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Lost in a Memory: Ballyhack

The unlikely masterpiece in Lester George’s portfolio of Virginia classics
Ballyhack Golf Club

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Like so many of the best golf stories, Ballyhack began with a bottle of booze.

On an auspicious Virginia night in 2004, Lester George was invited to visit a friend of a friend, who was a prolific car collector. George’s cost of admission: a bottle of vodka. It was a small price to pay to enjoy some four-wheeled marvels.

The evening wore on like those nights tend to do; everyone lost count of the pistons and the drinks. At one point, the host asked George what he did for a living.

“I’m a golf-course architect,” said George, who by that point had spent 15 years restoring and designing courses throughout the Eastern Seaboard but mostly in his adopted home state of Virginia. He’d made a name for himself in the golf community there, with Cavalier Golf and Yacht Club (a 1929 Charles Banks design), the Country Club of Virginia (where he restored William Flynn’s James River Course), and Kinloch Golf Club (a George original) on his resume.

“Well I’ve got the prettiest piece of land for a golf course in the whole damn Roanoke Valley,” the host bragged.

“Not true,” George replied. “I’ve seen the prettiest piece of land in the Roanoke Valley for a golf course, and I don’t think you own it.”

The host pointed to a picture on the wall. “Go up there and look at it,” he said. As George trained his bleary eyes on the image, he was immediately lost in a memory.

Ballyhack Golf Club
The “prettiest piece of land in the Roanoke Valley for a golf course.”

“I’ve seen this place,” George said to no one in particular. Two years prior, he had visited the site by chance and had been blown away by its potential: unmatched panoramic views, stunning land movement, and broad corridors. He’d been told that the land couldn’t be had. But here it was again, this time beckoning through a picture frame.

George wasn’t lacking for a masterpiece. His design at Kinloch in Richmond, Va., had opened to universal acclaim just three years prior (it remains a fixture in a slew of Top-100 lists). His path to the profession was more circuitous than the one his design career has followed. George was born on an Air Force base in Germany, to a father who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He played his first rounds as a senior in high school at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, and he enrolled at the University of Richmond with plans to become a surgeon. 

“But the Army got in the way of that,” George says. 

He signed up late in the Vietnam era, but at the time the conflict was in full roar. When George finished college, he was ready for his career as an Army officer, but the war was over. “There was a large glut of officers that they didn’t need anymore, but you still had a commitment,” he explains. “We had a lot of time off, so I started playing golf four days a week. We’d get off at 2 in the afternoon and go play golf, so I got good pretty fast.”

As an artillery officer, George developed another specialty: “I was very good at terrain analysis, at topo and reading maps.” That expertise paid off when his career changed: After finishing his military commitment, George caught on as an apprentice in the late 1980s to architect Algie Pulley, who’d grown up in Virginia. With Pulley, he dove even further into Virginia’s diverse golf landscapes and his mentor’s design ideals.

“[Pulley] was a very multiple-routes-to-the-hole kind of designer,” George says. “And because I was an infantry and artillery officer, I was a camouflage guy.” George began weaving those threads together and became known for courses with split fairways and centerline hazards, playable through a variety of strategic—if not always obvious—options.

For the first decade of George’s design career, that approach wasn’t always popular: Money was cheap, and the golf-design industry tried to keep pace with developers’ calls to build as many as possible. George saw many of his colleagues abandoning the design principles that he’d learned in the earliest days of his career.

“We got into what I used to call ‘the arms race,’ where everybody was trying to build harder and longer golf courses with too many hazards—move more dirt, and do as much as you can to make golf more difficult,” George said. “It seemed to me like we were going the wrong direction for such a long time.”

By the time George found himself staring at a car collector’s photograph of southwest Virginia’s sweeping hills, the pendulum had begun to swing back his way: Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes both had recently opened, and the industry was growing receptive to their full-throated calls for more strategic designs through a property’s natural landforms. George knew the plot in the photo had that sort of potential: its wild contours that reminded him of Cruden Bay in northeast Scotland, set against the Blue Ridge Mountains in lieu of the North Sea.

What George didn’t know was whether he could afford it. Another bidder already had an offer on the land, and George couldn’t match it. Days after the party, George had essentially given up on his dream. He was on his way to New Orleans when the landowner called. 

“You gonna make me an offer?” he asked. 

“I thought you were taking the other one,” George responded. 

“Well, I want it to be a golf course,” the owner said.

George drew up a bid that day—full price, no contingencies, with no partners lined up. As he strolled along Bourbon Street, George’s phone rang. Offer accepted.

Construction began in late 2007. George poured everything he knew into the project: two decades of experience, his philosophical bias toward preserving natural topography, and offering enormous playing grounds. (Ballyhack has 56 acres of fairway; by comparison, Pinehurst No. 2 has 41.)

“Ballyhack looks like we moved a lot of dirt, but we didn’t move hardly any,” George said. “People complain that it’s hard to walk. Well, yeah, it’s hard to walk because the land was severe, and I wasn’t gonna destroy those landforms just to make it easier to walk.”

The rave reviews came immediately. Ballyhack made Golfweek’s and Golf Magazine’s lists of the year’s best new courses; “Ballybunion in the Virginia foothills,” wrote Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten. For George, it was vindication he still wears proudly today.

George and his eventual partners sold Ballyhack in 2016 to what ultimately became the Dormie Network, a nationwide collection of private courses with cross-club memberships. But the course still holds a special place in George’s heart—not to mention a station at the very top of the portfolio that George has spent a third of a century building. The irony isn’t lost on George that his two most widely known designs are so strikingly different: wild, rugged Ballyhack, and the more subtle, pristine Kinloch. But they stand testament to the golf opportunities offered in his beloved home state.

“We have such a unique diversity in terrain,” he says. “We have mountains, we have piedmont, we have flat, we have beach, we have ocean, we have rivers, we have the Chesapeake Bay—there’s a little bit of everything.”

Then a pause and a semi-serious chuckle.

“I’ve always said that if other architects would stay out of Virginia, then I’d stay out of their states too.”