WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — History surrounds me in this cradle of America. Everywhere I look, the past looks back. Over there is where an Indigenous village thrived 7,000 years ago. A few metres away is where Revolutionary and Civil War battles were fought. On the spot I’m standing next to the James River is where Virginia’s first settlers made landfall and declared, “This is paradise!”
Oh, did I mention I’m seeing all this while playing golf.
Many of Williamsburg’s amazing collection of championship golf courses are actually built on or around land where the first acts of America’s history were played out. Cart paths here truly do take golfers on a journey back in time.
Some of Williamsburg’s golf courses, in fact, are historic in their own right. Take Golden Horseshoe Golf Course, for example. The fabulous three-course complex located right in the heart of charming Williamsburg — America’s prettiest city — is the only one in the world designed jointly by the legendary father-son team of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Rees Jones.
And over at the beautiful Kingsmill Resort, home of the eye-popping gorgeous Pete Dye-designed River Course, where the LPGA Kingsmill Championship is played annually, is where I see several historic markers between the spectacular 17th and 18th holes outlining the above-mentioned events from the past.
Dare I say, these may be the most interesting finishing holes in American golf.
Above: The par 3s on the Gold Course at Golden Horseshoe are legendary in the golf world.
I get a sense of history as soon as I arrive at the first tee of Golden Horseshoe’s fabled Gold Course, which sits in the shadow of the landmark Williamsburg Inn, the grand dame of Virginia hotels which was built in 1937 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as part of the billionaire’s personal restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Rockefeller was also the man who hired Jones Sr. to design Spotswood in 1947, a course that golf publications have since christened “the best nine-hole course in the U.S.”
Jones The Elder then designed Golden Horseshoe’s Gold Course in 1963 — it has the best collection of par 3s in the world — while Jones The Younger created Horseshoe’s acclaimed Green Course and “touched up” his father’s Gold Course in 2009.
Is that not akin to Rembrandt’s son touching up his father’s "Night Watch" masterpiece, I ask Rees Jones in a phone interview later?
The question prompts a hearty laugh from the renowned golf architect and creator of some of the greatest courses in the world, his latest being the much talked about TPC Danzante (Dancer) Bay Course in Mexico. It’s perched on dramatic cliffs overlooking the Sea of Cortez north of Cabo san Lucas and now qualifies as one of the toughest challenges in golf. His Canadian designs include some of the country’s iconic courses, like Hamilton Golf and Country Club, London Hunt and Royal Montreal’s Blue Course.
“I kept true to my father’s original (Gold Course) design,” Rees Jones tells me of his makeover.
The Gold Course “touch up” involved Rees introducing modern turf grasses, new grass on the fairways, greens and surrounding roughs, and “Billy Bunkers” to improve the drainage, look and playability of the sand traps. At the same time, tees were re-levelled, resurfaced and reimagined.
The results are unreal.
“Dad and mom loved going to Williamsburg and dad used the Williamsburg forest to his advantage when designing the Gold Course. Dad was a real patriot and his Williamsburg designs meant a lot to him.”
Rees’s Green Course is every bit as famous as his father’s Gold Course, but far more forgiving. “It has wider corridors (fairways) for higher handicappers,” he tells me.
“The courses I design are all different. Every one has its own fingerprint. That’s the beauty of this game,” says Rees, who is currently working on projects in Japan and Korea.
Each hole on the Gold Course qualifies as a “signature hole” but it’s the four par 3s that sets this layout apart from all others. I haven’t seen a quartet this good since The Eagles.
While each par 3 — holes 3, 7, 12 and 16 — featurs an elevated tee and are surrounded by lots of natural eye candy (there’s not a home in sight, by the way), it’s the 16th that really leaves golfers stimulated and intimidated at the same time.
“This hole was the inspiration for every island green that came after it,” says Glen Byrnes, the Director of Golf and Recreation at The Colonial Williamsburg Company — it operates Golden Horseshoe — and my congenial playing partner.
Above: The final hole at Kingsmill is where a native village stood 7,000 years ago.
My knees begin to shake when I step into the tee box at the 159-yard 16th. The hole, guarded by a series of small bunkers on the outer perimeter, demands full concentration. There’s no room for error. If your shot doesn’t hold the green, it’s sure to find sand or water. Yikes!
Hole locations are very important here. So you better hope the greenskeeper is in a generous frame of mind the day you play.
The Gold Course’s other par 3s are no less challenging:
No. 3, 174 yards: Watch out for the small bunker guarding the right front edge, but if you go long, the deeper bunker at the back may swallow your shot, too.
