By James A. Frank
At The Virginian, the atmosphere is relaxed, the surroundings are majestic, and the quality of life at its highest.
You can tell a lot about a golf club from its driving range. Not just the obvious things like attention to detail, what the maintenance practices are, and if the players are any good. But what really matters to the members and management.
At The Virginian—1,300 acres of excellent golf, stately homes, and flowing landscape tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia—it’s quickly obvious this is a community devoted to enjoying golf and the good life in a very scenic locale.
While hoping to find my game on the spacious practice field, I found myself watching a range of people doing the same. A few older folks were, like me, searching for consistency. Two foursomes of middle-aged men, whose easy-going banter marked them as good friends of long standing, hit just enough balls to work out the kinks before driving off to their regular game. At the far end of the practice tee, one of the teaching pros helped a member of the golf team from nearby East Tennessee State University fine-tune her long and languid swing.
As soon as she left, the pro turned his attention to a group of members’ kids, girls and boys who couldn’t have been more than 10; their moms stood close enough to observe but not too close to intrude, smiling as the youngsters sent balls, divots, and laughs in all directions. Then the golf team from the local high school showed up and began preparing for that afternoon’s match.
Golf’s past, present, and future all in one hour on a quiet weekday afternoon. Members, guests, and friends sharing a love of the game in a place that understands and embraces golf’s unifying nature. A little work, a lot of fun, in an atmosphere of total comfort.
A large part of that comfort flows from the strong sense of tradition. You feel it in The Virginian’s unique combination of Old South hospitality and modern amenities. You see it in the gracefulness of the buildings, which range from the handsome and welcoming clubhouse—fieldstone and cedar shakes, rocking chairs on the wraparound porch—to a stylish variety of elegantly contemporary homes. A few old barns that recall the local legacy of tobacco farming and cattle grazing now shelter course-maintenance equipment.
Tradition was in full flower one weekend this fall when The Virginian celebrated its 25th anniversary with a festival of food, fun, and fireworks. There are still nearly 100 original members who spend all or part of the year on property, and most of them were there for the big party, sharing memories and marveling how times have changed while seeming to stand still inside the club’s gates.
For me, the mix of tradition and comfort is most fully realized in the land. The topography is the very definition of rolling, strikingly beautiful as it rises and falls, providing hilltop views of the nearby mountains and secluded dells tucked into folds of lush green turf. It is timeless and historic—and the ideal location for a great golf course.
The Tom Fazio design is a perfect example of what architecture buffs mean when they talk about a course lying naturally on the land. Holes move seamlessly with the terrain, past some water and some sand, most notably up and down. Fairways are wide—with mounds that usually help keep shots in play—the target areas shrinking the closer you get to the greens, which are generous both in size and complexity.
On a number of holes, strategically located trees provide definition and play defense. Number 9 rises gradually toward the clubhouse with a long, S-shaped fairway, a single walnut tree just inside the top loop influencing the drive as well as the approach. The tee shot on the uphill par-four 6th must be threaded between two big oaks to leave any chance of finding the green, which is tucked behind the noble specimen to the right. At 16, the tree to avoid is to the left while the hole doglegs to the right and a tiered, sloping green.
With the land heaving like waves on the ocean, maneuvering through the course feels like sailing—tacking, turning, and thinking a shot or two ahead to reach safe harbor. Let your mind wander or be distracted by the scenery and your score will sink.
When the course opened in 1993, Fazio—so the story goes—told owner Don Nicewonder, “90 percent of the work is done. Now you’ll spend the rest of your life doing the last 10 percent.” The owner has, indeed, devoted the last 25 years to the course, not so much making changes as stewarding it through maturation and protecting it from encroachment by real estate. There are more than 125 homes on the property, and a handful under construction, but they never come into play and are rarely even in view.
Says Director of Golf and Club Operations Jim Blackmore—who’s been at The Virginian since it opened—“We did the real estate the opposite of most golf developments: The emphasis was on the golf course and the membership first and foremost. The housing was developed at a much slower pace.”
There’s more than enough property for residences and recreation to co-exist, so much that Fazio also built three full-size practice holes and that broad practice area. The club features other amenities, as well, including a Family Center with both clay and Har-Tru tennis courts (plus pickleball), a fitness center, two pools (one Junior Olympic-size, the other for children), and a playground.
Don Nicewonder’s son Kevin runs The Virginian now, with the same devotion to honoring the land and serving the membership. But the next generation has also made some changes, including adding more land and planting a few acres of grape vines. Nicewonder Vineyards introduced its first bottling, a Viognier, this past summer, while a Chardonnay debuted at the 25th anniversary weekend; a Merlot will be released next spring, and Petit Verdot will be planted next year. The vineyard, which is being enlarged, sits on the far side of the golf course, away from the clubhouse. Overlooking the neat rows of vines is a new development, called Vineyard Terraces, where buyers can design their own homes on generous lots or choose among multi-bedroom designs with names like The Bordeaux and The Chardonnay.
Adjacent to the vineyards is a farm and greenhouse where residents can help the full-time gardener and horticulturist tend the fields. The produce is sold in a little building near the gardens; there’s talk of turning it into a small general store with a brick oven for pizzas, a wine-tasting area, and staples like milk and eggs so residents won’t have to drive into town. Not that it’s much of a hardship: Abingdon and Bristol, Va., are minutes away and the area is steadily growing with restaurants, luxury malls, and other attractions.
Once the vineyard began producing, management realized the clubhouse restaurant needed a bigger, better wine cellar, which they constructed in the middle of the dining room and filled with an impressive 750-bottle
selection. But building the new cellar displaced the old bar, so a new pub was created: Called Twenty-two Bar and Grille (because it’s the “22nd hole,” after the 18-hole course and three practice holes), it features a convivial circular bar and numerous big-screen TVs, perfect for after-round beers and bragging.
Blackmore describes The Virginian “like a private country club resort,” conveniently located in the middle of everything: Equidistant from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and close to the booming cities of the new South (Charlotte, Knoxville, Greenville, etc.). It’s successfully attracting retired folks, young families, and those in between who want a rich and rewarding lifestyle.
And finding it in a community of comfort.