Thursday, October 28, 2010

Raspberry Falls: a good course gone bad?

Even dressed up in its fall's finest last weekend, Raspberry Falls left me feeling a little empty inside.
Since I first played the course three years ago, I have steadily ranked it among the best courses in the area. The course itself has remained largely unchanged with fast greens, lush and thick rough, deep bunkers, and a difficult layout that requires players to make tough shots with regularity. But since 2007, Raspberry Falls has grown up. Not the grass, or the facilities, but the homes around it. The scenic and panoramic views that once were present on nearly every tee shot are now marred by McMansions and minivans.

On my first visit to Raspberry Falls, there was certainly evidence that homes would one day creep into the landscape of this beautiful course. Flat open spaces along the sides of the course were dead giveaways. But in the absence of the homes actually standing alongside the fairways and behind the greens, the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys were preserved. The course fit in seamlessly with the rolling hills and valleys in the Virginia countryside.

Fast-forward a few years, and those five bedroom track homes have been built. The course’s natural feeling now seems like a farce. Players have to cross small streets and col-du-sacs in between holes, and as you look off into the distance you see subdivisions, not farmlands or old groves of Oak, Maple, or Pine.

In between the homes, Raspberry Falls maintains its former excellence. The course, measuring 6,700 yards from the gold tees (blues), demands precision and accuracy on virtually every shot. Though not as demanding as some courses off the tee, Raspberry requires players to hit both draws and cuts, sometimes around water, sand, or tree-hazards. As a rule, approach shots must be played to the green with the care, deep rough and even deeper bunkers are ready to swallow up errant balls.

The greens remain a strong suit for Raspberry Falls and are a welcome relief yet steady challenge for players used to slow, bumpy public course greens. While still quite receptive to approach shots, the greens were firm even after a slight rain. Of course, these greens are not for the faint of heart. They are fast. Very fast. And a miss read putt will often lead to a ten foot come-backer. But for those of us who enjoy playing fast greens, the surfaces at Raspberry are a treat.

The most remarkable hole on the course is without question the par 5 finishing hole. Played from atop a rocky outcropping that overlooks what must be the real "Raspberry Falls," this long hole requires both power and finesse. From the tee, players must carry the ball through a shoot nearly 200 yards to a fairway that bends hard to the left. While calling on players to hit a draw, the over ambitious will be stopped dead in their tracks by a wall of trees that are ready to eat any shot that is pulled off target. These tall, ornery trees extend nearly the entire length of the fairway and prevent players from seeing, let alone playing to this well protected green in two. Instead, all but the longest players with the most perfectly placed drives must take their medicine and hit a mid-iron up the fairway to about 100 yards. At 100-75 yards out, players get their first view of this small green. It is on the opposite side of the small creek that feed the falls back at the tee and is protected by bunkers in the front and the back. Reaching this green in regulation is quite an accomplishment, and par is an excellent score.

The other par fives, 4, 9, and 11 are also among the best holes on the course and provide players with an opportunity to hit a variety of interesting, challenging, and scenic shots.

Thirteen, a 171 yard par three, is my other favorite hole on the course. From the tee players can only see a sliver of green surrounded by a jungle of rocks, sand and water. A large waste bunker runs along the length of the hole to the left, while deep pot bunkers guard the front and right side of this small green. Just in front of the pot bunker, a now mostly dried out stream bed with big rocky outcroppings hides the green and leaves players with little option than to over-club. The two tiered green further complicates this tough hole, as balls left on the wrong side of this green will leave players with at least a 30 foot putt.

Overall, I have to say that Raspberry Falls is still a great track. Unfortunately though, I think it is trending the wrong way. The once scenic course is fighting to stay independent of the surrounding homes and there are now more and more players willing to drive 45-55 minutes from Washington to play a good course. Raspberry Falls will remain in my top five, but after my most recent visit, it has fallen a few notches.

Grizzly Golfer Rating: 7.5/10

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