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Quick - for one million dollar's worth of golf balls - the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, is named for whom? Ten seconds. No, it is not William the Conqueror. Nine ... No, it is not William Tell. Seven seconds ... No, not William Shakespeare. Five ... Sorry, no, it's not Patty Berg. (Patty Berg?) Three ... Ted Williams? No. One second ... Venus Williams? No. Time's up! The city of Williamsburg is named for King William III, ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. Yeah, right: that was your next guess. Originally settled in 1632 and known as "Middle Plantation," the settlement was renamed "Williamsburg" in 1699 and from that point until 1780 it was the capital of the colony of Virginia. What's all that have to do with golf? Actually, more than you think. In nearby Norfolk and Northampton counties, more than a few resident death records from the 1600s to the 1700s listed "goff clubs, golfe stickes and balls" as part of the estates' inventories. What that clearly indicates is that somebody was teeing-it-high-and-letting-it-fly in Virginia long before some unknown golfer was doing the same thing in South Carolina in the 1740s - arguably, the earliest accepted date for golf in America. It also indicates that somebody knew good "gowlfing ground" when they saw it. And you know what? It's still that way around Williamsburg today.
One of the best and most famous layouts in the area is the Gold Course at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. Designed by revered architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and opened in 1963, the Gold is one of those rare "older" courses that have withstood the test of time and the advances in equipment technology. Obviously in agreement is Golf Digest, which recently named it the 7th best layout in Virginia. Mr. Jones was clearly pleased with his work as well; he once called the Gold Course his "finest design." Considering the fact that he had a hand in the design of over 400 courses in America and around the world, that's high praise indeed. But it's also worthy. From the tips, the Gold Course maxes out at a very manageable 6,817 yards (three other tees are available). It's tight in places, however, the greens are small, and there's more than a bit of water to worry about - especially on the par 3s, a better set you'd be hard-pressed to find. Not too surprisingly, though (since many of Trent's courses are known for their difficulty), his son Rees was brought in not long ago to make the Gold a tad more playable for less-gifted golfers. Now everybody can enjoy it - low and high handicappers alike. Rees also designed the Golden Horseshoe's Green Course, a longer but wider layout that he did in 1991 (the resort boasts the only father/son-designed duo in America). Somewhat of a links-style layout set on similar rolling terrain as the Gold, the Green Course is much more open and forgiving - although by no means a pushover. Four sets of tees are offered, with the furthest markers measuring 7,120 yards.
Excellent accommodations in the area, by the way, include the Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge, Providence Hall, Governor's Inn, and the Woodlands Hotel & Suites. Among your many choices for delicious dining are the clubhouse grills at both Golden Horseshoe courses, the Regency Room at the Williamsburg Inn, the King's Arms Tavern, Shields Tavern and Christiana Campbell's Tavern (reportedly one of George Washington's favorites).
Equally as popular as the courses at Golden Horseshoe are the three at Kingsmill Resort. The most famous layout - one you've no doubt seen on TV - is the River Course, long-time site of the Michelob Championship on the PGA Tour, and now the annual venue for the Michelob Ultra Open on the LPGA Tour. Designed by "Mr. Dye-abolical" himself (Pete Dye) and opened in 1975, the River Course definitely offers the kind of challenge you'd expect from a championship layout. While not necessarily long by today's standards (6,853 yards from the furthest of its four tees), the River Course is tight, tough and demanding - particularly the final three holes. Sixteen and eighteen are sturdy par fours of at least 450 yards from the back tees; the 180-yard par-three 17th runs right along a bank that leads down to the beautiful James River. Keep it left, Larry.
The second course to be built at Kingsmill - the Plantation Course - opened in 1986. The work of Arnold Palmer and his long-time collaborator, Ed Seay, the Plantation is much more player-friendly than the one designed by Mr. Die (sorry, that's Dye). It offers wide fairways, large greens (although with lots of slopes), and it's only 6,543 yards from the tips. Kingsmills' third layout - opened in 1995 - is the Woods Course, co-designed by architect Tom Clark and two-time U.S. Open champion (and Virginia native) Curtis Strange. (Good thing they decided not to name each course after its designer, huh? The "Strange Course" just wouldn't work.). A beautiful parkland-style layout that features rolling terrain and plenty of trees, the 6,784-yard Woods Course is a bit longer than the Plantation but just as enjoyable. And the large double green that you'll find here, with a big bunker in the middle, is definitely one-of-a-kind. (Or should that be "two-of-a-kind"?)
