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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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