Ten years ago, Lester George and a client were driving around Roanoke, Virginia, looking at potential sites for a First Tee facility. After looking at several tracts, the client wanted to show George another piece of land.
They made a couple of turns off the main thoroughfare and drove down a two-lane highway called Pitzer Road for several minutes before stopping by the side of the road. On both sides, there was rolling land that looked to be an old farm, judging from the two silos on the south side of the road.
With mountains in the distance, the valley was not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most scenic roads in the United States. Although it was located less than 15 minutes from downtown Roanoke, the idyllic spot looked as though it belonged deep in the Old Dominion countryside.
The longer George looked at the property, which has an elevation range of more than 200 feet, the more he was convinced of its potential. “If there is ever going to be a great golf course in this area, it’s going to be here,” George said. “What are we waiting for?”
The client shook his head. “We already tried. It’s not likely that you’ll ever buy that property in your lifetime.”
George moved on to design other courses, including his breakthrough, Kinloch Golf Club near Richmond, where he lives. All the while, George couldn’t help thinking of the one that got away.
“It continued to bother me that this land was just sitting there,” says George. “Every once in a while I would drive by to look at it.”
One day several years later, George, who has a passion for classic automobiles, received a call from a friend wanting to visit a private car collector who lived 10 miles from George’s home.The man, Ed Nunnally, had an impressive collection—about $2 million worth of vehicles. But he had something else that interested the architect more. After learning of George’s job, Nunnally boasted that he owned the best piece of land for golf in the Roanoke Valley.
Recalling the farmland on Pitzer Road, George disputed the car collector’s assertion. Of course, they were both talking about the same parcel of land—and Nunnally was finally ready to sell it. Although he had received a higher offer, Nunnally sold to George because he agreed with his vision of a golf course, which would preserve the rural nature of the property.
To turn his long-awaited dream into reality, George put together a team that included Balzer Engineering and Landscapes Unlimited. Bill Kubly, the CEO of Landscapes Unlimited, needed just 20 minutes on site to share George’s high opinion of the land. Furthermore, Kubly suggested that the course be a destination club in the model of Sutton Bay and Sand Hills, both of which he helped build.
“Bill saw what I saw in the site,” says George. “And he brought the successful plan to the project.”
When the club opened in 2009, the first phase of the master plan called for a release of 42 homesites around the course. But at Ballyhack, ownership is not tied to membership.
“People are tired of having to buy a residential lot at a remote golf destination,” says Kubly. “But they do want to belong to a getaway club. Ballyhack is a special, low-key place, where 50 players is a busy day.”
Even on a busy-for-Ballyhack day, the expanse of the 370-acre site makes every golfer on the course feel as if he or she were in a secluded sanctuary. The natural landscape and sense of retreat are all the more remarkable considering how close the club is to the biggest city in western Virginia.
“I grew up around this region,” says Director of Golf Jonathan Ireland, “and I was not even aware of this site until I came to work here. It’s off the beaten path.”
Just as the surroundings and atmosphere make members and their guests feel as if they have gotten away from it all, the visually arresting layout encourages players to hit shots as if they have been transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
“It is links golf,” says Ireland. “It’s very different from every other course in this area. You have to be much more creative and imaginative. Not everybody understands that right away, but the more they play it, the more they get it. It’s an educational process.”
George took advantage of the dramatic landforms to construct a truly memorable layout. There are few holes anywhere like the 538-yard 2nd, which has a superwide fairway dotted with bunkers. Offering multiple routes to the green depending both on how much the player wants to challenge the bunkers and where the flag is located, the hole ends on a skyline green that is one of the highest points on the course—providing panoramic views of the course below and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.
The golfer barely has time to reflect on the views before tackling a stretch of holes that offer long and short holes with elevation changes throughout. The mix includes the 251-yard 3rd, the longest par 3 on the course, the 467-yard 4th, which has a four-tier fairway and the 383-yard 8th, whose dominant feature is a tall sycamore tree that dictates the strategy on both the drive and approach.After the 9th, the layout crosses the road, and the back nine begins with one of the most scenic par 5s in golf, sweeping left to right across a gently sloped plain before the roller-coaster ride resumes on the 11th. From here, George routed strong holes like the 491-yard 16th, a Cape-like hole that asks players to hit their drives as closely as possible to Ballybrook to set up the approach, and the 152-yard 17th, whose three-tiered green requires a precise short iron to set up a birdie.
In keeping with the Old World traditions of the course, the 228-yard 13th and 575-yard 15th share a 22,000-square-foot double green, giving players two chances to negotiate the surface’s fierce slopes and undulations.
The green of the 455-yard 18th hole is nearly as large, providing a sizeable target even for players who can’t hit their drives down the favored left side of the fairway, which sits in a valley. From the right side, the second shot is partially to completely blocked by a large oak, which sits on the hillside. George wanted to remove the tree, but his wife insisted he keep what has now become known as “Pat’s Tree.”
Featuring a ridge running through the center, this final green can provide quite an adventure for any player needing to get down in two, especially because putts of more than 100 feet are common.
Trying these kinds of long, double-breaking putts can be a fun end-of-day contest for members and guests staying at one of the three four-bedroom cottages that already have been built at the club.
“We’ll build more cottages as the membership expands,” says Ireland. “And we are moving forward with the clubhouse.” The clubhouse, scheduled to be completed this fall, will complement the twin brick silos, which the club retained as reminders of the land’s past.
While researching that history, the development team came upon a master plan of Roanoke from 1928 that reaffirmed George’s belief that he was destined to build a course on the site. On this plan, the area now occupied by Lester George’s 7,294-yard layout is identified as Ballyhack.
Printed underneath is another name: Lester.