Leesburg, VA - If the old saying goes that 'every picture tells a thousand words,' then the name Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club chimes in about an equal number. It's not often that the word 'hunt' would be associated with golf, unless, of course, you're talking about the endless pursuit of a wayward drive into the weeds.
At Raspberry Falls, however, the hunt associated with the name gives a new quality to the golf that's played there-it brings you across the ocean to the British Isles where you very well might find a fox hunt combining with a sporting match on the links.
Raspberry Falls is just north of Leesburg in Northern Virginia, and combines a Gary Player signature course with breathtaking elevation changes found in the area to give players a memorable outing. The Raspberry website quotes Player as saying "Like nothing you've ever experienced this side of the Atlantic," and based on my travels through Virginia golf-I'd say that's the truth.
The day starts with your bags being unloaded by attendants dressed in traditional old English hunt garb, and continues on with a short trip to the Old Virginia style clubhouse to prepare for the adventure. The club prides itself on providing 'member for the day' privileges and everything about it reeks of private-and first-class.
The clubhouse is accented with fine woodwork, which makes you believe as if you're in the residence of the Earl of Golfdom. Despite the formality of the surroundings, the friendly staff makes you feel right at home.
Gary Player has taken a spectacular piece of ground in Virginia's horse country and tactfully molded an excellent golf course into the surrounding landscape. The holes seem to blend nicely with the tranquil rural setting, and you get the impression that very little earth was moved to bring the course to its finished capacity.
Local color contributes to the setting, such as a functioning barn and fields with cattle (yes, you can hear them "mooing") in amongst the thoughtfully placed layout. And, true to its name, you can witness actual foxhunts being conducted during the fall, winter, and early spring hunting seasons. There are even specific rules for the 'hunters' when it comes to interacting with the golf course-this stuff is for real. It's very easy to be lost in the theme of the place.
Player's fondness of Scottish links style golf is also abundantly evident in his creation. The course contains stone walls, stacked sod bunkers, meandering streams, and, in places, bushes that could easily double as gorse on the most ancient of courses in the old country. The spectacular elevation drops on a few holes would probably disqualify it as a true seaside links course, but the atmosphere of the property makes it feel like one. The architect's creation isn't just for looks either-it's a pretty demanding golf course.
The back set of tees plays to 7,191 yards and to a slope of 140, but there are four other sets of tees to take some of the severe edge off for the average player. If you do choose to play from one of the back sets, you'd better have the ability to draw or fade when the situation calls for it or you'll find yourself in the rough or the tall grass-or perhaps worse-in one of the stacked sod bunkers.
Keith Paton, who has played several links style courses in the British Isles, says that Raspberry Falls compares favorably with those in the 'homeland of golf,' adding "The unique aspect of the course is that it's a links style course with a down-home Virginia country feel to it. As with a true links course, Player's design forces you to be an accurate shotmaker to avoid potential trouble-such as the well placed bunkers lining the fairways and guarding the greens-as well as the tall, thick gorse waiting to gulp up bad shots."
Like in Scotland, the most notorious of Raspberry's bunkers have their own monikers. Ranging from the Civil War theme of 'Lee's bunker' and 'Grant's tomb' on number eleven to 'Satan's Foxhole' on number 14, there's never a shortage of color in the names. Player does a good job of positioning the bunkers so as to punish a shot clearly wide of its mark, but also presents generous landing areas for greens and fairways so as to give a fair chance for all levels of contestants.
Paton puts the Raspberry bunker experience in his own words: "The bunkers that surround the greens are sort of a hybrid between the pot bunkers found on links courses such as St. Andrews and the large, ominous bunkers seen at famous American courses such as Oakmont. Be prepared to give up a stroke or two if you end up in one. Keep your shots astray of these monsters!"
The layout provides a nice variety of holes-so much so, it's difficult to pinpoint a 'signature' hole. The signature drive for the round would certainly be on the par 4 third. You know you're in for something special when the cart path leads practically straight up-and even then, it's a short hike to the tee box.
Once up there, you feel as if you're staring down off of HalfDome with a club in your hands. The fairway is wide, but there's going to be enough air under your ball that if you hit a little too much hook or slice, you're going to be in trouble.
The par 4 sixth presents a different kind of challenge. It's a short hole, 333 yards from the back. Player probably wants you to hit a layup here, but for those who can hit a driver relatively straight, you'll leave yourself a sand wedge to the putting surface. The challenge of the hole is its severely undulating green, sloping back to front. Anything right or left of the pin will have quite a difficult sidehill putt, so it's imperative to try and leave the ball short of the hole.
A couple of terrific par 3's highlight the backside. The thirteenth measures 184 yards-which in itself won't give you goosebumps. But there's trouble everywhere. The green is wide, but not very deep. A huge sod bunker (Motley's Revenge) awaits anything short. Go long, and you're faced with a downhill chip from the rough that could see your ball rolling into the front bunker with a shot struck a tad too hard.
The fifteenth features 220 yards of carry to a slightly elevated green. There is a runup path to the green, so anything short won't end up in too much trouble. Bunkers on both sides frame the large green.
A fair test of your long iron skills, the hole looks harder than it is. But that's a good thing on this track-because there are a number of holes that look easier than they are. This defines the character of the course-the 'natural' feeling of the layout makes up all the challenge. The word 'contrived' never comes to mind.
When it's all through, you feel like you've worked hard to conquer the course (if indeed you have)-but in a good way. The challenge is real, but it's also fair. Be prepared, however, to trade in your cart for a horse upon completing the round-and then go after some foxes!
Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club
Golf Shop: (703) 779-2555
Metro Line: (703) 589-1042
Fax: (703) 779-8721
Head Pro: Steve Clark