For sure, three-of-a-kind is a good way to describe your choices at Ford's Colony Country Club because credit for the trio here goes to architect Dan Maples. In truth, though, the oldest course at Ford's Colony - Marsh Hawk - is a composite of the original nine holes (built by his dad Ellis, son of Frank Maples, Donald Ross's long-time maintenance foreman at Pinehurst) and nine additional holes that Dan designed. Opened in 1986, Marsh Hawk is a very pretty and very playable layout that measures 6,738 yards from the back tees. Choose your tees wisely, however, because water is in play on 13 of the 18 holes. Shorter (but with an equal amount of water features) is Blackheath, the second course to be built at Ford's Colony (1999). Due to its length (only 6,621 yards from the furthest of its four tees) and exceptionally wide fairways, Blackheath would definitely be a good way to warm up before you take on the Marsh Hawk course and the even longer Blue Heron course here. While not brutally long (6,873 yards from the tips), Blue Heron is clearly the most challenging of the three courses at Ford's Colony. Water is in play on 13 of the 18 holes, and its par-threes are particularly testing - in fact, some visitors claim they're as good as the set to be found on the Gold Course at Golden Horseshoe. Visitors heap high praise on the food at Ford's Colony, too. And no wonder. The Dining Room at the facility is the only country club restaurant to ever achieve the AAA's prestigious "Five Diamond Award" - and it did so eight years in a row.
Somewhat surprisingly - since Virginia is such a great place to tee it up - the only course in the state that has the name "Nicklaus" attached to it is Williamsburg National Golf Club, located mere minutes from most of the city's hotels. A collaborative effort by members of the Golden Bear's design team, Williamsburg National opened in 1995 to rave reviews. Golf Digest, in fact, almost immediately named it one of "the top 10 places to play in Virginia." The combination of a fairly flat front nine and a more rolling and hilly back nine provides a nice variety of stances and shots. It's also pretty lengthy, measuring 6,953 yards from the furthest of its four sets of markers. And if you know Nicklaus, it's probably a good idea to work on your fade before you get here.
A golf trip to Colonial country, however, would not be complete without a visit to the beautiful Virginia countryside as well - and a great place to start is Kiskiack Golf Club just a few miles from Williamsburg. Designed by John LaFoy and opened in 1997, Kiskiack is a very pretty layout that measures 6,778 yards from the back tees (three others are available). Ron Whitten, the highly respected architecture editor for Golf Digest, once described Kiskiack as "the sort of course you wish you had in your hometown." By that he probably meant fun, fair and challenging, because Kiskiack is all of those things - and more. Mr. Whitten also used "pleasant" and "quiet" to describe Kiskiack. "Friendly" works as well. The fairways here are wide; some are even banked on both sides to help escort errant tee shots away from trouble. The greens are pretty big, too, which helps make them easier to hit. Don't be misled, however. The one word that doesn't describe this golf course is "simple." Those large putting surfaces, for example, have more than a little bit of undulation on them. And if their speed is up, well, three-putting could be as common a sight as a colonial hat in Williamsburg. Plus, there are woodlands, wetlands and water hazards to contend with. "Enjoyable" is another good word for Kiskiack, but "easy" isn't. Sounds like a "must play," doesn't it? Yep.
Three more tracts to think about in the Williamsburg area can be found just off I-64 to the northwest. The Tradition at Stonehouse in Toano, and The Tradition at Royal New Kent in Providence Forge, are Mike Stranz designs that opened in 1996 and 1997, respectively. If you've never played a Mike Stranz course you should, if for no other reason than to say that you've experienced his very interesting and often controversial work. In most cases, his golf courses have two things in common: they're very different looking and very difficult. Stonehouse, for example, has a back tee rating of 75.0 and a slope rating of 140. Royal New Kent is pretty tough, too (74.9/144). Those are high numbers, Nancy, and no doubt an indication of the high scores that might be posted if you take on a Stranz layout from the tips. Other commonalities at Stonehouse and Royal New Kent (rated the 6th best course in the state by Golf Digest) include blind shots, deep bunkers, forced carries and large, fast, undulating greens. But then, that might just be what you're looking for in a golf course. If so, you will not want to miss Stonehouse and Royal New Kent. Love them or hate them, for sure you will not forget them.
Speaking of Strange (pun intended), the other course to play in Providence Forge is the one Curtis designed in 2001 - the Golf Club at Brickshire. "The Brick," as the locals call it, is not nearly as hard as the nickname implies. In fact, "player friendly" is probably a better description - and the reason it has become so popular in such a short time. (That, and its very affordable green fees.) Set on a parcel of rolling terrain that offers fairly dramatic elevation changes, Brickshire's hallmarks include wide fairways, gently undulated putting surfaces, wetlands, water and centuries old trees. Rather interestingly, this golf course also includes tributes to four of Curtis's favorite holes from around the world. The shortish first hole at Brickshire, for example, is the former U.S. Open champion's homage to the short par-four 3rd at Augusta National. At the 7th you'll find his nod to the par-four 11th at Pinehurst No. 2. On the tee at the 9th, you'll swear you're looking down the fairway of the par-five 14th on the Old Course at St. Andrews. And at the 11th, you'll be tempted to grip it and rip it just like the pros do when they're playing the short par-four 10th at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. While the other fourteen holes at Brickshire won't be as familiar, without a doubt you'll find them just as much fun to play. After all, a good time is what this golf course - and golf in Williamsburg - is all about.