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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.

Eight miles away a sister development, Stonehouse Golf Club, sets an entirely different stage for the game. The openness of New Kent is replaced by a more traditional frame--namely tall pines and hardwoods, their understory of dogwoods and mountain laurel splashed with color in spring. Stonehouse has defined corridors of play, and a sense of containment despite the grand scale. Even Strantz admits that golfers are more comfortable with this look. Fairways hopscotch deep ravines or sidle up to small ponds near beaver-gnawed trees. Greens cling to sheer bluffs or perch above spring-fed creeks. From any set of tees, golf at Stonehouse is a giddy experience. With its abrupt 70-foot elevation changes, the heaving site reminds Strantz of a mountain course, minus the surrounding mountains.

Opened last June and already in terrific shape, Stonehouse offers the sternest examination of golfing skills imaginable from the gold tees at 6,963 yards (par is 71), with no letup from first tee to 18th green. Architects, like musicians, generally strive for ebb and flowin their compositions, interweaving tough holes with breather holes to balance high and low notes. But not Strantz. With 18 showstoppers, each vying to be more dramatic and titillating than the next, Stonehouse is a four-and-a-half-hour crescendo. Is there a risk of sensory overload? "Do you look at a painting and say, 'It's too good?'" Strantz, himself a painter, inquires.

And indeed, Stonehouse can be likened to a giant museum with 18 stunning works. There is a sculptural quality to the holes, and that is by design. Strantz, who likes to deeply incise his bunkers into the sides of hills and ridges, says that "cutting a golf course into the land gives a more natural look than piling dirt onto existing land," the usual way of creating mounds and other features. Fairways are imbedded in the terrain at Stonehouse, the enormous greens often recessed into large bowls. Best of all, each hole is different from the next. Each presents an appealing problem to solve. Mackenzie believed there are few first-rate holes that are not, at the same time, "either in the grandeur of their undulations and hazards, or the character of their surroundings, beautiful holes." From start to finish, Stonehouse, which calls for heroic carries over impressive hazards, is a knockout. No course in eastern Virginia can match its wild beauty.

Strantz displays his ingenuity early in the round. At the par-4 second hole, there's a choice of two tee locations. The first calls for a long carry over two gaping sand pits. The second set is more straightforward and less perilous. The target is a turtleback green that's so large, there's a sprinkler head at its center. Similarly, the 399-yard fifth (all yardage quotes are from the black tees, which measure 6,551 yards) has a tee configuration shaped like a wishbone. The tough tees are tucked to the right, with the easier angle of attack on the left. The short par-5 seventh, a double dogleg that skirts the top of a ridge, brims with risk-reward options for bold and meek players alike. However, aggressive players who go for the gusto are generally rewarded--if they can produce a succession of near-perfect shots. Nothing ventured, nothing gained at Stonehouse.

The back nine builds in interest, culminating in three fascinating holes at the finish. Play it too cozy on your approach at the 346-yard 16th, and your ball slides down the giant lolling tongue appended to the front of the green, sometimes all the way down the fairway into deep, waiting bunkers. The tee shot at the stunning par-3 17th is played from one ridge top to another. The 65-yard-deep green is a velvet blanket of swales crowning a hill terraced with laurel and holly. As one-shotters go, the 17th is world-class.

The 431-yard 18th (453 yards from the gold tees) could decide a major championship--or at the very least a hotly contested money match. The enormously broad fairway, wider than a football field is long, invites one and all to take a big rip, though great care must be taken with the approach. The green here teeters on the brink of a steep ledge with bunkers fore and aft. In time, a churning 20-foot-high waterwheel will serve as a backdrop to the putting surface. Beyond it will be an open-air deck and 19th-hole bar, the perfect place for a peanut gallery. Not that this hole needs any window dressing.

The key to good golf course architecture is bringing a piece of property to life, and Strantz, who spends a lot of time in the dirt and works on one project at a time, has succeeded magnificently at Stonehouse and Royal New Kent, both of which have taken their place among the finest daily-fee courses in the East since their debut last summer. Herbert Warren Wind, the dean of American golf writers, once wrote that the "ideal practitioner [of golf course architecture] needed to have the soul of an artist, the brain of an engineer, and the heart of a golfer." Strantz fits the bill.

