By DAVID DROSCHAK
Golf course architect David Johnson weaved his way around briar patches and battled through thick woods and wetlands, suddenly emerging into an open field on a tract of land in Rocky Mount the Ford family had asked him to check out for a possible golf course layout.
On first impression — the site of what would become Ford’s Colony in the mid 2000s and has since been renamed Belmont Lake Golf Club — looked challenging from an environmental standpoint and Johnson was covered with ticks.
Johnson recalls trudging on.
“About one-third of the way through the property I could see there was some potential,” he said. “Rocky Mount is a fairly flat area but I noticed there was a little more topography on this site. And it offered a lot of other pretty neat things from a golf course design standpoint.”
Johnson was in the early stages of his own architectural firm, having worked for noted architect Bob Culp for a decade before branching off on his own in 2000. So, he was thrilled when the Fords — who he had fostered a relationship with at their Williamsburg, Va., course while he attended the University of Virginia — called on him to design a course around an 80-acre lake and its surrounding forest east of Interstate 95.
That open area Johnson ended up at on his initial trek through the property would end up creating a unique contrast between sections of the 18-hole layout.
“There was a great mix of wooded, forested areas and then some open fields that were formally farms, and then there was Belmont Lake and some other cool wetland areas as well,” Johnson said. “The combination of all those was something I wanted to draw into the design of the golf course and expose golfers to all those different areas. If you look at the routing of the course the first five holes are kind of through the forest, and then you pop out into that “open area” that has some tall grasses framing the golf holes from holes 6-13, and then back into more forested areas to finish on holes 14-18. The property offered a lot.”
Despite a welcoming design by Johnson, the course struggled early on as it was developed soon before the bottom fell out economically in the United States. Home sales ground to a halt and a lack of play sent the property into financial trouble. In January 2011, the upscale golf course shut down and a section of the community was taken over in a foreclosure action by banks.
The Halle Companies, a Maryland-based developer of the Villages of Apex in the Triangle, purchased the assets of the 1,400-acre planned development under construction adjacent to North Carolina Wesleyan College in early 2012.
It was a new beginning – actually a third new start in less than five years — for a promising idea.
But would golfers return?
It was a slow build for Belmont Lake head pro Tim Wilke, who came to Rocky Mount from Palisades Country Club in Charlotte two years ago this April. The course had just 32 members at the time.
However, the new ownership invested in building a golf clubhouse and community clubhouse, for starters, and course conditions improved dramatically.
Now, there are more than 150 members, and play increased by 5,000 rounds in 2014.
“This place has come a long, long way,” Wilke said. “Belmont is kind of the talk of the town here in Rocky Mount. We’re the one golf course that is probably on the upswing right now rather than struggling. It is up to us to keep it in great shape and keep it moving forward.”
Johnson’s initial vision of creating several holes around Lake Belmont didn’t materialize because of environmental regulation buffers and land planning for homes, but the tee shot on No. 18 offers a wonderful view of the water, and two other water hazards on the course are wonderful complements to a fun layout that gives golfers plenty of room to let fly with driver.
“So many courses are built so difficult and players get beat up, they lose 10 balls and never return again,” Johnson said. “So my motto has always been to make a course that is fun and people will have a great time and score well. At Belmont Lake I designed the fairways to be a little larger or wider, and the same thing with the playing corridors, they are a lot wider than a lot of other courses. My design strategy is to let players go after it off the tee and then the difficulty or the challenge of the approach shots is heightened a little bit to get to the green. The greens are reasonably well guarded, but the surfaces are fairly mellow. There is no goony golf.”
The 144-yard third hole is a knee-knocking shot over water to a green guarded in front by a stone wall. “It gets your heart racing early in the round,” Johnson said.
There is also a 45-second ride from the 13th green to the 14th tee that takes golfers over a wooden bridge, and across one of the more scenic areas of Belmont Lake.
“That is my favorite spot on the whole golf course,” Wilke said. “I am an outdoor guy and to have an outdoor beauty like this piece of property is awesome. If I am having a tough day I just go out and jump in a golf cart and ride around the course and it seems to sooth all of my ills.”
Virginia-based Traditional Golf Management directs the course’s day-to-day operations, meaning members at Triangle-area courses such as The Preserve at Jordan Lake, Chapel Ridge and Falls Village have reciprocal privileges at Belmont Lake for $25 or $30.
Wilke points out that Belmont Lake is an enticing alternative to Triangle-area golf, with most of the drive east accomplished in about an hour, with 90 percent of it easy highway travel.
“And Belmont Lake is not a golf course that is a head scratcher, where you’re banging your head against a cement wall all the time trying to keep the ball on the green,” Wilke said. “If you hit good shots here you can score and that makes it a lot more fun.”