Farmington Country Club
Virginia, United States of America
The word ‘genius’ is grotesquely over-used on a day-to-day basis but when true genius is recognized it is quite awe-inspiring. That point is made abundantly clear when visiting Charlottesville, Virginia where Thomas Jefferson’s shadow looms large. Jefferson was a scientist, patriot, architect, politician and bon-vivant. His home at Monticello is noteworthy on several levels and the concept of the college campus began with Jefferson’s work at The University of Virginia where he situated buildings around an open area that became known as The Lawn. Before designing the University of Virginia (which he did in ‘retirement’ at age 76!), Jefferson’s life was based in public service and included such minor things as the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, crafting the Louisiana Purchase, the role of third President of the United States, and pushing the Lewis & Clark expedition. Now that’s a genius!
Given the power of Jefferson’s creations, design in Charlottesville is no small matter. Critical eyes are prevalent and standards high. In 1927 Fred Findlay laid out Farmington Country Club near such monuments to design. Perhaps he was inspired by both Jefferson and the setting as Farmington stands out not only as his masterpiece but perhaps the best golf course in the state. Born in 1872, Fred Findlay grew up in Montrose, Scotland and was younger than his more famous brother Alex. By any measure, Fred was a supremely talented golfer; he moved to Australia where he became the head golf professional at the Metropolitan Golf Club. After his sixteen year old son tragically died, his wife returned to Scotland with the casket in 1912. Findlay and his daughter Ruth remained in Australia where she met and fell in love with an American, Raymond Loving. The two married in 1924 in Australia before Loving moved them to his Charlottesville home. Findlay accepted the offer to join them and spent the rest of his life there. (On a side note, Ruth and Raymond had a girl and a boy, Buddy Loving, who learned golf course architecture from his Scottish grandfather and eventually started his own firm. Like Findlay, Loving’s work is concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic states.)
Findlay must have felt quite at home in Charlottesville, where the Blue Ridge Mountains surely reminded him of the Cairngorms. Located west of Montrose, this national park includes the biggest mountain ranges in Britain as well as its tallest peak. Charlottesville’s forests and rivers were also reminiscent of Findlay’s Scotland. After his son’s death in 1912 and his wife’s departure, the next dozen years were surely ones of anguish but the move to America signified a fresh start. In short order, he helped the spread of golf in this part of the world. His work at the James River Golf Course at The Country Club of Virginia in Richmond and Boonsboro Country Club in Lynchburg showed a flair for golf course architecture. Along with Farmington these stand as his finest designs. Farmington, though, is his undoubted masterwork in part because it was built on a superior site and in part because he had the luxury of refining his design over several decades. He ended up living above a garage on the club property and passed away at the ripe age of 94 in 1966.
Findlay’s routing and sequencing of holes at Farmington is exemplary. Holes weave through valleys and up, over and around diverse landforms. The shortish two shot first works the kinks out, the golfer gets a peek at the mountain range at the second before tackling the difficult third whose fairway falls off the shoulder of a hill. The fourth and fifth are in their own valleys from which the sixth ascends. Standing on the seventh tee, the golfer is at the high point of the property. The remainder of the front nine is played over long broad slopes before the golfer confronts the beastly one shot tenth. Now the golfer is in the woods for a counterclockwise loop of three holes with nice undulations before playing the final five holes that loop clockwise with the low point of the property reached at the penultimate hole.
The spacing of the landforms as captured by Findlay’s routing is nearly perfect. The rhythmic down and up nature of the holes pose a variety of shots requirements, and continually expose the golfer to the vagaries of the tumultuous terrain. Indeed, fierce man-made hazards aren’t the primary challenge at Farmington. Let’s face it: sandy contrivances known as bunkers have no natural basis in foothills. Rather, the heart of the golfer’s challenge at Farmington is how he handles its sloping fairways and pitched greens.
Unfortunately, Findlay left behind nothing in his own words to help guide us through his design process at Farmington (or for any of his other courses). We turn instead to Richard Findlay, his nephew, for insight into Fred and his work. In the July, 2012 Feature Interview on GolfClubAtlas.com, Richard described Farmington as follows:
My great Uncle Fred not only was a great golfer but also quite a landscaper in his own right. I had the privilege of meeting Fred in 1963 at Farmington, he was a lovely man, sharp of mind and he loved to paint. His daughter Ruth would provide him with all the canvass he could handle and he would paint scenes from his home in Scotland, where his heart remained. I think he loved Charlottesville because it reminded him so much of Scotland. There is one of his paintings hanging in the Thomas Jefferson building at Farmington. I have played Farmington a few times and I must admit it is also one of my favorite courses in the United States. Of course, even to this day it is still very private but extremely well maintained. When Fred came to the U.S. following his daughter in her marriage to Raymond Loving he ended up in Charlottesville, VA. He would spend the next 40 years there building golf courses throughout the mid-Atlantic states. Whereas Alex concentrated on courses north of the Mason Dixon, Fred went south. Like Alex who taught his trade to his son Norman, Fred taught his grandson Buddy Loving the business. Between the two of them close to a hundred courses were designed and constructed. As for comparing one against the other is something another person will have to do. Alex taught Fred the business and started him out building courses. They worked together and did a magnificent job in doing so. I guess when you compare Fred’s courses to Alex’s, how do they stand the test of time? Alex had two of his designs host major championships, Fred’s courses, although not hosting any majors, did host state championships as well as numerous regional tournaments. Living here in Richmond, VA, you cannot throw a rock and not hit a Findlay or Loving design. One thing about Farmington Country Club is the landscaping surrounding the course, after all Fred was equally concerned with landscaping as he was with doglegs.