No. 7, 186 yards: The tee sits high on a bluff and a trio of bunkers guard a two-tier green. Good luck!
No. 12, 169 yards: A pond that runs along the entire front and right side leave little margin for error.
My totally enjoyable round on the Gold Course ends with the superb par 4,18th — the sharp left dog leg sweeps down to a small creek that runs in front of the charming new clubhouse, whose design stays true to this town’s Colonial surroundings.
Byrnes tells me that when Rees Jones finished “touching up” the Gold Course, he took his father on a tour and Byrnes and others followed behind. While no one knows what was said between the Elder and Younger, Byrnes reports Jones Sr. had a smile on his face during the tour.
The Jones’ Gold Course makes everyone who plays it smile.
While in Williamsburg, I use Kingsmill Resort as my base. It’s Virginia’s answer to Pinehurst Resort, complete with lodge and townhouse-style accommodation built with golf groups in mind. Kingsmill, which sits a few kilometres from the centre of Williamsburg, also offers some fine dining options. The main room, Elements 1010, presents local fare with a haute cuisine flare, while Eagles, located in the sprawling clubhouse complex, and Maurizio's Italian Restaurant are more casual rooms.
The main reason you come to Kingsmill, though, is for golf and there are few resorts in North America that can equal Kingsmill’s two outstanding courses.
The Pete Dye River Course, thanks to its association with the LPGA Tour, is the television star at Kingsmill but the Arnold Palmer-designed Plantation is equally impressive, and just like the man who created it, is a friendly place to play. I suggest you play the forgiving 5,978-yard Plantation before taking on Dye’s demanding 6,326-yard River Course, every centimetre of which is spectacular.
The River Course is truly a thinking man’s golf course and you better have a high IQ if you hope to do well here. Dye’s design genius is on display from start to finish, and wow, what a finish. The 16th, 17th and 18th are one of the best closing acts in golf and history buffs will feast on the events that happened in this small area of the golf course over the centuries.
The par-4 16th, at just 269 yards, may look small but it packs a big punch to the gut if your tee shot gets swallowed up in the long bunker that runs down the right side of the fairway. Even if you stay out of trouble off the tee, the two deep bunkers guarding the sunken green will challenge your approach shot accuracy.
The par-3, 178-yard 17th is singled out as the River Course’s signature hole because of the great views of the James River and the history that surrounds it. Suffice to say it’s a beauty but no better looking than the neighbouring 16th and 18th, in my opinion.
Above: All the courses in the Williamsburg area feature pristine conditions that make them among the best in the U.S.
Speaking of the 18th, off the tee box is where archaeologists found remnants of that 7,000-year-old Indigenous village. Sacred ground indeed, but these days it’s making golf history by being recognized as one of the best finishing holes on the LPGA Tour.
The large bunker sitting in the middle of the fairway is a visual distraction for most amateurs but the pros have little problem with it. A pond that sweeps down the length of the hole and behind the small, sloped green is the real challenge here.
What a thrilling end to a thrilling day of golf at Kingsmill.
While in the area, you might want to check out Williamsburg National’s two excellent courses; the 6,446-yard Jack Nicklaus-designed Jamestown Course — very playable — and the 6,415-yard Yorktown Course designed by Tom Clark. Both offer great value for the greens fees and are more suited to vacationing golfers who are not looking to be overly challenged.
The Kiskiack course, about an hour’s drive outside Williamsburg, is another Virginia gem that offers a stunning undulating landscape bordered by a conservation area and a hardwood forest.
As I stand on the first tee looking out on the rippling fairways that look like green waves, I find it hard to believe that this 175-acre site was a former quarry.
Opened in 1997, Kiskiack is getting better with age and at about $65 a round, offers one of the best values in American golf.
The player-friendly course, deigned by award-winning golf architect John LaFoy, will test every part of your game and rewards good shots while punishing those who take on too much risk. And with two lakes coming into play on many of the well-crafted holes, golfers are forced to make some tough decisions.
There’s no better example of that than the risk-reward 18th. You can go for eagle if you clear a lake off the tee — a 250-yard drive is required — or play it safe with a layup and still have a chance at birdie.
Before you get to 18, though, there’s some wonderful stretches on the back nine — the toughest part of this course — and it starts with the signature par-3, 11th. There’s water from tee to green on this 177-yard beauty and a small green, with bunkers at the back, requires accuracy from start to finish.
You get a break on holes 12 through 14 but a deep ravine and the hardwood forest that borders these holes will test your shot making abilities.
Golf is now making history in Virginia thanks to this collection of golf courses. •