Well-traveled golfers crave variety on and off the links, and only in a few rare places (California's Monterey Peninsula, for example) are the off-course attractions and amenities a match for the manicured turf. With a good range of accommodations, Williamsburg has resorts and hostelries to please all comers. There is, however, a standout property that is often described as the most beautifully appointed small hotel in America. This is the Williamsburg Inn, a noble edifice of whitewashed brick modeled on nineteenth century spa resorts in Red Sweet Springs, West Virginia. Its perfection is no accident. Its benefactor, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was a stickler for detail. A typical memo from Rockefeller to the building's architects in 1935 advised: "Careful brooding study of every detail of a bedroom, particularly when small, is in my experience the only way in which to get a completely satisfying result. I shall not be happy to go forward with the Williamsburg Inn until I feel that the most possible has been made of each room as regards comfort, convenience, and charm."

Present-day guests are the beneficiaries of his unstinting thoroughness. For example, each of the inn's 96 individually decorated rooms has pillows of two consistencies (firm and soft) on the beds. The inn's public rooms, scented by bayberry candles, are dignified and impressive in their simplicity of design. The color scheme of the carpets echoes the tranquil green outdoors, with period-style festoons and pleated frills at the side windows. The style of Regency furniture is typified by the settee in the center of the lobby: its symmetrical open back invites a visitor's eye into the lobby and through it to the inn's flagstone patio, where tall oaks and elms shade stone planters brimming with colorful flowers. Greens maintained for lawn bowling and croquet lie beyond. This same scene is visible through the French doors of the inn's elegant Regency Room, which for flawless continental cuisine must be counted among the nation's finest resort dining rooms. (Hans Schadler, the inn's executive chef, has declined several offers to join the White House culinary staff. Small wonder that nine U.S. presidents and innumerable world leaders have stayed and dined at the inn.)

The Williamsburg Inn is associated with the Golden Horseshoe Golf Courses. The Gold Course, a Robert Trent Jones masterpiece, occupies a 125-acre arboretum of fruit trees and hardwoods spliced with gullies, ravines and ponds just beyond the south terrace of the inn. It is, by popular consensus, one of the finest compact layouts ever built. Its resistance to scoring is legendary: the record of 67 for the par-71 course was set by Jack Nicklaus during an exhibition in 1967, four years after the course opened. Indeed, only supremely assured (and accurate) players trod the "Shoe" with confidence.

The Gold's quartet of par-3s, each with water in play, is especially memorable. Best known is the 16th, where the tee shot is played from a leveled slot in a wooded hillside to a large, pear-shaped green that beckons from the middle of a lake. Far more terrifying is the seventh, its back tee located on a high bluff overlooking a flooded ravine. The skewed green, severely tilted from back to front and well defended by bunkers, nestles in a hillside slightly above tee level. It's a daunting prospect from the tips at 207 yards, and no picnic from the white tees at 165 yards.

Virtually untouched since its debut, the Gold closed on May 19 for a $4.5 million makeover by Rees Jones, the master's younger son. The refurbished course will reopen in July 1998. Because "the tailor cut a good suit," says Jones of his father's handiwork, the changes will be largely cosmetic.

Just around the corner from the Gold is the Green Course, a Rees Jones design opened six years ago that fits its setting hand in glove. The scheduled site of the 1998 Senior Women's Amateur, the Green was carved from 240 acres of virgin timberland. The quality of the course is in its framing: towering beech, oak and pine trees line broad, dished-out fairways outlined by subtle mounds designed to rein in stray drives. The land here is every bit as rugged as that on the Gold, but there's much more of it. And where the Gold Course plays across draws from ridge to ridge, resulting in roller-coaster fairways, the Green is a combination of ridge and valley holes. Four sets of staggered tees (from 7,120 yards to 5,348 yards) give everyone a chance to enjoy this gorgeous layout, but par is well defended by six water holes, large slick greens and twice as many bunkers as there are on the Gold.

Kingsmill Resort, a sprawling 2,900-acre property on the mile-wide James River, is home to two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, a native Virginian who can often be seen honing his stroke on the practice putting green or, more likely, fishing near a mothballed fleet of warships at the mouth of the James.

There are three full-size courses at the resort as well as a charming nine-hole par-3 layout called the Bray Links. The River Course, site of the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, a PGA Tour event, is an ungimmicky Pete Dye creation dating to 1975. Regardless of ability level, traveling golfers have a weakness for TV tournament courses. Unfortunately, most are too difficult for the average duffer. Not so the River. From the blue tees, at 6,022 yards, this strategic gem, routed on rolling ground crisscrossed by gullies and ravines, provides a firm but not overbearing challenge despite its tiny, perched greens and pot bunkers buttressed with railroad ties. There is good balance and variety among the holes, which reach their climax on the back nine at the splendid 138-yard 17th (177 yards for the pros), a beguiling par-3 that parallels the James. Golfers play from a hilltop tee adjoining an earthen fortification (built by colonial patriots) to a long, slender green fully 40 yards deep that was carved from the side of a hill. Tee shots pushed to the right tumble down the slope of this hill to a saving bunker above the bank of the river. The 17th is very intimidating in a crosswind, a fact not lost on the pros, who typically bail out to the high ground on the left when the breeze is brisk. At the par-4 18th, walk back to the gold tee to see what a different game the big boys play. Here the drive must carry the widest part of Moody's Pond to reach the fairway, which bends to the left up a hill to a green severely sloped from back to front. Even from the shorter blue tees, par is a very good score at 18.

