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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 2)

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.

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