Playing WITH History

With the historic Lorton correctional facility as a backdrop, Patty Bennett tees off from Laurel Hill's No. 12.
With the historic Lorton correctional facility as a backdrop, Patty Bennett tees off from Laurel Hill's No. 12. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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By Jeff Rendall
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 5, 2006

It may be just an optical illusion, but standing on the tee of Laurel Hill Golf Club's par-3 No. 11, you'd imagine that if you used too much club you could plunk your Titleist off the roof of a guard tower. You figure you'd need more than that -- a good tee shot and a pair of strong fairway woods, perhaps -- to reach the decaying brick barracks beyond.

Truth told, chances are better your ball will find the shallow depression guarding the green. But playing golf on the new Fairfax County course located on the grounds of the former Lorton Correctional Facility puts some funny ideas in your head.

Holes 10 through 14 play right along the border of the former maximum-security complex, its rows of Colonial Revival dormitories rimmed by guard towers and fences. Hole No. 15 , a monster 612-yard par-5, was sculpted from the former prison guards' shooting and tear gas practice range. Farm buildings, including a rusting white silo near the tees for No. 11, recall the days when inmates operated the Lorton dairy farm. Remnants of two former Nike missile sites, featuring six buried magazines that during the Cold War sheltered weapons waiting to blow away Soviet incoming, lie just outside the 7th and 18th fairways.

Opened last October, Laurel Hill is the seventh golf course run by Fairfax County, and officials designed the $13.8 million property to lift the quality of publicly operated golf a notch. Laurel Hill's Gene Orrico is the first PGA professional to run a county course; already the $3,800 annual memberships are sold out. A full-service clubhouse is nearing completion.

Most important, unlike many muni courses, the layout is diverse in terrain and full of strategic challenges. From the championship tees, Laurel Hill measures a robust 7,010 yards. Fortunately, designer Bill Love -- also author of Penn National's Iron Forge course near Gettysburg, Pa., and Lee's Hill outside Fredericksburg, Va. -- provided options that suit just about any game.

Players begin with three long par-4s of varying difficulty, wide open but calling for proper shot placement. No. 3, requiring a drive over Giles Run creek and a steep climb to the fairway, is "one of the tougher holes in the region," Orrico says.

Players are then treated to a short par-3 with elevated tees. But be forewarned: 110 yards downhill is just that. Choose too much club and you'll be scaring the frogs in the creek behind the green.

With a standard golf course averaging 140 acres, Laurel Hill's 250 acres make for a good bit of hiking. Walking is permitted but inadvisable; the cart-path-only rule means a lot of time trekking between ball and cart. But the benefits of the extra-large footprint are obvious, too: The holes are spaced far enough apart so there are many places on the course where you will see no other golfers. That kind of solitude in the midst of one of the area's most populous counties is hard to come by.

As if the overall length and deep ravines did not provide enough of a challenge, Love has covered the course with bunkers of every size, shape and depth. Sand surrounds the greens on holes 7, 12 and 16, and are strategically plunked along the fairways of 6, 13, 15 and 17. It's tempting to call the bunkers "penal," but, well, Laurel Hill will be the site of plenty of lame jokes like that

Despite its charms, Laurel Hill remains a work in progress. On most days, crews are digging to tweak the irrigation system, the greens play somewhat slow and, for now, portable toilets are the only bathroom option.

As chair of one of the Laurel Hill citizens groups, Tim Sargent has been instrumental in ensuring that the course and surrounding development stay true to environmental and historical concerns. Sargent understands some may be squeamish about the prison connection. But he is so enthusiastic about the future of the region that he is helping find a developer to preserve Lorton's prison buildings and convert them into loft-style housing, offices and a village shopping center.

The 2,000-plus-acre property also will be home to two schools, county parkland, sports fields, an arts complex, and a Cold War museum on the former missile site.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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