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Teel: Belmont is a storied part of golf's history. As it reopens, it aims to show golf's future.
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Teel: Belmont is a storied part of golf's history. As it reopens, it aims to show golf's future.

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Davis Love III confesses to skepticism. Transform a golf course with major-championship heritage, one designed by a Hall a Fame architect, into a more accessible, affordable and versatile property?

This was sacrilege to a purist such as Love. Why not cling to the past? Why not keep Henrico County’s Belmont Golf Course an 18-hole track that harkened to A.W. Tillinghast’s 1916 design?

After listening to First Tee — Greater Richmond CEO Brent Schneider’s proposal — Love discovered his answer.

“The good ol’ days have passed us by.”

And not just at Belmont.

Darn near everywhere.

That personal conversion complete, Love and his design team embraced a makeover that includes a 12-hole course nearly identical to Tillinghast’s original Nos. 7-18, a six-hole, par-3 course (Little Bell), also with nods to Tillinghast, a reversible 18-hole putting course (The Ringer), a practice green and driving range.

“It’s the ultimate menu,” Love said at Monday’s reopening. “At a normal club, it’s nine holes or 18 holes. But here, you can play three holes. Can you imagine getting off work or out of school, you run, you hit a bucket of balls, and you play three holes and putt on the putting course and you’re home to do homework or home … for dinner? There’s nothing like it. …

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved with.”

Like Tillinghast, whose signature layouts include Baltusrol in New Jersey and Winged Foot in New York, Love, 57, is a World Golf Hall of Fame inductee. He won 21 PGA Tour events, including the 1997 PGA Championship, twice captained the United States Ryder Cup team — he will assist U.S. captain Steve Stricker at September’s Ryder Cup matches in Wisconsin — and created Love Golf Design in 1994.

On the heels of Phil Mickelson’s historic victory Sunday at the PGA Championship — he’s the oldest player to win a major — Monday’s event coincided with Belmont’s history.

Then under the Hermitage Country Club banner, what is now Belmont hosted the 1949 PGA, the only major championship contested in Virginia. Virginian Sam Snead defeated Johnny Palmer 3 and 2 in the 36-hole, match-play final.

Furthering Belmont’s tradition, Donald Ross, also a Hall of Fame designer, renovated the course in 1927.

Ross’ portfolio includes the Country Club of Virginia, Oak Hill in New York — Curtis Strange won the second of his two consecutive U.S. Opens there in 1989 — and Pinehurst Nos. 1-3.

Love’s stamp is far different and stems from Schneider’s vision.

Eager to expand beyond its youth developmental center in Chesterfield County and driving range in Richmond, First Tee began exploring Belmont in 2019. The public course was hemorrhaging money and in disrepair, and talk percolated that Henrico County might convert the land into a park or housing development.

“We knew the property needed to be transformed because of what we do at First Tee,” Schneider said. “A lot of our programming takes place on practice areas, whether it be a driving range, chipping area or putting course. All Belmont had was a small putting green.”

Inspired by the success of nontraditional facilities such as Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, Sweetens Cove near Chattanooga and Goat Hill Park near San Diego, Schneider pitched the idea of a multipurpose Belmont to a local benefactor and Love’s team.

Once they were in — the anonymous donor helped First Tee raise more than $3 million for the project — Schneider went to Henrico County. The parties agreed in January 2020 to a 20-year management deal, and last May, the renovations began.

Love’s task was to mesh past and present, to make Belmont appealing to a public that becomes less inclined by the day to invest five or more hours in 18 holes. Call it an indictment or endorsement of modern life, but that’s reality.

“We’re hoping that Belmont can become … a very welcoming, inclusive, fun place for all,” Schneider said, “whether it’s families, people who’ve played for their entire life, people who are new to the game, whatever. We want everyone to be here.”

Love’s Birdwood project included a six-hole short course and a putting course. His team recently added a putting course at Sea Island Resort in Georgia.

“This is a combination of what we’ve done for other clients,” Love said. “… It’s about access to the game. It’s affordable, and it’s fast, and it’s an easy way to get started. So yeah, access. That’s always been our big stumbling block. It’s considered an elite sport, and we’ve been trying to [change that]. …

“We have a lot of golf fans who watch Phil Mickelson on TV. We don’t have enough people watching Phil on TV who play golf.”

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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