Courses & TravelSeptember 11, 2011

Golf on 9/11/01: The round I won't repeat.

Everyone has a story about where he or she was on 9/11. Mine, not surprisingly, involves golf.

I had flown into Washington Reagan airport the evening before, drove down 1-95 to Richmond, arriving about midnight. Next morning, I headed to the west suburb of Manakin-Sabot, where I met golf architect Lester George to play his then-new Kinloch Golf Club. We teed off around 8:30 a.m. It was a delightful morning, crisp and clear, dew still on fairways not yet reached by mowers.

We were on the ninth hole when a kid in a golf cart came rushing down from the clubhouse, asking if one of us was Major George. (Lester, who'd been an artillery officer in the regular Army, was then a major in the Army Reserve.) The kid said there was an urgent phone call for him in the clubhouse. And then he added, "We're under attack. They crashed planes into the Twin Towers. They're down, man. They're down."

We had no clue what he was talking about. The idea of airplanes knocking over skyscrapers didn't make sense. But we soon found out. The towers had imploded after jets had been flown into them and set them afire. And The Pentagon had also been attacked.

Lester returned his call, was told he was not being called to active duty, but to stand by. I spent the next hour or so watching television coverage while trying to get a call through to my wife, to tell her I was okay. (All she knew was that I had flown to D.C. the night before.)  Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we decided to finish our round. I know it sounds callous, even disrespectful to those who'd lost their lives that day. Our only rationale was that we weren't sure if we'd ever play another round of golf again. Things were that crazy that day.

A good golf course, like a good book or a good movie, can totally absorb you, commanding so much of your attention as to take your mind off your worries. Kinloch was a superb course in that regard.  George's design had a lot to do with that.  He'd been brought to the project by Vinny Giles, a Richmond lawyer, agent for several Tour pros and a champion golfer himself (he's won both U.S. and British Amateurs). Lester routed a sprawling championship course from a dense Virginia forest and Vinny served as a design consultant, offering, he says, suggestions to maybe 20 per cent of the finished product.

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Kinloch won Golf Digest's Best New Private Course Award later that year, and in 2005 made Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Best Golf Courses. It's 46th on the 2011-2012 list.

I've never been back to Kinloch, maybe because of superstition. Last April, Lester suggested we play the course together on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I reluctantly agreed, but then, luckily, we discovered that the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Kinloch starts that very day, and since neither of us qualify in any way other than age, we can't tee it up on the course that day.

A family wedding and other commitments prevent me from even visiting Kinloch during the Senior Amateur. Too bad. It would have been fun to watch Vinny Giles, who won that title two years ago, tackle the holes he helped design. I hope he wins.

I have since played other courses with Lester George, all remodel projects he did: Providence in Richmond, a silk purse refashioned from the wretched old Pokoshoke Golf Course; Cavalier Golf & Yacht Club in Virginia Beach, a delightful Charlie Banks design that Lester restored and accentuated; and The Old White at The Greenbrier, where he documented every hump, bump and chocolate drop he reestablished.

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Golf Digest panelists are playing and evaluating Ballyhack this year and next. Will it make our 100 Greatest in 2013?  I have no doubt that it will be a contender. It some ways, it's an even stronger design than Kinloch.  Long range views of mountain ranges, for one thing, which most panelists reward with higher Memorability or Aesthetics scores. In the Conditioning category, Ballyhack's bent-grass fairways probably play even firmer and faster than Kinloch's bent-grass ones, although I don't mean to imply that Kinloch's superintendent, Peter Wendt, doesn't do an excellent job. (I bet he has Kinloch tight as a drum for the Senior Amateur.)

If I had a vote (and I don't), I'd rank Ballyhack as one of America's 100 Greatest. It's in the mold of Sand Hills and Ballyneal. But I wouldn't rank Ballyhack above Kinloch. Kinloch will always be special to me. When playing its front nine, I was blissfully ignorant of all the tragedy occuring on 9/11. On its back nine, I was able to escape the tragedy for two more hours. I think, deep down inside, I don't want to ever return to Kinloch and spoil that memory.