Players at the fourth green of Hilltop Golf Club in Alexandria can look out over much of Northern Virginia, spot the massive oaks of Mount Vernon and, beyond that, gaze into suburban Maryland.
But only a few years ago, when the site was known as Hilltop Landfill, the view was restricted to guys who drove Caterpillars, not Callaways. Over the past decade tons of debris and dirt have been layered and meticulously sculpted into a windswept, links-style nine-hole golf course.
"The inspiration was to give it a Scottish look," said Lindsay Bruce Ervin, the course architect. "In Scotland there aren't very many trees." The decision was practical, too: "You can't plant trees on a landfill," Ervin explained. "The only thing you can do is plant grass."
There's still evidence of Hilltop's colorful past. Flagpole vents that release trapped methane stick out of the ground, surrounded by wooden fences and signs that warn against smoking nearby. Just beyond the seventh fairway, veiled by a small hill, lies a portion of the landfill that remains active. Though gulls sometimes circle, there is no scent of garbage: The landfill receives only construction materials.
The short course opened last October, and head professional Marty O'Rear says 4,000 rounds were played by year's end. The facility, which features four par-4s and five par-3s, isn't entirely new to area golfers: Hilltop's driving range has been operating on the site for seven years. "The anticipation has been there," O'Rear said.
At least 70 U.S courses have been built on landfills, including the Hamptons Golf Course in Hampton, Va. Once a landfill is full, owners have precious few revenue-generating development options. Most building is forbidden, and nothing bigger than a shrub can be planted. Long roots could puncture the plastic cap that separates the trash from the surface.
"In the last several years there has been a lot more attention drawn to these kinds of projects," said Jim Aardema, who runs the Brownfieldgolf.com Web site and consults on landfill golf projects. "The only real practical self-sustaining redeveloping option [for a closed landfill] is putting a golf course on it."
O'Rear and Aardema say players need have no fear. Multiple layers of stone and soil cover the plastic cap, and the streams and small reservoir at Hilltop are routed around the fill. The site, owned by Alexandria's Gailliot family since 1917, previously served as a chicken farm and gravel mine before becoming a landfill.
The par-31 course is designed to reward shotmaking, not power. Ervin said he's proudest of the rolling berms, which create tricky lies, and the bunkers filled with fine-grained, snow-white sand.
The first two holes are flat and short -- hard wedge shots could easily sail the greens. But then comes the treeless hill and the two most noteworthy holes: the par-4 third hole, a dogleg that snakes up the hill past sod wall bunkers, and the par-3 fourth, which finishes on the top of the hill and offers that panoramic view.
Breathe it in: All you smell is golf.
-- Brian Reid