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Reimagining of Belmont Gives Classic Course a New Purpose

The Richmond, Va., course, originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast, found new life when the The First Tee of Greater Richmond stepped in to save it from ruin.
Belmont Golf Course, once known as Hermitage Country Club, hosted the 1949 PGA Championship that was won by Virginia native Sam Snead. 

Belmont Golf Course, once known as Hermitage Country Club, hosted the 1949 PGA Championship that was won by Virginia native Sam Snead. 

RICHMOND, Va. — Tommy Galloway died long before teaching golf to juniors became an industry crusade, long before there were programs and facilities dedicated to that challenge. But Galloway, who served as head professional at Belmont Golf Course from 1928 until his death in 1954, would no doubt approve of what his old club has become.

Then known as Hermitage Country Club, Galloway presided over a course designed by two of the five architects in the World Golf Hall of Fame: A.W. Tillinghast in 1917 and Donald Ross 10 years later. The course is one of a few Tillinghast designs to host a major and currently be open for public play. Tillinghast wrote that the Virginia land was “more pleasing than any I’ve seen south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

No one dared argue.

Not the PGA Tour, which in 1945 staged the Richmond Invitational at Hermitage, won by Ben Hogan (first prize: $2,000 in War Bonds). Not the PGA of America, which held its 1949 championship there, won by folksy native son Sam Snead over Johnny Palmer, 3-and-2. It remains the only club in Virginia to host one of golf’s majors.

That history was of secondary interest to Galloway. A junior champion in Scotland, a mustard gas attack during World War I ravaged his lungs and his hopes for a playing career. Galloway came to Richmond fueled by a unique cause.

“He was very passionate about teaching junior golfers,” said Frank Flannagan, a former Belmont course superintendent, “and ahead of his time. If the game was going to grow, he knew you had to reach juniors. It was his top priority.”

Related: Have Clubs Will Travel: Belmont Golf Course

In 1937, Galloway instituted the city’s father-son tournament. Eighty-four years later, the event still carries his name and is an essential part of the Richmond golf scene. When Hermitage sold its property to Henrico County in 1977, and moved to the suburbs, it took Galloway’s tournament with it. Henrico County renamed its purchase “Belmont” after the farm on which the course sat.

Ultimately, Flannagan recalled, the cost to maintain the municipal course escalated and the county’s interest in doing so waned. Tillinghast’s jewel became a money pit in deep decline.

The county considered turning the course into a recreational park or selling the land to a commercial developer. But a grassroots movement called Preserve Belmont began collecting signatures on petitions and appearing before various commissions and boards. Henrico officials listened, put out a Request for Proposal, and sifted through a half-dozen candidates.

With time running out to submit bids, The First Tee of Greater Richmond pledged $5.1 million, partnered with the Love Golf Design — created by Hall of Famer Davis Love III, winner of 21 PGA Tour events, including the 1997 PGA; brother Mark Love; and chief design architect Scot Sherman — and won a 20-year contract to remake and operate the course.

First Tee-Richmond CEO Brent Schneider titled his proposal, “Where the History of American Golf Meets Its Future.” The nonprofit organization would provide an inviting place for youngsters to learn the basics and put their lessons into practice. It also would provide golfers of all skill levels a chance to experience some of Tillinghast’s most inspired work.

But that would be impossible if Belmont remained 18 holes.

Gone are six holes of the original 18, replaced by a wedge range, a practice range, a six-hole short course that pays homage to Tillinghast’s par 3s, and The Ringer, a 31,000-square-foot putting course whose 12 feet of elevation change could pass for a ride at Busch Gardens theme park down the road in Williamsburg. The course, which opened in late May, has been warmly received for its design and futuristic approach.

“We’ve put some new life into Belmont,” Davis Love said on opening day. “We’ve given it a new purpose.”

On a recent 95-degree day, 24 young boys were practicing on the wedge range. Another 27 slightly older girls were headed to a different part of the range. Every First Tee summer camp is sold out, and Schneider estimated that 400 juniors will attend — the majority of whom would never have visited Belmont were it not for the kid-friendly offerings. Meanwhile, golfers of all ages and skills filled its fairways.

The 12-hole course can be played from five different tees, stretching its yardage from 3,020 to 4,345. It features back-to-back par 5s, two par 3s, bunkers that serve parallel holes, and greens restored in size and undulation to their initial specs. Love Golf Design used aerial photos and exhaustive research to faithfully replicate Tillinghast’s original plan.

“This is the future of golf,” Davis Love said. “Anybody who comes here needs to see that you don’t have to play 18 holes and take four or five hours to play.”

Several sweltering days later, a man stood on the tee of the par-3 7th hole using a deck-of-cards-sized camera to snap photos of a green complex 165 yards away. He was visiting Richmond from Greenville, N.C., and playing the course for the first time with his adult son.

“Frankly, twelve is all the holes I need,” he said.

How The First Tee came up with $5.1 million on short notice is a story unto itself. An anonymous benefactor, a friend of Schneider’s, invited him to Birdwood Golf Course in Charlottesville in 2019. Sherman was heading Love Golf Design’s work on the course.

On their way home, Schneider mentioned that The First Tee was interested in Belmont, but radical changes would have to be made if the contract was won.

“Like what?” the soon-to-be benefactor asked. 

“Maybe we could restore 14, maybe 12 holes . . .” Schneider started to reply.

“Are you kidding me?” the man interrupted. “I’ve been telling my friends for years that I want to build a 12-hole course, a place with really good par 3s, really good par 5s, where you hit every club in your bag.

“I’m very interested.”

Within two weeks, they met again, pitched their idea to Love Golf Design, and money was committed. A plaque on the 12-hole course designates 20 people and corporations as “restoration partners.”

“The way it happened,” Schneider said, “it was like a gift from above.”