A light, steady rain began falling as we were about to tee off.
Naturally, the conditions made me think of “Caddyshack,” and the Bill Murray golf course groundskeeper character, who as rain fell in sheets advised golfers: “I’d keep playing. I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for quite a while.”
We did indeed keep playing, and the heavy stuff never arrived, though it didn’t turn out to be a Cinderella story.
We were damp but not soaked as we made our way around Glenwood Golf Club. We played Glenwood for the same reasons a lot of other golfers are showing up these days at the course in eastern Henrico County: to play what co-owner Harry Griffin calls “sentimental rounds.”
Glenwood, whose owners describe it as the area’s oldest continuously operating public course, is closing soon. The property has been sold with plans for it to become a housing development. The last day of play is June 30.
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Glenwood opened in 1927, and the ensuing 95 years have provided ample time for generations of golfers to develop an affection for the place.
I’m not much of a golfer; actually, I’m no golfer at all. But I did play somewhat regularly when I was growing up around here, and Glenwood was one of the four main places where I would hand over my hard-earned dollars to spend several hours criss-crossing fairways, chasing a ball I couldn’t hit straight, losing a multitude of balls in woods and ponds, and leaving sunburned, muttering and thoroughly frustrated.
The other three courses I played in the 1970s and 1980s — Par 3 of the South, Laurel and Oak Hill — all shut down for development years ago.
And that’s not counting the miniature golf course on Dickens Road where I spent a lot of weekends and evenings in my youth, including the night of my senior prom, when I putted a golf ball through a spinning windmill instead of wearing a crushed-velvet tux. That place now is a Denny’s or a motel; I can’t recall exactly.
Anyway, that makes five. I’m starting to develop a complex — or just getting old.
For me, considering my game, the concept of playing golf was always more promising than actually playing it. And yet, there was something strangely pleasant and meaningful about the experience. It was somehow a good time (mostly), hanging out with friends. Despite all of the lousy shots, I have a lot of good memories.
Feeling the urge of such nostalgia, I felt compelled to play a final round at Glenwood, and enlisted my friends and former colleagues Brice Anderson and Tom Kapsidelis to join me.
They’re both good golfers and have played Glenwood regularly over the years. I haven’t played anywhere in a decade and only sparingly in the years before that. As bad a player as I was during high school and college — going on 50 years ago — I’m worse now. If that’s possible.
I apologized in advance to Anderson and Kapsidelis for the golfing ghastliness they were about to witness. No worries, they said.
“We’re going to be out there to have fun and to reminisce,” Anderson said.
Knowing that I haven’t played in years, Anderson texted me a couple of days before we were scheduled to play and generously offered some “experienced” golf balls, tees, even a backup glove. I thanked him and went out to the garage to see exactly what I had. I literally dusted cobwebs off my clubs and dumped the golf bag. I found:
- 75 or 80 balls in various conditions and of various vintage, including orange ones, yellow ones, several fuchsia ones, a pair of range balls, one with Mickey Mouse emblazoned on it, and another bearing the faded name of Lee Trevino. Is he still around? (I checked Google: He is.)
- Several hundred tees. A couple of Band-Aids, an old glove, two old towels, three pencils, two Sharpies (I guess in case someone asked for my autograph?) and one half-empty water bottle from when I last played, which I believe was a decade ago. I didn’t drink it.
Anderson has been a faithful Glenwood player since he came to Richmond in 1981 to work for The Richmond News Leader and another colleague told him, “You’ve got to go out and try Glenwood. It’s always in good shape, it’s the best buy in town, and it’s very forgiving.”
I think a lot of us gravitated to Glenwood for those reasons. When I first came to play at Glenwood in the late 1970s, you could play a round for less than $10, if I recall correctly. It’s been a relative bargain forever; today, a non-senior can play 18 and rent a cart for $37, which, for those of you who don’t play golf, is pretty reasonable. (The course’s condition is not nearly what it was — a few of the greens, for example, are downright rugged — but that’s not surprising for a place that’s going to close in six weeks.)
I also was aware that my great-uncle’s favorite course was Glenwood, and so I wasn’t totally surprised when I noticed his name listed, as representing Glenwood, in a 1932 Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the city championship. He was among a group of entrants described as “dangerous contenders.” Seventy years later, his great-nephew, as a golfer, is merely dangerous.
Glenwood, the site of a former dairy farm, opened in April 1927 to great fanfare, in part because it was just a few miles from downtown. The headline atop The Times-Dispatch Sports section read: “Glenwood Opening Great Event in Local Golf History.” An earlier story heralded the course as “a layout of championship caliber and will command a steady play from local wood and mashie wielders.” (I looked up “mashie” so you wouldn’t have to: It’s an iron.)
The course closed in 1942 because of World War II — due to a decline in the number of people playing golf as well as the rationing of tires and gasoline — and became overgrown. Once the war was over, Glenwood owners went to work reclaiming the course, which reopened for business in June 1946.
Glenwood features a rolling landscape, not table-top flat but not particularly hilly, though there are a few holes with somewhat steep approaches (or steep retreat, as in the case of No. 4, an inviting little par 3 that has always looked like you should be able to flip it onto the green but more often than not my ball goes skipping over the green and down Mount Everest in the back). The course remains fairly open, though the trees are taller than I remember, and a lot of the houses that now border the course weren’t there the last time I played it.
