the tee shot is too eratic.
You finish the front nine with a taste of everything – the driveable, but heavily-guarded par 4 seventh, followed by the long, wide-open par three 8th. The par five ninth has it all – a double dogleg, an uphill approach to a guarded green, and more trees than every other hole on the front combined.
Many of the holes on the back nine will force the player to consider the crosswind that will sweep in as that links feel becomes overly evident and the feskew overly obvious. Like number one, number ten is a friendly-looking hole and not too long, but a little error can be big trouble either from fairway bunkers or foot-high feskew. The view from tee to green is right into the old prison and perhaps a little foreshadowing of things to come. Number 11 is a unique par three with several different tee boxes so as to create many different approaches. One set could have you playing over a ravine to a short but wide landing area while the tees on the other side of the ravine offer a narrow approach but deep from front to back. While the tee shot does not necessarily require a lot of club, the green absolutely requires a lot of nerve. This hole gives players the best look of the old grounds, and above the green to the left sits the remnanats of a small, totally brick, windowless, padlocked building with a single exhaust in the roof. There is much speculation as to the utilization of this construct during the days of operation for it is off the main barracks a way. Believe what you will, but as you turn your back to the prison you’ll find a tee shot on the par-4 twelfth needing to be more accurate than most others here, coming back over the ravine and playing to a slight dogleg right, a long hitter could get to wedge distance for an approach and a baby fade works wonders for positioning.
The 13th hole provides players with another prison panorama as well as fairway bunkers and a downhill approach to yet another well-trapped green. Not long for distance, the 13th means business if you miss with the driver even just a little. The 14th is the second of three par 3s on the back, but plays more like a short par four. Adding one to two clubs for the hill, another for the wind, and one more if the pin is back might easily turn your original 5-iron choice into a fully ripped 3-wood. To make the hole even tougher is the severity of the tiers the green presents – front is front and back is most definitely back. The near 600-yard uphill 15th is a par five that thinks it’s a par 6, and like most of the par fives at Laurel Hill, it offers a little bit of everything. The tree-lined tee shot opens into a windy, feskew-filled second shot followed by a third shot of some distance and scale. Since the 15th hole works back to the club house, the observant golfer will note the pin placement on the way out to number one as it is hard to acertain from the position of the approach shot the exact pin location due to both the slope of the hole leading to the green and the vastness of this green – requiring at least one more extra club to get to a deep pin.
Like the front nine, the last three holes offer a golfing buffet of design features. The 16th is a scenic downhill par three of medium-long length and like the 11th hole, offers several different looks from varied tee boxes. This hole also reveals the first actual evidence of water on the course, to the left. Like most holes, it is inviting to the eye but cruel to mis-execution. The 17th might require only a three wood off the tee – this dogleg right contains a hazard that runs at an angle away from the golfer (The farther left the tee shot, the more room the ball has to fly). Getting a flat lie for your approach is not likely as the fairway undulates more than the green on this hole.
Finally, the 18th hole; it also presents the player with several options and a chance to get home with two well played shots, but there are more bunkers from tee to green than on several other holes combined and they are all in what one might call ‘normal landing areas’. The 18th green is quintesential of the other seventeen – fast, undulated, and rampant with enough subtle incline changes to make even a good putter feel illiterate about reading them.
One part Merion, one part Congressional, and a pinch or two of Augusta and here is a historical gem in Northern Virginia that does offer a membership package. For those that live in the area, and are looking for a country club course in a public venue, Laurel Hill GC might just be the place to get “locked into”.