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This article originally provided by The Herald-Dispatch

June 25, 2006

Twisted Gun turns coal mine to gold mine

by David Walsh
The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON -- Jonathan Clark, head pro at Sleepy Hollow Golf Club in Hurricane, W.Va., kept hearing over and over from club members and friends about how good Twisted Gun Golf Club was.

Last October, Clark got to see what the fuss was all about when he finally made it to Twisted Gun to lead Sleepy Hollow in the West Virginia Club Team Championship. Regardless of season, the drive to the course in Mingo County is a challenge, to say the least. After his initial sojourn, Clark had no complaints.

"People kept telling me how good it was," he said. "I couldnt believe it until I saw it for the first time. It was better than I thought it would be. Its a gold mine waiting for people to play."

Twisted Gun, which is located in Wharncliffe (Gilbert is seven miles away), opened to the public in August 2002. Due to the steep terrain of the surrounding area, the 7,015-yard, links-style course is the only 18-hole facility in a three-county region. Being two miles up a mountain, winds often kick up to create even more havoc.

"I loved playing that course," said Clark, a former standout golfer at Marshall who shot a 3-under-69 to help Sleepy Hollow to a one-shot victory over the team from Guyan Golf and Country Club (301-302). "Its fair for everybody. I had 18 members go there once, and they loved it. The hardest part is the drive to get there, but Ive never heard anything bad about the course itself."

Course designer Mark Nicewonder said in an Associated Press story 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," to come up with Twisted Gun.

The miles leading up to the former Low Gap mountaintop mining site in Mingo County used to consist of a curvy, muddy road and a coal truck or two. Now, players can make the uphill drive to the parking lot where they see a stark contrast -- rolling green terrain, meadows, rock walls and wetlands.

Mountaintop removal has gotten its share of negative publicity, but whats been done at Twisted Gun is a "wonderful reclamation of that piece of property," said Danny Fisher, executive director of the West Virginia Golf Association.

"It best exemplifies what West Virginia coal operators can do," he said. "They really overcame that hurdle. Its a miracle not that they built a course but the quality of course they built. It speaks for itself. Its well-maintained, accessible to the public, and rates are reasonable. Value wise, its well worth the drive."

In addition to the Club Team Championship, the WVGA held Mid-Amateur and West Virginia Open qualifiers at Twisted Gun last May. Harold Payne shot a 1-under 71 to win the Mid-Am qualifier. He was the only player to break par.

Ken Lacy, pro at Logan Country Club, and Ed Morrison Jr. of Huntington each posted 75s to tie for medalist honors in the Open qualifier. This year, the WVGA will conduct a Senior Series event at the course. Juniors will experience the heights as well when the TopFlite Junior Tour visits on June 23.

Twisted Gun is one of only a few courses in the nation built on a former mountaintop mine -- another is StoneCrest Golf Course two hours away in Prestonsburg, Ky.

"Land (hills) is a hurdle to having more great courses," Fisher said. "But if people are resourceful, creative and aggressive, this is the type of product we can have. This might spin off other ideas."

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.

Pat Carter of Huntington, who shot 71 on his first visit to Twisted Gun and 73 in the Club Team event, said the course has many quality features. Carter, winner of a record 10 straight West Virginia Amateur titles and 11 overall, should know, as he has played many quality layouts during his travels around the United States.

"A terrific layout in great condition," he said. "Its new in developing and a little rough around the edges. My very first time I was pleasantly surprised at what I did. Its a very fair course."

Don Nicewonders Premium Energy Corp. was a contractor for Mingo Logan Coal Co. to operate the Low Gap mine. He took his golf idea to Mingo Logans parent, Arch Coal Inc., and to Norfolk Southern railroad subsidiary Pocahontas Land Corp., which had leased the lands 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.

Reminders of the regions 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, theres a red caboose. Players have unobstructed views of ridges in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Lee Harold, member at Spring Valley Country Club, played the course for the first time earlier this month.

"The hardest part is the drive there," he said. "The layouts great. You cant spray the ball. If you do, you wont find it. I kept knocking the ball over greens and couldnt believe it. I said I liked it, and I would go back."

As for the rail car and red caboose on the course, Harold said, "Where else would you put them?"

Visitors right away see 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.

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.

"Its a different style course. You have an awesome finish," Fisher said of the view around the ninth and 18th greens. "What more could you want?"

 

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