A golf course in one of Virginia’s oldest counties
has taken cues from the past to shape its destiny—
and is looking to its course maintenance team to
help ensure a bright future.
By Betsy Gilliland, Contributing Editor
With a neoclassical Rees Jones design that fits the lay of the land—high ground and little water—The Club at Viniterra harkens back to another era. But at the same time, Viniterra, an 18-hole semi-private facility that opened in 2009 in New Kent, Va. (about 20 miles east of downtown Richmond), also strives to appeal to the modern—and future— golfer.
Already in its young life, the property has had to adapt to contemporary circumstances, in an age when golf course closings are outpacing openings. Part of a gated community of luxury estate home sites and resort cottages, the formerly private club was conceived as an amenity to sell real estate. But once the golf course fully matured, developers opened it for public play last year, out of economic necessity.
The decision has paid off. The number of rounds played hasmore than doubled in a year’s time, increasing from 9,500 in 2011 to 20,000-plus in 2012. In addition, says Noel Tuck, Vice President of Greenville, S.C.-based Wingfield Properties, Viniterra had a net membership gain of about 25. Wingfield Properties controls Viniterra Golf Club LLC, which assumed ownership of the property in January from Boddie-Noell’s Kitty Hawk Land Company, after managing it for a year.
“We went into the agreement with the goal of purchasing the property,” says Tuck, who has also served as acting General Manager since Viniterra Golf Club LLC took over management duties.
Embracing the Challenge
The ultimate success of the Viniterra venture, Tuck believes, will depend on a number of factors— including the golf course, which must be well-maintained to draw real estate sales.
“When people come to a golf course, they want their expectations to be met,” explains Tuck. “They look at the quality of the golf course, playability, and how it’s maintained. Viniterra is not the easiest golf course to play, and that’s one of the things that attract people to it. They like the challenge of it.”
A team led by John Marshall, the Director of Golf Course Maintenance who has been at the property since the course was under construction in the spring of 2008, has embraced the challenge of maintaining the grounds.
The neoclassical Rees Jones design of the golf course at The Club at Viniterra makesfull
use of a variety of diverse, natural features, including wetlands areas, undulations and
mature, deciduous forests. Frequent and dramatic elevation changes can fluctuate by as
much as 70 feet from tee to green on several holes.
The golf course routing incorporates a variety of diverse, natural features such as wetlands areas, undulations, and portions of mature, deciduous forest. Ponds and a total of 13 bridges were built at appropriate locations, to provide strategic and aesthetic value. Generous fairways and open approaches to many of the greens are part of the design, while catch basins and grass hollows capture shots that fly over the greens. Frequent and dramatic elevation changes can fluctuate by as much as 70 feet from tee to green on several holes.
“The course has a nice, rolling feel to it,” notes Marshall. “When you stand on the tee box, it just has this appearance that it’s been there forever.”
Multiple tee angles, combined with a variety of strategically located grass, sand and water hazards, provide flexibility for golfers of all skill levels to enjoy their experience. With a number of tee boxes on each hole (usually five or six), the course is capable of measuring anywhere from 5,200 to 7,725 yards.
“It’s a really player-friendly golf course for any age, male or female,” Marshall adds.
Tuck agrees. “It’s a beautiful and special course that’s well-built and challenging, which leads to it being accepted and liked by the public and members,” he notes.
The grounds crew also maintains the practice area, which includes a 10-acre driving range with tees at both ends, a putting green, and a chipping area with a bunker.
“The driving range was designed for a golf pro to give lessons. It’s set up as a teaching facility,” says Marshall.
Marshall, who has been involved in five golf course construction projects including Viniterra, has continued the environmentally friendly maintenance practices that were in place when he arrived. He also offered input into the selection of grasses for the course.
He chose Celebration Bermudagrass, which is more drought-resistant and requires less water than typical Bermudagrass varieties, for the rough, tees and fairways. The disease-resistant A1-A4 bentgrass on the greens reduces fertilizer usage and the number of spray applications.
“We have heads on the tees that water inside the tee and throw to the outside of it,” says Marshall. “We can control where we water and the amount that we water. By using the in and out heads around the tees and greens, we cut our water usage by about 50 percent.”
Tall fescue was planted on about 20 acres of the property, and the grass was irrigated until it was established.
“What we try to do is be responsible. We follow all of the state, local and federal laws to a T,” Tuck reveals. “We have a duty to do those kinds of things.”
Because of the terrain, the maintenance staff also maintains many of the areas, especially the bunker faces and greens complexes, by hand.
