Grand Golf In a Prison's Shadow

Groundskeepers work on a sand trap on the 18th hole, a 562-yard par-5.
Groundskeepers work on a sand trap on the 18th hole, a 562-yard par-5. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By C. Woodrow Irvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

From the 10th fairway, the view is unique among golf courses in the Washington area. Beyond the hole are the empty red brick buildings of the former D.C. prison at Lorton, which for 86 years has dominated the landscape of southern Fairfax County.

Against that backdrop, in a place now called Laurel Hill, the county will open a golf course this fall. The 280-acre expanse is not the only special thing about the Laurel Hill Golf Club. The 18-hole, par-71 course has more frills than the Fairfax County Park Authority's seven other courses and will be its largest.

"This is our leap into upscale golf offerings," said Todd Johnson, the course's manager. At a challenging 7,010 yards, the $13.8 million links are expected to attract more top-level golfers than the other county-run courses, Johnson said.

The course is a key part of the development of the 3,000-acre prison complex, which closed in 2001 and was transferred by Congress to the county government. Next month, a high school will open adjacent to the course.

The county also plans to create a regional recreation area at the site with open space, ballfields, playgrounds, picnic areas, trails, a cultural center, a horse center and other amenities. The rest of the Lorton area is undergoing a boom in residential and commercial development, a byproduct of the prison's closing.

County parks officials, eager to build a course near a historical site, brought in nationally known golf architect Bill Love to design Laurel Hill. Love, who called the course "a real jewel," said he tried to work with the hilly landscape and prison buildings.

"It was a rather unique piece of property topographically," said Love, who also designed Lee's Hill near Fredericksburg and Hunting Hawk in Glen Allen. "We wanted to lay the golf course as lightly as we could on the land in order to let that beautiful piece of property dictate the character of the golf course."

The course sits on land that was part of the prison's dairy farm. The barns and silos were preserved; a silo stands along the first fairway.

"This property was meant for a golf course," Johnson said, pointing out the changes in topography and the pastoral feel. "There are wide-open areas, there are some tree-lined holes. We want to have 18 different experiences, 18 different holes. There is some water, extensive bunkering, elevation changes. . . . It's really such an ideal place to put a golf course."

Laurel Hill will be a course of firsts. No other county-operated course has concrete cart paths. The fairways are bentgrass, a thin grass that can be closely trimmed to create a smooth surface. "At our other facilities, it's only on the tees and greens," Johnson said.

Unlike other county courses, Laurel Hill will offer five sets of tees so golfers of different abilities can choose the distance they want to start the hole from. Teeing off from the forward-most set of tees will make the course almost 2,000 yards shorter than using the championship tees. Most courses have three sets of tees.

"The teeing areas are more expansive than what we've done previously, which enables us to be more flexible and set up the golf course differently from day to day," Johnson said.

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