Front Royal's Natural Treasure

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

By the time you pull in to the parking lot at Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club in Front Royal, Va., you've pretty much sworn you're never coming back. To finally reach this new golf course 70 miles west of Washington, you spent 90 minutes navigating through miserable traffic and 10 minutes pulled over on the side of the highway for speeding. This trip, you think, could never be worth it.

Five hours changes your mind.

When Blue Ridge Shadows opened in March, architect Tom Clark unveiled a course so enjoyable it justifies the full-day trip required to get there. Blue Ridge Shadows aspires to be not so much a golf course as a full-fledged vacation destination. It has plans for a hotel, conference center, spa and restaurant. The golf course, which features a challenging layout and gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, provides the perfect centerpiece for that vision.

"We think we've given people a reason to come out here," said Mike Ahrnsbrak, the course's head professional. "It's a great golf course, and it's a beautiful place. People are going to want to spend time here."

The most pleasant surprise at Blue Ridge Shadows is the course's subtlety. When Clark started the project in 2003, he vowed to build a course devoid of gimmicks and excessive window dressings. He sculpted open driving holes and wide fairways so that golfers could easily find their ball. He designed a course where the natural landscape -- rolling hills and hulking trees -- makes a statement by itself. Sloped fairways force intricate drives. Greens roll true, if a little too slowly.

The first tee at Blue Ridge Shadows provides a perfect antidote for any golfer who just traveled through rush-hour traffic on Interstate 66. An elevated tee box overlooks a split fairway. A good drive is lined up straight at the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it feels as if a well-struck ball just might land on Skyline Drive.

As the round progresses, breathtaking views become so standard you hardly even notice them anymore. The mountains are visible from almost every hole. Several elevated tee boxes overlook downtown Front Royal and the rolling foothills beyond. Against that backdrop, even the most disastrous drives look palatable.

The front nine meanders through woodlands, which forces some crafty shot-making. Water hazards impact five holes on the back nine. On the par-4 13th, a lake guards the right side of the fairway and a creek flows in front of the green. Behind the flag, a three-tiered waterfall completes the most aesthetically pleasing -- and the wettest -- hole on the course.

Perhaps the biggest success at Blue Ridge Shadows is that the course works for both the elite and amateur player. Want a challenge? Play from the back tees, where 7,315 yards plays even longer because many drives require good clearance in order to avoid hazards. Want a low score? Try playing the course from the white tees, where a 6,204-yard layout makes every hole reachable, even for the shorter hitters.

"In 18 holes, you're getting an incredible variety," Ahrnsbrak said. "On the front, you're going through the hardwood and it almost feels northern. It's nice and quiet, real peaceful. Then, on the back, you've got the feeling of a different course. There's all this water. I mean, it's impossible to get bored out here."

When Clark first played his finished product, he discovered a course even better than the one he initially had envisioned. Constant problems delayed and derailed the construction process, and Clark sometimes wondered if it ever would be finished. First, Clark almost ran out of money. Then he almost ran out of space. He thought the course would open in 2005, but then management designated large chunks of the 16th and 17th holes as the construction site for a Holiday Inn.

"It was a challenge from Day One," Clark said. "In light of all the obstacles, we have a very nice golf course. For the last few years before it opened, I've had my own private country club out there. I've played it from every set of tees, and I've always had fun. Every time, I walk away feeling like it was worth the drive."

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