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Teeing Off at Laurel Hill

Golfers enjoy sunny skies for the opening of the Laurel Hill Golf Club

After two years of waiting and planning, and nearly a solid week of rain, golfers and sunglass-adorned officials alike played a friendly tournament to open the Laurel Hill Golf Club.

It was a day of firsts for the club: the first tournament, in which over 100 golf enthusiasts played the first official round of golf on the new course, and the first hole-in-one, both for the club and the man who sank it.

"Oh, it was such a pretty shot," said Bob Brennan, president of the Fairfax County Park Foundation, still smiling several hours after the event. "I've been playing golf for 30 years, but I've never had a hole-in-one. The ball bounced a couple of times and went in. That was so lucky."

Brennan followed up his accomplishment with a little victory dance, said Stephen C. Thormahlen, vice chair of the Park Foundation and one of Brennan's tournament teammates. "He didn't say a word, he just went up to the cup and when he saw it, he put his arms up in the air and did a little dance," he laughed.

Golf enthusiasts had much to celebrate on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 14, as the rainy weather of the prior week gave way to sunny skies and temperatures in the lower 70s.

"This is the most beautiful course in Fairfax County right now bar none, and I've played them all," said Thormahlen. "The vistas from the tees are incredible, the course is great, the staff is superb. People will come out and play a round, then call their friends and tell them to come play here. This will be a course people will seek out to play."

Another first for the county's golf courses, Laurel Hill will also have a golf pro on hand for lessons and advice.

Prior to his arrival at Laurel Hill, Gene Orrico was at the Nicholas Flick Teaching Academy. "I'm very lucky to be here," said Orrico, who had originally applied for a management job in the club house, which is scheduled to open next spring. "Working for the county and the Park Authority is incredible."

Laurel Hill is the seventh golf course developed by the county, he said, designed by Bill Love, a well-known golf course designer and native of the area. "Bill has done a tremendous job. The course is playable for all levels of golfers."

ADDRESSING THE approximately 100 people who gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Supervisor Gerald "Gerry" Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said the two years waiting for the course to open had been worth it.

"I doubt if I have ever seen a golf course which has taken the environment and placed 18 holes in a natural and beautiful way," Hyland said.

Planning for the course began two years ago, when the county officially acquired the approximately 3,000 acres of the former Lorton Prison site. Part of an early public-private partnership included funding for the South County Secondary School, the Spring Hill Senior Living Campus and the Laurel Hill Golf Club, said Hyland.

"When we christened this land two years ago, I took a ball out of my pocket and a vintage sand wedge given to me by my father before he died," said Hyland. "That was probably the best shot I ever had in my life. It was the first shot into the future for this area."

It would turn out to be the first of many golf balls Hyland would lose at the club, including several more he lost during that day's tournament, he admitted with a laugh.

The $4.2 million the county paid for the land surrounding the Lorton prison site was "the best decision the county ever made," said Chairman Gerald "Gerry" Connolly (D-At-large) of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. One of the conditions of the purchase was for a large portion of the land to be left open, for active or passive recreation.

"Today, the property is referred to as Laurel Hill, complete with 300 buildings and 1,200 acres of park land. This area's redevelopment has been a real and daunting challenge at times," said Connolly, adding that the combination of history, nature and development will be a benefit to residents and the county as a whole.

"This golf course will compete with the best private sector courses," he said.

"VISION" WAS the key word for Tim Sargeant, chairman of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens Oversight Committee. "This all began in the mid-1990s when the Board of Supervisors had the foresight and vision to say 'we want you to be involved from the beginning' to the residents of this area," said Sargeant. "It was that vision that looked at an old prison building and saw an art center, that looked at the dairy farm and pastures and saw a recreation facility. We are very thankful to the Board, the Park Authority and the citizens that worked so diligently so that we are now able to share our collective accomplishments."

After being teased by Hyland for a hole that hid a ravine between the tee and the putting green, golf course designer Bill Love said the course was specifically laid out to provide challenges and surprises.

"The more you play, you'll figure out all the secrets and surprises until you have it memorized," said Love. "That's when it's really fun. What's exceptional about this project is the natural lay of the land, and that made it easy to produce a first class facility that was environmentally sensitive."

After thanking the rest of his crew, Park Authority Director Michael Kane said he was "looking forward to many years of enjoying" the course that Love designed. "This doesn't happen by accident, Bill is absolutely committed to environmentally sensitive golf courses," he said.

The opening of the golf club is part of a larger story, one Connolly said is "an extraordinary chapter in Fairfax County history. This was the best bargain since the Dutch acquired Manhattan," he said, laughing. "We are seeing proof every day that this is a new opportunity we never would've had before." According to Connolly, the redevelopment of the Lorton prison area has led to "a palpable sense of civic pride throughout the area."

He wasn't alone in his praise of the area.

"This community has begun to go through a metamorphosis with this club and [South County Secondary School] but we haven't seen anything yet," said Hyland. "The future of Lorton is being completely transformed consistent with the vision of its citizens. They decided what they wanted and worked with and pushed the government to make it happen. What happened here today is remarkable."