Standing on such tees as the seventh and fourteenth, the golfer really appreciates Richard’s point about Farmington reminding Fred of his beloved Scotland. Indeed, Findlay was so moved that he began painting with oil, alternating between scenes from his childhood in Scotland and his new found home near the blue hued mountains.
The good golfer enjoys the challenge of placing his ball into favorable positions on a golf course. At Farmington such success offers opportunities for good scoring but indifferently played shots will often find undesirable slopes and consequently an awkward next shot. Perhaps the golfer gets shoved right off the sloped third fairway into trees, is left with a hanging lie right at the fourth or scuffs his second from a sloping lie down into the valley at the sixteenth. In all these circumstances, the golfer still has a fighting chance though the ensuing shot will be uncommonly difficult. Placing one’s ball properly and avoiding such pitfalls is intensely satisfying. One nice thing about this sort of golf is that you may well begin and end the round with the same ball. Tall, thick rough is non-existent and the depth of its bunkers isn’t overly penal; the challenge here is strategic.
Jefferson once wrote, “Walking is the very best exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” No doubt, Jefferson had the heart of a true golfer (!) and a walk around the well-maintained grounds at Farmington is something that every golfer would relish as we see below.
Holes to Note
Third hole, 445 yards; The hole’s enduring qualities result from the unconventional manner in which Findlay utilized the land forms. Set at nearly a 45 degree angle to the tee, the fairway cascades down the spine of a domed ridge line. All sorts of unfavorable stances are served up and the pushed up green at the end offers little respite. This is an original and surely one of the first great holes built in the state of Virginia; no surprise that it came from a Scot with an innate feel for the values of good golf. Farmington’s highly regarded Green Keeper Scott Kinnan delights in pointing out one of the course’s most subtle features, namely that this green actually runs slightly from front to back. Study the photograph of the green below as much as you want; you’ll never convince yourself of that fact until you see approach after approach head toward the back of the green.
Fourth hole, 375 yards; Courses set in the foothills near mountain ranges offer their own unique characteristics, one of which is a creek running through a valley. And that’s what we find here, with Findlay using it to perfection by placing the fairway on one side of the creek and the green on the other.
Fifth hole, 455 yards; Findlay takes us up the valley wall with this beefy two shotter. In fine contrast to the prior hole where the creek was to the left, here it is on the right. Similar to all Golden Age designs, an uphill green such as this one is sharply tilted toward the golfer, creating a goal of keeping the ball beneath the hole. A golfer who finds his approach to the sides of greens like this and the Home green is courting sure misery.
Seventh hole, 505 yards; The absence of long views dampen the exhilaration of golf played on inland courses relative to links or heath land. Yet, from the two high points on the course (here and the fourteenth tee) such banalities fade away. The sight of a well-struck tee ball bounding along the fairway 50 feet below is guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most jaded, well-traveled golfer. Kinnan notes, ‘The soils at Farmington are predominately clay to loam. We are fortunate to have these typically deep soils in what can be a very rocky area. Though prone to compaction, the soil is outstanding with regard to drainage. Due to the topography and soils on the course, there are very few areas where drainage is a significant concern so we are able to achieve firm playing surfaces throughout. Making sure that tee balls run along these sloped fairways is a vital element in having the course play properly.’
Eighth hole, 435 yards; In some ways, the eighth is a microcosm for Farmington as it doesn’t reveal all its secrets at first. The more you play it, the more fun and interesting it becomes. The tee shot plays from one hill to another on the most open, vast part of the course. As such, the wind changes the complexion and difficulty of the hole more than any other. A ridge running diagonally across the fairway is the key: Drive left near the inside of the dogleg and your tee ball is likely to get a kick down the slope, leaving but a short or mid iron. Steer right and be left with a longer, possibly blind second shot with a utility club. One can’t overstate the difference in coming into this terrific green with a utility club vs. a short iron. There is no easy hole location here, with the sharp downhill slope and a right to left bend across the green, enhanced by several mini-plateaus that can create difficult reads.
Ninth hole, 415 yards; Farmington isn’t overly long at 6,725 yards but it plays appreciably longer because the numerous upslopes attenuate the tee ball. This becomes especially problematic at the fifth, ninth and eighteenth holes, all long two shotters. The bottom line is that the course still has what it takes to test the best amateurs.