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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