“We’re trying to provide everybody with the best product we can for the least dollar amount,” reports Marshall.“We’re trying to create and promote memberships and keep the quality of the course up.”
Full of Complements
Fittingly, Viniterra, which loosely translates to “earth wines” or “land of grapes,” is also home to the New Kent Winery, which serves as a complementary amenity to the golf course. The golf course and the winery share some facilities, including a pavilion and an area with a tent for parties and other functions.
“From a marketing and sales standpoint, many of the activities can include aspects of the winery,” says Tuck.
For example, the winery is a popular wedding site, and wedding party members and guests frequently play golf at Viniterra.
Built with eco-friendly materials reclaimed from buildings and structures that were more than a century old, the winery embraces sustainable practices as well. Construction materials include 40-foot heart-of-pine trusses, reprocessed copper, and pre-Civil War brick.
Home construction is underway in the community, and work has begun on design plans for a clubhouse, cart barn and golf course maintenance facility. Other planned amenities include an equestrian complex with bridle and carriage trails, several lakes with walking trails and picnic areas, and a swim and racquet club. In addition, Mirbeau Inn and Spa is under contract to purchase 14 acres of land adjacent to the winery.
Viniterra loosely translates as “earth wines” or “land of grapes,” and the property
includes the New Kent Winery, which shares a pavilion and tent area for parties and
functions with The Club at Viniterra golf course.
Keeping the Peace
One of Virginia’s oldest counties, New Kent was settled by the English and is steeped in history. Capt. John Smit first visited New Kent in 1607, and the church where Martha and George Washington were married still holds services today. Pocahontas, Thomas Jefferson, and General Cornwallis have called New Kent home, and many armies, including American Revolutionary, British, Confederate and Union troops, have marched through the historic county.
But despite the connections with conflicts that have marked New Kent’s past, teamwork is the key to the future success of the county’s newest golf course.
“The underlying foundation of success is good cooperation between the various aspects of a business,” notes Tuck.
Key team members at The Club at Viniterra include Tuck, Marshall and Josh Speight, PGA, Head Golf Professional. They stay in touch with each other on a daily basis about course conditions and when and where players can tee off, and hold a staff meeting once a week to discuss upcoming events.
An ongoing level of cooperation between the pro shop and maintenance staffs is essential to operations, Tuck says. “If the superintendent doesn’t understand how much play we have scheduled each day, he can’t do his job,” he explains. At the same time, he adds, the golf pro’s understanding of the club’s players, and their differing abilities, influences his input into course setup and playability.
“[The pro] has been trained to understand and think about that, while the superintendent looks at things from an agronomy standpoint,” Tuck continues. “They work together to provide a good product to the customer, so their relationship is huge.”
On busy days, the staff tries to make the golf course set up easier to speed up play, and the difficulty is increased on days when fewer tee times are scheduled. Marshall relies on Speight to point out areas for improvement.
“After I play the course, I give John feedback from my playing experience regarding green speeds, bunker conditions, hole locations, and all general maintenance,” Speight says. “I feel it’s part of my job to work closely with John and his talented team each day, to ensure that our members and guests play the best possible product and have the finest golf experience in our region.
“It is extremely important for my staff and me to know about daily course maintenance,” he adds. “We are responsible for answering course questions and setting expectations before golfers go out and play.”
The New Realities of the Business
The transition from a private to a semi-private facility has put added emphasis on the importance of smooth co-operationand symmetry between all of The Club at Viniterra’s working parts.
“Golf courses that operate in a semiprivate situation have to take care of the members as well as daily-fee players,” Tuck notes. “We have to be conscientious of how every decision we make will affect the private members. It’s a delicate process.”
Adding a management company to the equation only increases the challenge, he acknowledges—but Tuck says having the opportunity to work with The Club at Viniterra’s previous owners has helped to ensure stable and productive day-to-day operations.
“Our history and background has been in golf management and golf development,” Tuck explains. “We came into the project to provide the expertise for transitioning to a semi-private property, which can be frustrating for members if not handled correctly. The members still have to see the management company’s commitment to them.”
The economy hasn’t been the only reason that golf courses have been closing, Tuck notes—weather conditions, the expense of maintenance, and misunderstanding of what’s involved for proper upkeep and operation have contributed to the reduction of courses as well.
The Club at Viniterra course is aerated twice a year,
“We’re farmers at heart—and every farmer knows he can only farm if he takes care of his property,” says Tuck.