If Mattaponi Springs were an hour closer to DC, a weekend tee time would be a pretty tough get. The only reason this course isn’t packed every day of the week as far as I can tell, is the location. A seventy-five minute drive south from the Beltway’s mixing bowl, is a hike, and that’s without traffic. However, if you’re looking for an outstanding golf course to make a day trip to, there may not be one better from the DC area. Once you have committed to the trip, the remote location becomes a blessing as upon arrival, you will not find the hustle and bustle of many golf clubs closer to the city. I have played Mattaponi and handful of times, mostly on weekdays, but each time, pace of play, packed tee sheets, or a crowded course are the furthest things from being an issue. The site itself is awfully isolated, as the roads leading to it are thin, winding, and mostly undeveloped. On my most recent visit, a gorgeous Wednesday in October, I offered my golf partner and co-pilot an over/under of 7 cars in the parking lot when we got to Mattaponi at 10am. He took the over.. when we pulled in, we were the 5th car. I find this stunning, considering Golf Digest ranked Mattaponi Springs as the 50th best public golf course in the United States. The only explanation i can come up with is the location. Even for Richmond golfers, it’s a 45 minute drive north, past a number of other strong daily-fee tracks.
Ok, enough about the location and on to the important stuff. Practice area checks all the boxes with a wide, picturesque range, a large putting and chipping green, as well as a practice bunker. The first tee box is elevated above the tree line and gives your first look at the vastness of the property. This opening hole also gives you an idea of the challenge you have in front of you for the day. The first tee shot is a tricky one as the landing area likely takes driver out of your hands if you are playing from the appropriate tees for your driving distance, as there is water dead ahead. However the distance you have to work with is deceiving as the water line cuts away from you at an angle so it can be both tempting to take more club than you need and put it left where the water cuts away from you, as well as not take enough club and leave yourself with an opening approach of 200+ yards, bringing bogey plus into play right off the bat. This is how Chicago-based course designer, Bob Lohmann, has setup several shots throughout the course. It forces you to really think about the placement of your drives and think about the subsequent shot before you pull a club. Blindly taking driver each time you step to the tee on the par 4’s and even a couple of the par 5’s will get you in trouble, almost guaranteed. This theme recurs throughout the round. On the par 5 second, visually off the tee there are bunkers left-long and right-short that both make you second guess pulling driver, though it’s likely the right play. But assuming you land your drive in the fairway, your second does not allow you to grip it and rip it, as there is a fairly large wetland on the right side of the fairway short of the green. The third is a short par 3, that will cause you do some math figuring which club will get it close, and so on with many of the shots you’ll have at Mattaponi.
As for the greens at Mattaponi Springs, they are no joke and should not be taken lightly. On this most recent visit they were running at an estimated “10” by the starter on duty, and they felt like every bit of it. When you play 80% of your rounds on muni’s that roll somewhere between 5 and 8 on the stimpmeter, a 10 is lightning quick. My scorecard from the round tells me I three-putted no less than 8 times. The speed wasn’t the only culprit in this however, as almost every green has multiple tiers or dramatic contours. The 13th green for instance has three distinct platforms on the dance floor that depending on the pin placement can make a two-putt extremely difficult if you’re approach is not on the right tier. The greenskeeper thus has the ability to make some brutal pin placements putting extra pressure on your iron game as well. At 6,890 yards from the tips, Mattaponi Springs is not crazy long, however with a rating of 74.2 and a slope of 147, it is not for the faint of heart. Playing the appropriate tees for your game and length is essential to keeping your blood pressure at a manageable level.
In exchange for requiring each golfer to bring their thinking cap to the course, Lohmann contoured the fairways with berms and mounds that seem to help the golfer more often than not. Our group had several wayward shots that found their way either in not so bad spots in light rough or sometimes sneaking back onto the fairway. When I hear golfers talk about courses that they like, the most common phrase used seems to be the overused “tough but fair”, and each time I hear it, I internally roll my eyes. However, the hypocrite in me bears it’s head when playing Mattaponi, as the term that I continually comes to mind as I find my ball in manageable spots is “fair”. The other real treat about the course is the serene feeling of isolation as there are no houses on the property. We have Alexandria-based property owner Jim Oliff to thank for this. While Mattaponi Springs will likely not be in the cards for most DC area golfers to play a round or a quick nine before work or after you cut out early, it is a very manageable distance for a day-trip as well as almost exactly halfway to Virginia Beach. So go ahead and take Friday off, grab a mid-morning tee time and you’ll be at the beach with a boat-drink in your hand by sundown.