What's happened in Moseley, Va., is pretty rare, especially as golf contracts and its vast surplus of courses tightens to meet the realities of demand.
The former Westham Golf Club, which opened in 2010 as a nine-hole course, has become Magnolia Green, an 18-hole course with a pair of sewn-together nines that will be at the heart of the leisure options in the massive housing development just outside of Richmond with the same name.
Nicklaus Design and architect Tom Clark built both nines, which are distinctive to the tuned-in eye, but they flow together and don't betray one another in presenting drastically different styles of golf.
The course sports generous Bermuda grass fairways, which run firm to the point that a player must consider the ground carry when setting up approach shots. The wide fairways made the course very playable for most any player, making it unlikely that a modest tee shot will wind up in trouble. There's just enough rough to keep marginal drives from finding the worst spots on the course.
However, a first time player, such as yours truly, could be easily frustrated by the sheer volume of blind tee shots. There are 10 by my count, though your count might change based on the box you play. Even though you figure out pretty quickly that the fairways are expansive, it's difficult to figure out the ideal line to get the most roll out and wind up with the best angle to the putting surfaces.
The approach shots are often blind, too, and play into firm, well-contoured greens, with some of the newer putting surfaces inspiring some pinball-style bounces if you're not aware of the lay of the land. The bounces are rarely abhorrent, but they can happen.
For example, on the 235-yard par-3 third, I hit a pure 3-hybrid toward the front-center hole location. My tee shot missed the front portion of the green by a couple of yards and wound up on the back fringe of the green. Had I known about the mowed slope to the left of the green, I would have played a cut shot to the hole and used the land to my advantage.
Then again, a hole later at the lengthy par-4 fourth, the green was clearly set up to invite a draw approach. Clark wanted players to bring the ball in from the right to either access a hole location at the foot of the slope that runs the width of the green or off the rough to the upper tier. It was challenging and marked the second hole in a row where the gauntlet was so obviously laid that it was inspiring.
The original nine is now the second nine on the course, played in a different routing than when it opened.
The drivable par-4 11th is a bomber's treat, playing around 320 yards from the fourth of five tee boxes. It's a blind shot, with a fairway bunker serving as a bit of an eyesore, but also discouraging the player from simply blasting away at an otherwise unprotected hole. The best play is to take it over the left side of the bunker and ride the slope to the front of the green. Bailing out right is fine for an angle, maybe ever preferable, but invites danger.
What was once the second hole is now a captivating finishing hole. Playing some 430 yards from the black tees, the hole opens with a semi-blind, downhill tee shot to a generous fairway which funnels to a mid-sized green sloping back to front with an entertaining backstop for front hole locations. It's a great hole to finish a match on, with anywhere from a birdie to a double bogey in play.
The bentgrass greens are in good shape, with the putting surfaces firm enough to prevent incoming shots from denting too much. The greens roll true, though the putts aren't perfect near the hole -- typical for bentgrass, especially on public courses with a lot of traffic.
The collar areas could use some help in growing in, but that's sometimes the nature of a new course. With another growing season in the fall, that problem should be fixed.
Magnolia Green doesn't have a permanent clubhouse and won't until next year. The temporary pro shop is a fine staging area but creates a very long drive to the first and 10th tees, as well the new practice area. The optimist would say that just gives you time to mentally prepare ahead of your round and decompress after it.
Green fees are typically around $50. Magnolia Green is open to public play, and, at its reasonable prices, should mean good traffic that will buoy whatever resident play is ultimately the foundation for the property. This housing development isn't quite within shouting distance of the Old Dominion's capital, but with a planned 3,000 homes in a resort-style community, Magnolia Green shouldn't have trouble finding resident regulars.
It's ironic that a course like Magnolia Green came together in a measured, appropriate way while so many of its ill-fated ilk born and bred in the real estate booms of the 1990s and 2000s are being left to fallow. Developments like it will become more rare, likely in reaction to the overbuilding of golf courses that anchored overpriced real estate expansion. The sport was somewhat involuntarily tied to the growth of housing, and that's not something that the sport can allow again.
However, this project feels more like a restoration or a renovation than a piece of new construction. Golf's next boom will look a lot like Magnolia Green, with competitive clubs putting significant money back into their courses with the hopes of competing against a dwindling oversupply of courses and fighting the sport's race-to-the-bottom pricing strategy with a clear demonstration of value and commitment to delivering an enjoyable experience for any level of player.