The course holds a few distinctive features including several natural springs, one of which bubbles next to the 18th green; and a berm that runs along the No. 6 fairway that marks a bed for a long-ago railway spur (which co-owner Frank Adams believes never actually carried any trains before the rails were ripped out, though numerous rail spikes have been found over the years).
Glenwood borders the city — it’s directly across from Fairfield Court public housing complex — and a sliver of the course is actually in the city, including the green on No. 2, Griffin said.
Over the years, Glenwood has developed a faithful following of players. Some golfers, mostly seniors at this point, play on the same day every week. You can’t imagine anyone more devoted than Ty Corbin, who was playing the course the same day we were there, although it’s not like that’s an unusual thing. He tries to play four or five afternoons a week — usually nine holes — on a course he began playing in 1967, when he was 17, and has been playing ever since. (I’ll save you the math: He’s 72 now.)
“The easy answer for me is ‘people,’” he said. “I’ve just made so many friends and met some really fine golfers. Just a lot of fun.”
How much does Corbin love playing Glenwood? When he was head of the math department at what is now Reynolds Community College — he would retire as assistant vice president of academic affairs — he used to assign himself night classes to teach, so he could play golf during the day.
The closing of Glenwood will be tough on Corbin, who served as president of the Glenwood Golf Association for almost 40 years, but not as tough if he and his wife weren’t already relocating to Charlotte, N.C., next month. (He’s not moving because Glenwood is shutting down; both of the couple’s sons live in Charlotte, and this move has been in works for a couple of years.)
“If I were going to be here, it would be difficult. I spent the better part of my life on that golf course looking for my golf balls,” he said with a laugh.
As for co-owners Griffin and Adams, who have operated Glenwood since the mid-1990s, it’s time.
“I’ve run my gamut,” said Griffin, 67, who before Glenwood was the club professional at Stonehenge Golf & Country Club in Chesterfield County. “I don’t love golf like I used to. Things change. I’m changing.”
Golf enjoyed booming levels of participation in the 1990s but then declined in popularity in the 2000s. A rebound is underway, but Griffin said Glenwood didn’t return to the days when he used to have a line of golfers out the door every afternoon waiting for a tee time.
That sort of popularity gave other golfers the impression that Glenwood was too busy; now the impression for many is that the course is already closed, Griffin said. People heard about Henrico last year approving Godsey Properties’ plan to develop Glenwood into two residential subdivisions and apparently just assumed the golf course was no more.
In any case, operating a golf course is hardly the gimme putt some might think.
“I buy, I sell, I cook hamburgers,” Griffin said. “Do payroll. Handle the administration and try to be a golf professional. Many hats.”
In retirement, Griffin plans to travel with his wife and spend considerable time with their first grandchild.
Adams, 68, who has worked at Glenwood since he was 15 and whose father worked there before him, handles the course maintenance side of things. He, too, is ready to move on.
“It wasn’t always peaches and cream and gravy, because you have employees and equipment and a big piece of property to maintain,” said Adams, who lives in King William County and is chief of the Upper Mattaponi tribe.
“It’s a seven-day-a-week, sunup-to-sundown job. Staffing is an issue, especially now. Your busy days are when everybody else is off. It’s hard for your family to understand why you’re not home on weekends and holidays.
“And there are thunderstorms and tornadoes — all that stuff that wreak havoc on golf courses,” he said.
Not to mention the 1980 fire that destroyed the original two-story clubhouse. Adams was working at the course back then. Or the time in 1991 when golfers found a body in a wooded area off the No. 15 fairway (apparently a suicide victim). Or the time in 1997 when a golfer was robbed and shot (he survived) on the No. 13 green.
“We had our share of vandalism from kids, but that’s the only shooting incident,” Adams said. They did have a problem decades ago when jogging became popular and joggers discovered how pleasant a golf course can be for running.
“All of a sudden we had people wearing paths around the golf course while people were trying to play golf,” he said. Fences around the property helped stem that tide.
Adams describes himself as “an average golfer who enjoys playing.”
“I enjoyed playing other places just as much or more than playing Glenwood, because I could relax at other places,” he said. “As I played Glenwood, I’d look around and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this, do that.’”
Still, the end of the Glenwood era will “certainly be mixed feelings,” he said. “But it’s just time for me to retire and do some other things in my life.”
On the course, Anderson, Kapsidelis and I had a most pleasant, if a little wet, afternoon. We swapped old stories from the newsroom and chatted about our golfing heritage.
In our youth, I learned, Anderson and I owned the same brand of beginning golf clubs: Spalding Johnny Palmers. In the pre-Google world, I always figured “Johnny Palmer” was maybe Arnold Palmer’s cousin or something or possibly even a made-up name to fool us into thinking that. Turns out, Johnny Palmer was a real golfer, and Anderson once spoke to him on the phone. Who says golf can’t be a learning experience?
Altogether, it was a most enjoyable round. I made Anderson laugh a few times, including when yet another errant drive left my ball behind a tree, nestled deep in thick grass, the green just a rumor from where I stood. He asked: “What’s your strategy?” and I replied, “Wail on it?”
We scored no eagles and no birdies, but we did shoo away some magpie ducks and Canada geese.
And I found three more balls than I lost. A pretty perfect day.