GAINESVILLE, Va. - Driving through the entrance up to the impressive clubhouse of Stonewall Golf Club at Lake Manassas, you might think you took a wrong turn and landed in a private club. Indeed, peeking through the trees, is the very private Robert Trent Jones Golf Club nearby.
You would be wrong - Stonewall is a public course. But it lives like a private club, from the well-manicured golf course to the 13,000-square-foot clubhouse with its coffered ceilings, large, plush, carpeted bar, leather chairs, massive stone fireplace and large-screen televisions.
"Our reputation as one of the finest golf courses in Northern Virginia, is getting around, helping to buck the national trend of decreasing rounds. Last year was our best ever," said Gary Huebner, director of golf, who added that rounds are up 42 percent (from 28,000 to 33,000) while neighboring courses report a decline of 4 percent to 8 percent.
"Word of mouth and clever marketing, including loyalty programs, is helping." This is in spite of having the highest public green fees in the area.
Stonewall, which opened in 2001, was designed by Tom Jackson. Named for Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, considered one of the South's greatest warriors, the course marches across a rolling terrain that includes the famed "Carolina Trail," a route once used to shift troops during the Civil War.
Evoking some of the local lore, holes have names like Stone House, Sharpshooter, Rogues Road, Carolina Road, Chapin's Farm and Manassas Gap.
Set against a backdrop of the Bull Run Mountains and Lake Manassas, which is visible from 15 holes - hole No. 15 is a stunner with the lake in the background - this scenic track is blessed by gently rolling hills and plenty of tall trees along with bent grass greens, fairways, tees, bluegrass and fescue roughs.
Stonewall plays more than 7,000 yards from the tips but with five tee boxes, and just 4,889 yards from the forward tees, higher handicappers are not intimidated.
Stonewall Golf Club: The verdict
The first nine meanders back and froth along the open shores of Lake Manassas, while the back nine climbs into the more dense trees and hills.
Tee times are 10 minutes apart, so play moves well starting from the first tee, where you are hitting straight up the fairway, to a large green with a bunker on the right.
Gentle mounding like on holes No. 2 and No. 11 help direct your ball to the center of the fairway, while carries over water and ravines, as on holes No. 4, No. 6 and No. 10, create visual interest and challenge.
Hole No. 6, at 558 yards - the longest hole on the course and the No. 1 handicap hole - is intimidating, with out of bounds on your right and a narrow opening to the green where water threatens as you approach the green. Hit short or even short on the green, and your ball will very likely get wet.
For the most part, greens do not have dramatic elevation changes or multiple tiers, but on hole No. 6, you're hitting to a large, two-tiered, narrow green, so there are exceptions.
There are few dog legs on the track, but hole No. 15 - a 420-yard, par-4 dog leg left - is one you'll remember. You drive over water and trees, try to avoid strategically placed bunkers on your left and all the way, have to pick your clubs carefully while calculating prevalent winds.
Stonewall Golf Club's facilities
Locker rooms are well-appointed with wood paneled lockers, upholstered seating areas and showers. On-course bathrooms echo the sense of privilege with flagstone floors and extra amenities like Kleenex and flowers.
The pro shop carries an excellent selection of apparel well displayed, and in 2008, Stonewall was named the Mid-Atlantic PGA Merchandiser of the Year for public courses.
Rental clubs are new Nike Sasquatches and sling shot irons. Carts are equipped with large-screen GPS systems, and the course is mapped for SkyCaddie.
The practice facility includes a 25-station, grass-tee driving range, five bunkered target greens, two short game greens and a large putting green.
Stonewall Golf Club: Programs and fees
With green fees at $90 to $119 including cart, Stonewall is the most expensive daily-fee course in the county.
Still, for $295 a year, golfers buying into its Patriot Club get reduced green fees ($49-$89), free golf December through January, 20 percent discount in the pro shop and accompanied guests can play at the Patriot Club member's green-fee rate. They also accumulate points for future play.
Stonewall gets a lot of play from Washington D.C.-based golfers, but don't believe the locals when they tell you it's about 30 minutes from Washington.
Running the gauntlet of Greater Washington's I-95, and even the more scenic routes, the promised half hour can easily morph into an hour or more. Even Ms. Garmin lies.
Stonewall Golf Club: Events
Stonewall's event business is growing with banquet facilities able to accommodate sit-down dinners for 180 people and a board room capable of handling 30. The club also has an oversized kitchen. "Very few daily-fee courses have this capability," said Heubner.
Stonewall is so pretty it is a popular site for weddings. Most bridal couples have their wedding photos taken at the fourth hole.
Here you can expect more for your money. It looks, smells and tastes like a private club, and cuisine in the Brass Cannon restaurant is excellent. The crab cakes were exceptional, almost pure crab.
But, said Heubner, "As good as the restaurant is, since the place has a sense of a private gated community, getting people to drive to the clubhouse and use the restaurant can be a challenge."
Owned by Bishop Holding Corporation, 550 homes are built around the course. Owners get reduced green fees.
"When you leave," said Heubner, "you're going to tell someone you played a pretty good course and got some extra services along the way."