Strip Mine Transformed Into Golf Course
Nicewonder, admitting he 'had to pull a few rabbits out of the hat and do some things that a lot of your top architects would not do,' came up with Twisted Gun Golf Club, a links-style course short on trees, long on distance, and definitely worth the drive.
At first, golfers don't know what they're getting into.
The miles leading up to the former Low Gap mountaintop mining site in Mingo County consist of a curvy, muddy road and a coal truck or two.
Get to the top of the mountain and golfers see a stark contrast - rolling green terrain, meadows, rock walls and wetlands.
'Mountaintop removal has had its negative publicity in the state, but what I think they did at Twisted Gun was a wonderful reclamation of that piece of property,' said Danny Fisher, executive director of the West Virginia Golf Association. 'It's a different character of just about any golf course in the state.'
The course's Web sites boasts that Twisted Gun is the only 18-hole course in the southern West Virginia coal counties of Mingo, McDowell and Logan because of the region's steep, mountainous terrain.
It's also one of only a few in the nation built on a former mountaintop mine - another is StoneCrest Golf Course two hours away in Prestonsburg, Ky. West Virginia has at least two other courses on former mine sites, however.
In mountaintop mining, the top of a mountain is blasted away to expose coal seams. State and federal regulations require the disturbed land to be returned to its approximate original contour when mining is finished. However, variances are allowed if the land is used for industrial, commercial, residential or public recreation.
Don Nicewonder, who built The Virginian golf course in Bristol, Va., came up with the golf course idea. His Premium Energy Corp. was a contractor for Mingo Logan Coal Co. to operate the Low Gap mine.
'Being in West Virginia in mining for 10 years, I thought it would be a great gesture to give the people in southern West Virginia a nice place to come play golf and let people see what can be done with some of this abandoned mine land,' Nicewonder said.
Nicewonder took his idea to Mingo Logan's parent, Arch Coal Inc., and to Norfolk Southern railroad subsidiary Pocahontas Land Corp., which had leased the land's mineral rights to Arch Coal.
The three parties agreed to contribute money from every ton of coal mined from the Low Gap mine. Work started in 1995 while mining was still going on. Mining at the course finished in 2001 but continues next to the site.
It took more than playing with a computer to bring Mark Nicewonder's first golf course design to fruition. The Houston man directed much of the work over the telephone.
'I'm in Texas, and I had a bunch of guys up there who didn't even play golf. Here I'm trying to tell them how to dump this material in there to make it look like a golf course,' he said. 'I spent hours and hours on the phone sometimes with some guys just trying to describe how I wanted some of the holes to look.'
Irrigation pipe was installed and coal wastes from a nearby preparation plant were hauled to the site and spread around. Subsoil was screened and laid 2 inches thick as the base for the grass.
'It was extremely tough because we didn't have much topsoil up there,' Mark Nicewonder said.
Reminders of the region's heritage are everywhere, from the faint hum of coal trucks at the working operations far below the No. 2 green to the flakes of coal in the bunkers.
A brown Norfolk Southern rail car sits to the left of the No. 5 green. Along the 14th tee, there's a red caboose.
Also standing out are the course's lack of trees - there's none. Planting them would have added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost.
'Some people say 'you've got to have trees.' They're just not used to playing golf in West Virginia without tree-lined views,' said Sam Wampler, the course's golf pro.
Having trees 'takes away from the effect of the open, links-style, wind-swept nature of the course,' he said.
That's where some environmentalists object.
Tens of thousands of acres of trees were destroyed during the mining process, and the golf course is simply a showcase for the companies, said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Lewisburg-based Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.
'It's like when the Russians took people to show them their beautiful village in the middle of mass desolation, and all you get to see is the beautiful village. That's exactly what's going on here,' said Lovett, a former golfer who filed the 1998 federal lawsuit that challenged mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.
In 1999, a federal judge agreed that the use of valley fills during mountaintop mining violated the federal Clean Water Act. The ruling was later overturned.
'They've destroyed so much land that looks nothing like that golf course, and they take people to the golf course. It's nothing but a ruse,' Lovett said.
Some might disagree when they see the wide fairways and the picturesque ninth and 18th holes, which come together in one massive, boomerang-shaped green fronted by a 2-acre lake with a fountain.
Elevation changes are noticed only on the elevated tee on the 11th hole and the gradual rise to the 17th green.
'I didn't want to make it hard because I knew the type of people that would be playing on it. So what I tried to do is make it demanding enough for a good golfer,' Mark Nicewonder said.
With many customers being coal miners, the course is packed on the weekends, but weekday golfers can find a tee time readily available.
Developers hope Twisted Gun will become part of a proposed state golf trail similar to one in Alabama. The West Virginia golf trail is still in the planning stages by the state Development Office.
West Virginia's other courses built on former coal mines are the private Pete Dye Golf Club in north-central West Virginia, which opened in 1995, and Scarlet Oaks Country Club near Charleston that opened in 1978.
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Spieth, McIlroy to support Major Champions Invitational
Nick Faldo announced Tuesday the creation of the Major Champions Invitational.
The event, scheduled for March 12-14, is an extension of the Faldo Series and will feature both male and female junior players at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla.
Jordan Spieth, Rory Mcllroy, Annika Sorenstam, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jerry Pate and John Daly have already committed to supporting the event, which is aimed at mentoring and inspiring the next generation of players.
“I’m incredibly excited about hosting the Major Champions Invitational, and about the players who have committed to support the event,” Faldo said. “This event will allow major champions to give something back to the game that has given them so much, and hopefully, in time, it will become one of the most elite junior golf events in the world.”
Rosaforte: Woods plays with Obama, gets rave reviews
Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reports on Tiger Woods’ recent round at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., alongside President Barack Obama.
Check out the video, as Rosaforte says Woods received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.
Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form
Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.
Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.
Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.
Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.
Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA.
New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.
Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.
Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.
Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.
Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.
Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions.
Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might
Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.
“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”
Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”
“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”
Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)
Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”
Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"
As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.
Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”