The Homegrown Par-3 on Naked Creek

To land this green at his backyard (and front- and side-) golf course, Lawrence Chiles has to clear the nearby tree and the garage.

Haven’t heard of Naked Creek Golf Course? In the wilds of Weyers Cave, it’s not a business, it doesn’t advertise and it can be easy to miss on 2 acres with a house in the middle and only four holes to play.

But those holes are of daunting design.

The man who did this to his back yard is Lawrence Chiles, 47, whose day job is school counselor for Staunton City Schools. With a handicap of +9, his average on 18 regulation holes is 81 and his record is 75. He’s not the bragging type, but he’s in the stratosphere of skill. He once scored a hole in one on a par 4, and at Naked Creek he’s scored two.

“He can drop the ball anywhere,” says frequent golfing partner J.T. Thornton.

On this day, Chiles is wearing his official Naked Creek Golf Course T-shirt and matching cap depicting a  broken tee. The creek burbles in the background, waiting to swallow errant shots. (To be clear: the Naked Creek Golf Course is a backyard endeavor, and is not open to the public).

Chiles is soft-spoken but voluble, with a near-constant smile. By nature, he’s always networking, so hundreds who’ve met him, on and off the job, have been invited to play.

“It can be such a privileged sport,” he says, “and often doesn’t include people who don’t have the resources to enjoy it.”

One of the greens is perilously close to the fence line.

He bought the place in 2006 and it took roughly two years to lay the basic course down, but he’s constantly tweaking it.

A pastor’s kid from Pennsylvania, he was first invited to play in his senior year of college.

“I said, ‘Ehhh, golf is for “those” people’.”

Now he’s a cosmopolitan golfer, playing courses in Virginia and surrounding states, picking up individual and group trophies.

He’ll play his own course, usually with Thornton, at least four times a week — year-round if weather allows. And the weather lately has been generous.

“I played out here on Christmas,” he says. “Wearing gloves.”

What do the neighbors think?

“I think they really like it,” he says. “It’s a way to build relationships.” Food or favors might be exchanged. With wayward balls sometimes crossing the property line, he might find a bag of balls returned over the fence.

The flags and greens can stop traffic.

“There will be a lot of people driving by, asking, ‘When can I get a tee time?’ ” For guests, there’s a “19th hole”: part of the garage that’s a weather shelter and a place to relax with snacks, a TV and an original Nintendo game.

Sometimes it’s just a party out on the lawn, with something to grill, a fire pit and maybe a football game projected onto a wall of the house.

To build the course, he consulted landscapers, course designers, nurseries, greenhouses, horticulturists, permaculture practitioners, friends and nearby farmers. He takes a “least invasive” approach.

“I wasn’t doing a ton of excavating or ramp manipulation. I was kind of using the undulations of the back yard that I had. So, you know, aerated, sanded and seeded.” One invisible feature is channeling rain so the course doesn’t puddle.

He’s now cultivating an “edible landscape,” with strawberries, blackberries, mulberries and pink-lemonade blueberries that golfers can pick as they go.

The first design feature you’ll encounter is that you must use only one club.

“You get to choose your weapon,” he says. “I prefer the 60-degree wedge. How about you, J.T.?”

“I use the sand wedge.”

Those clubs make for a lofty game, and of course they’re tricky to putt with.

Margin for error is tight on this fairway.

Fairways partly overlap. The holes range from 45 to 120 yards and are all par 3, officially, though Chiles himself finds that “pretty challenging.” Hazards include trees (such as black walnut, cedar, sycamore), tall grass, bunkers, hills, the creek and the fence line.

Hole 2 calls for lifting the ball over a spruce tree and the garage, where it’s supposed to drop on a green you can’t yet see, because it’s a dogleg. The facing wall of the garage has a window that so far has not been shattered.

Chiles aims to land on the green in one shot: “We’re gonna turn it left a little bit.”

On hole 3, you’ve got to shoot over the narrow gap between two trees, or though the low-lying canopy they create. It’s practically a tunnel, with the fairway as tight as 7 feet across, hemmed in by tall grass.

The greens are equally tricky. One may be tiny. Another may be choked with hazards, including the fence line, which it practically touches. Hole 1’s green is sloped like a San Francisco street. All the greens are a little bumpy because it would take a whole staff with constant care to produce something truly manicured. Realistically, he wants it to be “the best practice course” possible.

The creek is a hazard on several holes. Chiles has experimented with bridge building, using rocks or wood constructions that hopefully won’t get washed away — but have.

“The creek ebbs and flows,” he says. “When it’s high, I can’t even cross it. It’s ferocious.” Meanwhile, “I have a very friendly groundhog who set up house … built into the bank.”

For Sam, his 15-year-old son, the biggest challenge on the course is “making sure you hit it over the creek while not over in the cow field.” Sam’s sporting life is more soccer than golf.

For evening play, solar-powered lights illuminate the flags. Friends will donate glow-in-the-dark balls and light sticks.

Courtesy photo

The family’s two purebred boxers, Birdie and Romeo, create new hazards by digging fist-sized holes in the fairways. They’re looking for moles and sometimes deliver them at the front door.

But during a game, the dogs are more like caddies, tagging along or racing ahead. They also function as security patrol, chasing off the occasional black bear, fox, coyote, raccoon, skunk or deer. Copperheads are not welcome but black snakes are, being territorial.

As for maintenance, Chiles says, “My son is a HUGE help out here. He usually mows the fairways and the yard and I’ll take care of the greens, the weed eating, flowerbeds.”

To help flatten the greens, Chiles relies on the rear roller on his reel-type “old Amish” push mower, which he can set to trim grass to a half inch. His foot is also a handy flattening device.

Thornton once filled five trash cans with fallen walnuts.

“The outside layer of the black walnut disintegrates and will burn the grass,” he explains.

Chiles and his son flatten mole holes and tunnels by cupping the hands around each half of the hole and pressing inward and down, so the grass can maintain its integrity. Chiles doesn’t believe in heavily applying mole or weed killer.

What most impresses Sam is that his father has “been able to make the course better each year.”

Next year, Chiles plans to host the Naked Creek Open, a tournament for 15 or 20 friends. He’d also like to add solar, wind or hydropower (the creek) to run a sprinkler system.

Early morning or colorful sunsets are his favorite tee times.

With technology hijacking our lives, he’s happy to promote something to bring the senses alive, “like smelling when the rain is coming. I wanna get back to that.”

Golf “truly does mimic life:  facing challenges, promoting growth and success. This course here has been in some ways my therapy.”

Editor’s note: this story was updated on 6/3 to clarify that the course is not open to the public

Mike Grundmann is a retired JMU journalism professor who previously worked as a reporter and editor for eight California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. He has produced 10 award-winning documentaries.

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