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The Virginian Golf Club

Bordering some of the country’s most beautiful scenery is a comfortable club that mixes the spirit of community with a tough test of golf

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in 2012 Fazio Premier Clubs

When he finished designing and building The Virginian—a delightful golf club that sprawls over farmland and forest near the western end of the Old Dominion—Tom Fazio said to owner Don Nicewonder, “90 percent of the work is done. Now you’ll spend the rest of your life doing the last 10 percent.”

That might be something Fazio says to all his developers, knowing that courses are living things that evolve over time and with the whims of man. Or, more likely, he knew that Nicewonder, who went from working a bulldozer to running a successful coal-mining business, is a hands-on kind of guy who would devote himself to the course he’d long dreamed of.

That was nearly 20 years ago—the club opened in 1993—and Kevin Nicewonder, one of Don’s three children and co-managing partner, says, “My dad still knows every blade of grass out there.”

Don built his club just outside Bristol, where Virginia rubs up against Tennessee and North Carolina, in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The course and 120 homes around it are spread over rolling countryside once used for growing tobacco and grazing cattle. Long grass still edges many fairways, adding color and definition, and it’s not unusual to see bales of hay waiting to be hauled away for feed. A few old barns still store tractors—just now the kind used for course maintenance.

But the pastoral appearance is deceiving: Fazio’s creation is no cow-pasture pushover. Most fairways are generous off the tee, with mounding—what members call “bonus bounces”— nudging errant shots back into play. And lush zoysia grass forms the perfect surface for any shot. But like a tightening vise, the passageways get narrower as the greens get nearer.

Contributing to the constriction are 110 bunkers and a number of specimen trees. On the par-four 9th, for example, the fairway resembles a long letter “S”—quite a few holes feature single, even double, switchbacks—with a lone walnut inside the top crook guarding the green while directing tee shots to the left. The average player will drive short of the tree and if not far enough left have to bend an approach around limbs to find the green. The big hitter will be hunting for the narrowest part of the fairway, a thin strip of mown grass between the S-curves, to have any chance at birdie.

It’s that need for accuracy, distance, and planning that makes this former farmland a tough row to hoe.

Then there are the greens, which are big, fast, and embedded with tiers, slopes, and ridges. Merely finding the surface is never enough, usually leaving cross-country putts that climb hills and curl precipitously. An innocent-looking, short par four, No. 7 finishes at a two-tiered green with the higher step in front and substantial acreage in back: It’s drivable but difficult to stop the ball on the forward plateau; laying up and wedging on could make the difference between a one-putt and a three- (or more-) putt.

With holes playing uphill and down, greens at different elevations, and movement from side to side, the course repels repetition. Numerous stretches showcase the constantly changing challenge, perhaps none as exciting as the middle of the front nine: the 3rd hole is a sweeping uphill par five through the trees (with a bunker at the corner begging to be carried), followed by a long, wide-open par four; the 5th is a tough two-shotter lined with water left and a narrow green that juts into the lake and is protected by a false front.

The 6th is a short par five that played as a manly par four when The Virginian hosted the USGA Senior Amateur in 2003. Tee shots must contend with a majestic old oak on the left side of the fairway, a single limb poking into the drive zone. The club’s Director of Golf, Jim Blackmore, has dubbed the tree “the sheriff,” and refers to the limb as “the long arm of the law” because it has caught many a speeder trying to sneak by and stay far enough left to leave a clear shot into the green. This is the hole presently in Don Nicewonder’s sights as he and the management team consider moving the tees up and making it a full-time par four. (When the blue blazers were setting up the course, they recommended removing the extending limb, to which Nicewonder countered, “Then you’ll have to find yourself another golf course.”)

The flow continues on the back, which is punctuated by two long par threes and ends with a bravado finish: the dogleg par-four 16th, with a sloping, tiered green and a sentinel tree to its left; 17, a stout par four, its landing area hidden by a mound that also conceals six bunkers; and the par-five 18th, the longest hole on the course, which rises gradually to a hilltop green hemmed in by bunkers.

For all the ebb and flow, The Virginian is a relaxing journey, especially in a cart. It was not designed as a walking course, which suits the membership, most of whom live on the property or nearby. Two decades ago, the Nicewonders thought they were building a second-home community, but, as Kevin admits, “it didn’t turn out that way.” While some of the on-site homes are owned by active retirees, many are filled with young families on their way up, the mix fostering a lively, close-knit neighborhood that spans the generations (and provides well-experienced babysitters).

Besides golf, the club has tennis courts, a junior Olympic-size pool, and fitness center. Next door, The Virginian owns an equestrian center that is leased to a local college, with one for its members coming in the near future. The 44,000-square-foot clubhouse—built from native fieldstone, cedar shakes, and clapboard—functions as community central with a restaurant and lounge as well as pro shop, offices, and locker rooms constructed from local oaks. During the day the clientele also ebbs and flows, moms and young children at lunch, golfers relaxing after a round in the afternoon, the dinner crowd in the evenings.

There are still available lots on the club’s original 550 acres with another section opening soon. There’s also talk of expanding the course, which would help attract more big events. (The Virginian is a regular host of major state competitions.) Fazio included three full-sized practice holes, designed to help all levels of golfers, that abut a spacious, two-sided driving range where it isn’t unusual to see families enjoying time together.

“It’s a slower pace of life here,” says Kevin. “We know that’s not for everyone. But once we get people in the gates, they fall in love with it—the course, the countryside, and the people. This is the way it used to be: doors unlocked at night, going next door to borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor.”

One of those neighbors is Don Nicewonder, now retired, who can be found on the range or the course just about every day. As part of his continuing commitment to The Virginian, he’s made sure it is debt-free. But more than that, he established a trust that guarantees his dream will thrive here for generations to come.

For now, The Virginian is a place to go for life the way things used to be, uncrowded and unspoiled. How apropos: The house specialty is Southern hospitality.

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