LORTON, Va. -- When it applies to golf courses, the terms "municipal" and "upscale" are often mutually exclusive.
Surely, there are exceptions, most of them serving major metropolitan areas where competition is fierce. New York has Bethpage. San Diego has Torrey Pines. Seattle has Chambers Bay. San Francisco has Harding Park.
Until 2005, Washington, D.C. had no such government-run gem. But the creation of Laurel Hill Golf Club, 20 miles south of the District, filled the void.
Built on land occupied until 2000 by a maximum-security prison, Laurel Hill was a revelation when it opened to golfers five years later. The transformation of the forbidding property, formerly marked by guard towers, 25-foot walls and razor wire, to perhaps the area's premium public golf address is an intriguing success story.
In a wealthy jurisdiction with little land left for golf course development, the Fairfax County Park Authority found a way to create a thoughtfully designed, meticulously manicured, amenity-laden club, vastly different from the other facilities in its collection.
Instead of three sets of tees, Laurel Hill has six. Instead of a snack bar, Laurel Hill has a white-tablecloth dining room. Instead of picnic tables on the back porch, Laurel Hill has an elegant banquet room. Instead of a net in which to hit balls, Laurel Hill has a driving range with target greens and grass and mat stations, and a short-game practice area comparable to many private clubs.
Recognition came fast as Laurel Hill Golf Club was named the nation's 13th-best muni by Golfweek in 2011. The latest stamp of approval came from the United States Golf Association, which hosted the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Laurel Hill.
Perched on one of the highest points in the area and on cleared land which formerly served as a prison dairy farm, Laurel Hill is wide-open and windswept, setting it apart from so many of the tree-lined layouts in the Washington area.
With few trees and water on only two holes, Laurel Hill's primary defenses are length, elevation change and the sprawling, asymmetrical bunkers that designer Bill Love used to add definition, narrow the fairways and protect the greens. The best example is no. 5, a reachable par 5 at 524 yards -- but only for players willing to fly an intricate complex of salamander-shaped bunkers, pocked with knee-high fescue.
Laurel Hill Golf Club: Long and strong
Measuring 7,102 yards from the back tees and with a par of 71, length is a constant theme at Laurel Hill, which opens with a 471-yard par 4. Other par-4 holes knock in at 500 yards (no. 6) and 493 yards (no. 17). The par 4 that might play the longest, however, is no. 3, a 452-yard beast over a ravine and straight uphill, with a round bunker in the middle of the landing area, splitting the widest fairway on the course in two.
As if the collection of par-4 holes wasn't severe enough, the USGA chopped 24 yards off no. 5 for the Public Links, transforming it from a par 5 to a monstrous par 4. For the tournament, Laurel Hill played as a par 70 at 7,022 yards, with a rating a 75.1 and a slope of 148.
Each of Laurel Hill's five par 3s are distinctive. No. 4 is a stunning, 188-yard drop shot. No. 8 is a 240-yard power test. No. 14 is 218 yards -- uphill and majestic -- playing to a diagonal, two-tiered green. No. 16, a 215-yard stress test over water, was deemed daunting enough by the USGA to play it from the white tees (179 yards) for the Public Links.
The most memorable par 3, however, is no. 11. It's brilliantly conceived, with two teeing areas, one over a vegetation-filled ravine and the other next to one of the course's three silos, leftovers from the prison-farm days. The first look at the old Lorton Reformatory also comes at no. 11, with guard towers and brick prison buildings in the backdrop.
It's a reminder of how the property has undergone a 180-degree makeover -- menacing to marvelous.
Laurel Hill Golf Club: The verdict
At $99 for a weekend round, Laurel Hill is not priced like a typical muni. But why should it be? Its competition is the area's top upscale daily-fee courses.
Players will find comparable rates at stellar tracks such as Raspberry Falls in Leesburg, Va., Lake Presidential in Upper Marlboro, Md., Westfields Golf Club in Clifton, Va. and Queenstown Harbor in Queenstown, Md. But none can match Laurel Hill's location -- 10 minutes from the Washington Beltway, just off I-95 in Fairfax County.
For golfers seeking immaculate conditions, quality design and a unique layout with all the amenities of Washington's daily-fee elites, Laurel Hill is an excellent and convenient option.