Golf course architect Lester George will never forget the first time he saw the piece of land where Ballyhack Golf Club resides. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Roanoke, Va., the site was – and is – highlighted by rolling, dramatic topography.
A hands-on designer who reads topography with an artistic eye, George said of the land’s nearly 400 acres, “half was orchard grass and fescue blowing in the wind.”
“I thought it was the prettiest piece of land in the entire Shenandoah Valley for a golf course,” he said. “It had that look, that Scottish Highlands type of look. It just intrigued me.”
A graduate of the University of Richmond and former army artillery officer who later attended Harvard Design School, George opened his own firm in 1991. He developed a niche in renovating and restoring classic golf courses designed by some of the most revered golden age architects such as MacDonald, Raynor, Tillinghast, Ross and Flynn, as well as designing practice facilities.
In 2001, George gained international acclaim for his original design work at Kinloch Golf Club outside Richmond. By then, George said he was ready for new endeavors.
His quest to develop the property outside Roanoke went on for years. Eventually, George was able to piece together a group of investors, purchase the land, and conduct zoning and other due diligence. To satisfy his partners, George laid out more than two-dozen different routings for the site.
“I was the developer, the project manager, the architect … the crazy man.”
The original ownership group broke ground on the project in 2007 and Ballyhack debuted in 2009 – just as the bottom was falling out of the U.S. economy.
“Perfect timing,” George said with a chuckle. “When they started selling real estate lots in the two neighborhoods that border the property, they sold 11 in the first month. They didn’t sell another for a year. It was dismal.”
Sales issues aside, Ballyhack itself turned out even better than its visionary imagined. The course serves up scenic vistas at every turn, with 50- to 70-foot elevation changes, fairways as wide as 150 yards, and old-style, gouged-out, roughed-out bunkers.
George pointed out that whereas Kinloch has 40 acres of bent grass fairways, Ballyhack has 56.
“The scale is monster,” he said. “Ballyhack is like no other place; the experience is unlike anything else.”
In 2016, Dormie Network purchased Ballyhack. The Nebraska-based ownership group is in the process of assembling a nationwide stable of high-end properties, combining the experience of destination golf with the exclusive hospitality of private membership. Each club offers an intimate, pure golf experience in a relaxing and accommodating environment ideal for business or leisure.
The new ownership team quickly constructed four new cottages at Ballyhack, as well as a state-of-the-art maintenance facility.
“Those were things we couldn’t pull off with the membership at 200,” George said.
George is convinced that Dormie Network’s business model – multiple, national destinations with overnight accommodations, where members can enjoy a buddy trip, a family getaway or a corporate outing – is, “really the only model right now’’ that makes sense.
“I think Dormie Network has figured out that there is some intuitive play for the guy trip or the family trip or the client trip,” George said. “They get it. Putting more than one in a network is really smart. That’s the only business model I trust right now in terms of new golf.”
Photos: Ballyhack Golf Club