The River is a solid, Tour-worthy test, but Kingsmill's most appealing layout is the Woods Course, a Tom Clark-Curtis Strange collaboration opened three years ago on a rugged, pristine site free of housing. Hand-cleared to preserve its mature beech and oak trees, the Woods is a 6,784-yard charmer that tiptoes around deep ravines, meanders through rolling woodlands, and skirts a few lakes and wetlands. The fairways stretch nearly to the tree lines, enhancing play-ability. As at Augusta National, the rough is cut short, which saves the bother of hunting for stray balls in long grass.

Among the feature holes are the clever, risk-reward par-5s. At the fifth, a tall tree was left close to center, 125 yards from the green. The safe route is to the right; the perilous line is to the left over a 60-foot-deep chasm to a shallow green. The shorter 16th is even more tantalizing--the tree is shorter, the green bigger, the ravine not as deep. Still, only an unerring shot finds the mark. Then there's the 493-yard 13th, its green guarded by a lake that doubles as the Rhine River attraction in nearby Busch Gardens. (The distant clackety-clack of a roller coaster and faint squeals of delight from its riders can be heard on the back nine.) But for sheer fun, golfers have the best of it on the Woods Course, which may provide Williamsburg's most pleasurable outing. After the round, drop by the Pettus Grille at the golf clubhouse for the freshest Budweiser available--Kingsmill is owned by Anheuser-Busch, which makes its suds nearby.

For a country-club-style experience in what one early governor of the Virginia colonies called "the goodliest, most pleasing territory of the world," Ford's Colony, a 36-hole complex with a third 18 in the works, is the ideal choice. A semiprivate club and residential community that permits outside play, Ford's Colony manicures its layouts to perfection and, according to designer Dan Maples, was "built with championship qualities capable of challenging the skills of any pro, but without taking away from an amateur's enjoyment."

The White-Red 18, which Maples completed from his father Ellis' routing in 1985, is the slightly better of the two courses. There's a superior variety of holes and interesting elevation changes. The layout starts out flat and watery before rolling through lush woodlands on the back nine. The greens, many of them canted from front to back and subtly contoured, are invariably pinched by flashed-face bunkers. Accurate approaches must be played in return for par. The Blue-Gold combination provides an honest, traditional, straightforward test on a tamer but more watery canvas. Both courses were designed to please the membership, which means they can be played day in and day out without risk of boredom. And because most of the patrons are familiar with the holes and their quirks, play moves briskly at Ford's Colony.

The other options in town are Williamsburg National, a pleasant, modest layout opened in 1995, and The Colonial Golf Course, another newcomer, with six holes set along the Mill Creek tidal marsh. The most picturesque hole on the Colonial course is the sixth, an alluring par-3 that calls for a full-blooded carry over a marsh to an elevated, well-bunkered green plagued by fiendish winds. It's a winner. But then, so is every golfer who finds his way to Williamsburg.

Brian McCallen is a senior editor at GOLF Magazine and author of Golf Resorts of the World (Abrams). Tidewater Temptations

The Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg comprises 173 acres of gardens and landscaped greens as well as nearly 500 reconstructed or restored buildings, populated by costumed interpreters and craftspeople. Everyone from blacksmiths and wigmakers to coopers and milliners ply their trade. It's a very convincing time warp.

Adjacent to the colonial settlement is the College of William and Mary, chartered in 1693 and the second-oldest college in the United States. Thomas Jefferson attended. Classes are still held in the Wren Building, designed by England's most famous architect, Christopher Wren.

Next to Kingsmill is Busch Gardens, a theme park patterned after "The Old Country." Set in eight European-style villages, Busch Gardens is a family-oriented entertainment center with musical revues, live shows, attractions and exhibits. For thrill-seekers, there's a roller coaster called the Loch Ness Monster that hurtles riders through double-looping corkscrews.

On hot days (summers can be sultry in Williamsburg), visitors can shoot the rapids or catch a wave in Surfer's Bay (a giant concrete "ocean") at Water Country USA. Handicappers can drop by Colonial Downs, Virginia's first horsetrack, which was scheduled to open in June.


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