As I get out of my car, the brisk wintry air hits my face. It’s a cold December day in Charlottesville, Va. The breeze doesn’t make it any more pleasant. But the skeleton crew inside the pro shop at Birdwood Golf Course is beaming from ear to ear.
Yeah, it might be that they’ve got a pretty easy day ahead. The course is closed — not that anyone would be hankering for a weekday 18 anyhow. However, they’re more pleased that it’s another day closer to their re-opening.
Golf-course openings are scant these days, so the handful that are the best of the best stand out. The staff is pretty sure the golf community is about to shine a spotlight on what’s hibernating just outside their door.
In 2018, the University of Virginia Foundation decided to invest in golf in a big way.
Together with upgrading their Boar’s Head resort accommodations, the foundation wanted to make upgrade Birdwood Golf Course, their 18-hole golf facility for their members, university students, the school’s golf teams, resort guests and the public.
With so many stakeholders, Birdwood’s caretakers reached out to a variety of top-name architects. Many of them showed up, scouted the property and sketched out their vision for a new golf facility — not just an 18-hole course, but everything that goes into the golf experience.
Davis Love III and his Love Golf Design team won out, and throughout 2019, the team brought their vision to life. They built some holes over previously untouched land — after asking politely to use it, of course. They re-routed some holes. They did the grunt work of improving drainage and irrigation facilities. They cleared trees where they saw fit to open up more vistas. In fact, the last crews had just left a week before I arrived.
It was chilly, but there was no way I wasn’t going to see the course in person. I hop in a cart with Martin Winters, the director of golf, and off we go.
The new Birdwood Golf Course, which is roughly scheduled for an early July opening, features five different types of grass, and even in the dormant season, the hues create a splendid look. The strains make for distinct features, though whether that helps the mind focus any better is anyone’s guess.
The first hole is a good introduction, a dogleg-left par 4 playing 425 yards from the tips. A fairway bunker makes the tee shot more than a meaningless thump, while missing right of the green will create some early trouble.
The beauty of the front nine then reveals itself on the way to the par-5 second. A broad water hazard comes into play for the next two holes, including the approach shot to a deceptively wide fairway and back on the par-4 third to a green close enough to the lake to make the player think.
The fourth hole is a long, downhill par 4 with a center-line aiming bunker that gives way to a power alley in the landing area.
Perhaps the best hole on the front, the fifth features an all-or-nothing tee shot over water from the back box. However, it’s a more straightforward short par 4 from the up tees, located back up to the hill to the left.
The par-4 eighth is a short-ish hole featuring a blind landing area just beyond the crest of the hill a player can see from the tee box. Accurate drives should leave a short iron in hand, and the player will hit to a green supported in front by a stone wall, constructed using local rock.
After making the turn and playing the par-5 10th, there’s a big ask on the par-3 11th. It’s 232 yards from the back tees to a fairly narrow green, with water well short and all the way down the right. Water is less of a factor for the up tees, and there’s a bail out area obscured to the back tees. With a deep green, a player could hit anywhere from a mid-iron to a fairway wood.
The par-5 12th is my favorite hole on the course. To even consider getting home in two, the tee shot calls for a draw, but a smashed drive out to the right side is not a bad thing. Coming in from the left makes the best angle, but a daring player could try a cut around the few trees up the right side of the second half of the hole. With a variety of hole locations, it should be a relief hole after the stress of the 11th.
The new par-5 15th throws off Birdwood’s staff. It now runs in the opposite direction of the hole that occupied that land on the old Birdwood. It’s the second hole in a great closing stretch. The landing area, just like throughout much of the property, is generous, but the do-or-die second shot is a big decision late in a round. Going for the green requires an accurate shot down into a sunken, deep green complex. Bailing out on the right means a deflating lost ball in the hazard.
The 340-yard 16th hole plays slightly over water, taking more of it out of play as the tees advance. A bunker surrounding a looming tree keeps bombers from smashing driver with impunity.
The idea of a signature hole seems like a slap in the face of a high-quality design, but the par-3 17th is going to generate plenty of post-round chatter at Birdwood. A par 3 that will play anywhere from 130 yards to 215 yards, the tee boxes deceive a player’s eyes into thinking there’s not much room to miss short of the green. Once they get to the narrow green, they’ll realize there was room short — a much better place to miss than in the hazard on the left it shares with No. 16 or the bunkering on the right.
The finishing hole at the new Birdwood asks a simple question, wanting to know if the player has two good shots left in them to reach a lengthy, uphill par 4 in two.
The par-71 course will be a challenging exam for accomplished players from the back tees, while everyone else will find an accommodating — but not insulting — set of tees for their skill level.
Love’s work on the 18-hole course, however, was but one part of his transformation of the facility.
Complementing an incredible $6 million building dedicated to the University of Virginia’s men’s and women’s golf programs, Love’s team constructed a short-game facility for the teams’ use, featuring three green complexes and angles aplenty to practice myriad wedge shots.
Running further along that same side of the driveway to the clubhouse as the short-game area is a fun short course. The six-hole course features a variety of small complexes, all of which can be completed with a couple of wedges and a putter. For the resort guest and public player, the short course is a great way to get in more golf on an ideal day. For the university’s golf teams, it’s an extension of their world-class practice facilities, offering a way to dynamically practice their wedge game.
Love even designed a putting course just steps from the Birdwood clubhouse. Nearly an acre in size, the 18-hole putting course — which doubles as the practice green — features a variety of slopes and ridgelines to challenge the player. If a player stops for a few seconds and studies the shaping, they’ll notice the design was built to look just like the surrounding terrain in the distance. The putting course should be a great hang, particularly around sun set.
“When we began developing the layout and design of the new putting course, we were so inspired by the landscapes,” said Love Golf Design lead architect Scot Sherman. “You truly capture a sense of place on this course and we wanted to find a way to celebrate that. Many of the slopes found in the putting course directly mirror the ridgelines and peaks of the surrounding mountains. We hope players embrace the magic of their surroundings while enjoying time out on the links.”
Come summer, the new Birdwood Golf Course should make for a great weekend destination for golfers in the region. Stay at Boar’s Head, play a few rounds on the 18-hole course, ending the days on the short course or the putting course.