CHANTILLY, VA - It's a rare phenomenon when a three year old needs a makeover. That is, unless you're talking about a golf course--and even most new golf courses don't slide downhill fast enough to require drastic correction in their early years. But Pleasant Valley Golf Club in Chantilly, Virginia is a special case.
It's nice to know there's a happy ending involved here. After all, Pleasant Valley was pegged from the outset to become Fairfax County's crown jewel for public golf facilities. Set on a huge, virtually undisturbed tract of land just south of Dulles Airport, the course was destined to become golf's paradise island in a sea of new development engulfing the surrounding area.
From the very beginning, the County's insistence on a hundred foot tree barrier bordering the property would ensure that no residential, commercial or industrial structures be visible from its finely manicured fairways. Just about the only clue to prove there was such a thing as the outside world would be the planes making their final approach to the airport.
But things don't always turn out as conceived, and Pleasant Valley is a shining example of the truism. When it opened in May of 1998, the course's condition was pristine and its reviews equally sparkling. Most folks who played the Ault, Clark & Associates design deemed it a 'can't miss.' Somehow, as time went on, it did miss, however-by quite a lot, because the course literally wilted before your proverbial eyes with management problems.
I first played Pleasant Valley two years ago, and for an upscale course with upscale prices to match, I thought it was in deplorable condition. A few of the greens were dead; some of the fairways were brown and bare; and the tees looked like a groundskeeper's worst nightmare. No allowance for the conditions was granted in the price, either. I swore I'd never go back. Such gross deterioration was practically unthinkable-it'd be like the Titanic needing a refit after its maiden voyage (not that it ever got the chance).
It's a good thing memories fade and impressions change. Golfers are, after all, a forgiving lot--and Pleasant Valley's making a comeback in a big way. Under new management (Golfmatrix) for about a year now, the course is slowly returning to its initial glory, and will one day soon be everything it was laid out to be.
Tom Clark, the course's designer, is gratified his creation is coming around, because he's extremely proud of the layout. It was a rare chance for him to design a course just for the game itself: "Pleasant Valley was one of the very few opportunities architects get where you just have a golf course, and you're buffered all around it--so you're right in the middle of Fairfax County and you don't even know it. It was fun to create something just for golf, and not have to worry about housing offsets or what needs to go where."
Because the property was so large, Clark says his firm was able to blend in all the design goodies he likes to incorporate when sketching out a course. "It basically involves returning nines--the correct orientation of the starting and finishing holes so you're not starting into the sun and then finishing into the sun.
"We were able to offer a good par four mix of all different lengths. We have a couple that are driveable (or close to it), and one that's 479 yards (from the back tees, of course). We also have three par fives that are pretty reachable, and one that's not. So we got our assortment of par threes, fours and fives into the blend-dogleg lefts, dogleg rights. We integrated all these different features at Pleasant Valley."
In other words, the course was destined for greatness. Greg Nesbitt, the club's Head Pro, says "We've always considered this property as 'low hanging fruit'-it's just there for the taking, and now all it needs is a little tender-loving-care to get it where it needs to go--and that's what we plan on doing. More than anything, we're just going to improve the playing conditions and pay a little bit more attention to detail out on the course."
If the course's current condition is any indication, Pleasant Valley's well on its way to coming back. Nesbitt himself would only give its condition a 'B,' but that's because he says he's his own worst critic. I'm not going to say the course is in outstanding shape, but the memories of two years ago were sufficiently wiped away to say the layout's one of the better courses in the area-condition-wise. Much closer to where it was intended to be.
And it terms of layout, there's no doubt Pleasant Valley ranks well with the best in the area. Tom Clark certainly took advantage of the opportunity to spin a web of variety. As he stated above, there's a lot of variance to challenge golfers of all abilities. Clark mixed in some bunkerless holes to contrast some links with huge bunkers: some beastly long holes (a 596 yard par five and a 479 yard par four) and some short (a 329 yard par four and a 152 yard par three) ones and some holes where water's very much in play, and others where you could roll the ball the entire length to the green. Add in trees and wetlands and you have a pretty complete golf course.
Clark thinks even the hole sequencing came out well. "We started the course with two par fours and a five before getting to a par three-something we always try to do-mix in some variety. The fourth is a 222 yard par three with no bunkers. You shoot over a small valley and there's a split fairway down where most people tend to miss it on the right. Visually, I think the fourth's got a really good green-it's well set up."
Nesbitt says number five is one of his favorites, and I'd have to add my vote for that one, too. It's a 545 yard par five with an uphill tee shot, bunker on the right and a waste area on the left. The second shot presents a multitude of choices. There's a split fairway for the lay-up option, with the more desirable (better angle for the third shot) left hand side a more difficult shot, because it flirts with trees and a bunker. The right side option leaves a third shot over a massive bunker to reach the green. If you go for it in two, you'll have to clear the trees and the bunker in the center of the split. A great hole.
Nine plays to 329 yards, and is often downwind. Every part of your devilish side coerces you to rip the cover off the driver and make a big swing to get it nearer the green. Smart play is a mid to long iron to avoid a bunker and trees on the left side for a short iron approach to the tricky green. The tee shot definitely depends on which personality you take with you to the course that day.
The great mix of holes continues on the back, highlighted by a particularly interesting closing sequence. Sixteen measures 333 yards from the tips and dares you to take a driver to the green. The tee box is elevated, but there's a huge bunker straight away, trees and wetlands to the right. Reaching the green isn't realistic for most of us, but there's a narrow neck that'll allow for a short pitch to the putting surface if you place the drive right.
Seventeen features a huge bunker bisecting another split fairway. There's a lake to the right side of the green-so if you choose the right hand option, you'll have a shorter shot into the green but will bring more of the lake into play. Left is safer, but it'll be a longer second shot.
Eighteen will rattle your driving nerves for the final hole-because the same lake influencing your thinking on seventeen, guards the entire right hand side of eighteen. Slicers beware. If you drive safely, you'll have a short to mid-iron to reach the long and narrow green protected by bunkers and water to the right and mounds to the left.
Nesbitt says the experience he'd like visitors to take away from Pleasant Valley is one of relaxation and variety. "I want our golfers to enjoy every golf hole they play-to leave our place thinking there wasn't one hole that's just like another."
Practice Fac.: B
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: B+
Pace of Play: A
Resort Hotel: N/A
Overall Rating: A-
Well, in that regard Nesbitt and Clark can sleep easily at night. And they also can rest assured Pleasant Valley's well on its way to becoming what it was meant to be-the flagship of public golf in Fairfax County. Makeover complete!
Pleasant Valley Golf Club
4715 Pleasant Valley Road
Chantilly, Virginia 20151
Phone: (703) 631-7904
FAX: (703) 631-7906
Tom Clark, Principal, Ault, Clark & Associates: www.acagolf.com
General Manager/Head Golf Professional: Greg A. Nesbitt
Championship: 6915; Slope 135
Medal: 6509; Slope 130
Club: 5861; Slope 125
Forward: 5106; Slope 118
M, T -- $59
W-Fr -- $69
Weekends, Holidays -- $85.
Twilight -- $49 after 3 every day.
All prices include cart (equipped with GPS system);
unrestricted walking allowed, but no pull carts.