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For Whom the Bell Tolls

On a day where it was closed for TGJ Members, Belmont proves it’s just what the public needed
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Jim Slate remembers the one and only time he played the old Belmont. 

It was 1984, on his 16th birthday. He remembers that he played alone, and that he was terrified of pumping one into Hilliard Road, which ran down the right of No. 1. So when he finally returned to Belmont for another crack at it—this time alongside 80 fellow TGJ Members—he was surprised to see that the only thing that had changed was just about everything. 

While the narrow opening tee shot had become notorious among local slicers in Belmont’s original form, it was no problem for Ben Hogan when he won the 1945 Richmond Open here (at that point it was still called Hermitage Country Club). Four years later, Belmont was introduced to the wider golf world when it hosted the 1949 PGA Championship. Sam Snead ended up cashing the $3,500 winners check and, 72 years later, it still stands as the only major championship ever hosted in Slammin’ Sammy’s home state of Virginia. 

By 1977, however, the course had come under control of Henrico County and along with increased public play came the slow disappearance of A. W. Tillinghast’s original touch. Greens slowly shrunk, bunker faces eroded (some were even removed), cart paths appeared and conditions worsened. By 2019, the county was ready to close the course and repurpose the land. 

Belmont

Enter Richmond native and TGJ Member Brian Alas who, along with a small team at the First Tee of Greater Richmond, assembled an aggressive plan to not only keep Belmont a golf course, but bring it into the 21st century. After securing the necessary funding through a private donor, the group was faced with a glaring question: restore Tillinghast’s original work, or do something completely different? To answer this, they needed Scot Sherman. 

As lead architect for Davis Love Golf Design, and after 27 years in the business, Sherman knows a thing or two about blurring the lines between new and old. Thanks to his training under Pete Dye he’s held on retainer at places like Kiawah Island and Harbour Town, tweaking holes here and there to keep them consistent with modern standards. In another recent example of his range, he seamlessly renovated the Plantation Course at Sea Island using Walter Travis’ original nine holes as inspiration. In late 2019, just as Belmont was in dire need of a veteran at the helm, Sherman was building a largely new Birdwood Golf Course in Charlottesville, Virginia—just an hour’s drive away from Richmond. 

After convincing Sherman to tour the site, Alas and the First Tee proposed a radical idea: What about 12 holes? 

On paper, the idea was a hit. A 12-hole course would speed up play and leave plenty of room for an expanded range, a full short game area, and an 18-hole putting course—all things the First Tee felt were necessary to attract younger crowds. It would also give Sherman the flexibility to create 12 holes worth playing, rather than the congested 18 they were inheriting. In reality, the plan was more complicated. The biggest hurdle: Anything less than 18 holes would violate a long-held golf-purist rule of tampering with golden age architecture. 

“Tillinghast was an innovator of his time,” Sherman says. “But after a lot of thoughts and prayers, we decided he would’ve been an innovator today as well.”

To satisfy both schools of thought, Sherman took leftover land from the original front nine and fashioned a six-hole short course using Tillinghast template greens. Philly Cricket’s “Tiny Tim,” San Francisco Golf Club’s “Duel Hole” and an ode to Southward Ho can all be found on the course they call “Little Bell.” That once-terrifying starting hole? It’s now a spacious practice facility. Sherman even managed to weave in some original Belmont history by recreating the original fourth green before it was plowed under. 

As for the main 12 holes, only three new surfaces would have to be constructed. As Sherman was shaping one of them, the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot was being played on a different set of Tillinghast greens. While watching a few holes on break, Sherman recalled his boss Davis Love III’s famous rainbow putt on No. 18 to clinch the 1997 PGA Championship. Soon enough he was back on the bulldozer, mimicking the contours of No. 18 at Winged Foot on Belmont’s new third green. 

Just 13 months after breaking ground, and despite a global pandemic that put deadlines in serious doubt, the new Belmont Golf Course re-opened for public play with the community firmly behind it. Visit any day of the week and you’ll see kids of all ages learning to swing where Sarazen and Snead battled for the title in ‘49, and more honing their touch on the wildly fun “Ringer” putting course. You’ll see adults and teenagers of all skill levels on the 12-hole course, which now sees 1,000 rounds per week. And you’ll find everyone from Division I players to first-timers mixing it up on the Little Bell. 

You’ll probably meet Mark Lynch, an ex-Army intelligence officer who now runs the golf operations with a similar steely-eyed precision. You’ll say hello to Kelly McAnally, the warm and affable COO. You’ll notice the barefooted superintendent, Dan Sabina, handpicking leaves out of the snowy white bunkers to which he’s devoted the last 18 months of his life. And you might even see Jim Slate, on the range or Little Bell or the putting course or even one of the 12 holes, passing the game onto his 11-year-old daughter, Harper. 

If only he had a Belmont around when he was growing up. 

The Showcase @ Belmont Notables

  • The Showcase @ Belmont was divided into two sessions: an 18-hole 2-Man better ball tournament in the morning, and a 12-hole skins game in the afternoon.
  • Jeffrey Ober (2020 Broken Tee 2-Man champion) made nine birdies on his own ball in the morning session, propelling him and his partner, Dominic Lee, to a four-shot better ball victory (-7). 
  • Scot Sherman held a lunchtime Q&A in which he detailed the thought process behind each hole, his time working with Pete Dye, and headwinds facing the golf industry. Undoubtedly though, our favorite question came from Sherman’s father who happened to be in attendance: “Are you buying supper tonight, or am I?”
  • Craig Woodward started his afternoon skins by holing a gap wedge from 116 yards on the par-4 10th. His eagle would only hold up for 30 minutes before Conor Hill spun back a wedge from 82 yards and cut the skin. The two had a long laugh about it when they crossed paths on the next tee box. 
  • Richmond native and TGJ Member Taylor Massey played with his father, Bill, in the morning better ball game. Massey will be competing at the USGA Mid-Amateur at Sankaty Head Golf Club later this month. We wish him the best of luck!