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Playing Through A Revolution: Golf in Williamsburg

Historic Williamsburg's Latest Revolution Is Happening on the Links
Brian McCallen
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

More than 200 years after being unceremoniously ousted from America, the British may be getting a measure of revenge as one of their homegrown games invades a storied corner of southeastern Virginia. A slew of beautiful (but eminently challenging) courses have turned Colonial Williamsburg, a restored testament to the spirit of revolution, into one of the most complete golf destinations in the country.

When 11 courses and 17 lodging entities recently merged to create the Williamsburg Area Golf Association in what was once Britain's largest colony in the New World, they formed a golfer's paradise in this historic Tidewater region. Established resort courses, several of which adjoin earthen fortifications built by colonial troops to defend themselves against the Crown, have combined with several new daily-fee country club facilities, carved from the area's wooded uplands and ravines, to create a formidable lineup of golfing choices.

The Tidewater plain, sheltered from the Atlantic by the Chesapeake Bay, was the seat of a powerful planter society in the early years of the nation. In those days, the cash crop was a hybrid of native American and West Indian tobaccos. Today, the region's verdant green turf grass resembles the color of money. Back then, colonial society patterned its manners and accents on those of the English gentry. Today, what you'll generally hear is an unhurried Tidewater drawl.

After George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other patriots gathered here to forge the principles of democracy in the late eighteenth century, Williamsburg became a victim of neglect. By the 1920s, this former capital city had fallen into serious decline. Enter John D. Rockefeller Jr., who yearned to reconstruct the town and recall for future generations "the patriotism, high purpose, and unselfish devotion of our forefathers to the common good." Rockefeller assumed that it would be a mammoth project, telling an associate, "I'm going to see this project through even if it costs me $5 million." Four decades and $79 million later, the philanthropist and heir to an oil fortune had transformed historic Williamsburg into an incomparable outdoor civics lesson (see sidebar, page 265). With a number of travel attractions sprouting up around it, such as Busch Gardens, Water Country USA and several shopping outlets, Williamsburg has become the country's fourth most popular destination among motorists, according to the Automobile Association of America.

Until recently, the city's siren call tempted vacationing families and history buffs, not die-hard golfers. But with five new public-access venues opened in the past three years, and with several first-rate resort courses already in place, the Tidewater region has become a full-fledged golf getaway, equipped with the creature comforts necessary to restore famished, battle-weary players.

Curiously, the course most likely to rivet the attention of first-timers to the region is more evocative of a seaside British links than a wooded Tidewater course. Even the layout's name, Royal New Kent, was borrowed from England. According to Danny Young, president of Legends of Virginia, the company that developed the course, he and designer Mike Strantz, who ghosted many of Tom Fazio's finest designs in the 1980s, were checking out land owned by the Chesapeake Company (Virginia's largest landowner) in Providence Forge, 25 miles outside Williamsburg, when they happened upon a 250-acre parcel whose trees had been cut five years earlier. With no clearing costs to figure and with a generous roll to the terrain, the two recognized the scraggly site as the ideal spot on which to fashion a grand-scale links. And so, with Ballybunion in Ireland and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland as his models, Strantz set his imagination free on the cutover land, magnifying existing contours to create a hurly-burly course for the twenty-first century, an epic stage designed to drain the plaid from a player's knickers and (if he's trying to post a score) crack the lead in his pencil.

From any and every set of tees (there are at least five per hole), Royal New Kent seems like a point-of-no-return journey into an alien world. Massive dunes, planted with a wide array of fescues, frame fairways laid through bellied-out draws and ridges. These avenues of play are much wider than they appear from the tees, but who can tell the first time around? At the par-4 fourth hole, for example, a target rock on the side of a shaggy "dune" marks the way to a semiblind fairway that appears minuscule but is actually quite spacious. Strantz pockmarked the land with 134 deep bunkers, many of which were built in echelon to increase their dramatic effect. Lightning-fast, topsy-turvy greens nestle behind grassy knolls. The layout is tremendously wide, so there's plenty of airspace, and the slopes of the ridges (as is the British tradition) are long and flowing, pleasing the eye despite the turbulence of the landscape.

Like Alister Mackenzie, the legendary Scottish physician who was responsible for the creation of Cypress Point, Augusta National, Royal Melbourne and other exceptional courses that have greatly influenced the current generation of architects, Strantz is expert at making his holes appear tougher than they really are. "It is the successful negotiation of difficulties, or apparent ones, [my italics] which gives rise to pleasurable excitement and makes a hole interesting," wrote Mackenzie in his 1920 classic, Golf Architecture. But visual illusions are balanced by strong doses of reality at Royal New Kent. There's a seven-foot dip in front of the sixth green, and because many of the other greens are also severely contoured, there isn't a flat putt on the course. At the second hole, a sickle-shaped par-5, failed efforts to reach the green in two result in a plunge into hellish terrain far below fairway level.

A concerted effort is being made to re-create the atmosphere of the ancient game. There are plans to graze a flock of sheep near hand-stacked stone walls (that have been deliberately kicked over to create a look of antiquity) near the first and ninth holes. Furthermore, a kilted bagpiper will skirl his notes in the gloaming on selected days at Royal New Kent. Despite these valiant attempts, Royal New Kent remains a scruffy landlocked brute, with a raw beauty all its own, that bears no comparison to the genuine article. Unlike Royal County Down, there are no Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea to provide aesthetic respite from the demands of play. And unlike Ballybunion, there are no schools of dolphins frolicking at the mouth of the Shannon far below the fairways to leaven the scene. Here stunted trees, not the sea, frame the links. Then again, with no tall trees to screen the breeze, Royal New Kent has plenty of wind, a key component of links golf.

Strantz maintains: "I want a golfer, when he gets on every tee, to say 'Wow!' " But play the wrong set of tees for your ability level at Royal New Kent and you'll say "Ow." The Invicta (Latin for unconquerable) tees, at 7,291 yards, make the course the toughest in Virginia and one of the toughest in the South. Here's the drill just to play them: First, a handicap of five or less. Next, a driver's license left in care of the pro. Why? Because you don't get it back until you total a score and sign the scorecard for posterity. The back wall behind the future clubhouse bar will be posted with Invicta cards. Given the rigor of this newfangled links, most will be signed in blood and marked with bowling scores.


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