Fans lucky enough to secure a seat behind the 17th will have a great view of the hole and the James River at Kingsmill Resort's River Course.
The River Course at Kingsmill is everything you would expect of a professional golf tour stop. It is in terrific shape, and not nearly as good as it will be in a month when the LPGA makes its stop for the Michelob Ultra Open. You may recall the PGA used the course for 22 years as its local tour stop. In 1994, Pete Dye renovated his own original design, adding new fairway bunkers and softening some of the harder edges on and around the greens.
From the blue tees at 6,300 yards, the course rating is a modest 70.9 with a slope of 133, which seemed a little inflated for the routing. The comparables from the gold tees, at 6,800, are 73.3 and 138. Distance counts for a lot at the River Course, and when the blue tees were back near the gold tees, the holes played much tougher.
Kingsmill must have spent a fortune in over-seeding its courses last fall because everything was green and near lush, including the rough, which was close to tournament length. The greens were smooth but very difficult to read; Dye's typical mounding around the greens made it seem as if putts broke away from them, but looks were often deceiving.
There wasn't a bad hole in the 18, and a few memorable ones. The 17th, the par 3 that runs along the James River, is about what you see on TV - treacherous right of the green and nasty to the left (nasty is better than treacherous). The 15th, a benignly distanced par 5 at just 473 yards, requires that you thread the needle off the tee between one trap left and four at right. If you make the go zone, a deep ravine awaits, covering the entire right half of the fairway in front of the narrow green. Left and front of the green almost guarantees a par, if not a birdie; the ravine leads to bogey or worse.
We were restricted to cart path only, and one ranger told us he expects it to be that way right up until the LPGA arrives. I'm sure the course will close in the next two weeks as the heavy resort play has left many divots in the fairways.
I had the pleasure of playing the round with Chuck Coe, a self-described "rug merchant" from Maryland and a member of the Bethesda Golf Club. We had a great conversation during the round and at lunch about golf, family and exercise (Chuck was quite articulate about how yoga has helped him regain and maintain flexibility and improved his golf game after serious shoulder and knee surgeries). Yes, it's fun to go away with your buddies for a week of golf, but one of the glories of the game is the match-up with total strangers who, for four hours at least, turn out to be good friends. Thanks Chuck.
Modern art: From the tee at #5, the stream, bunker and mounding form parallel lines around the smallish green.
Chuck Coe of Maryland played some excellent golf and was great company.
Click here to sign up for our Free monthly newsletter, loaded with helpful information and observations about golf communities and their golf courses.
Yesterday I noted that I have lost significant distance off the tee since last year, maybe 20 yards, and I am about one club shorter with my irons. I know it is the lack of shoulder turn, the result largely of advancing age and sedentary habits. Still, I had my best score of the year on the back nine at Ford's Colony's Blue Heron course in Williamsburg, so the logical conclusion is that the course was easy.
Dan Maples designed the Blue Heron as well as the two other 18s at Ford's Colony, the Black Heath and the Marsh Hawk. None of the ratings from the men's tees exceed 70.0 and the highest slope rating is 125 (the Blue Heron is 124 at 6,328 yards). I like Maples courses, but his designs do seem geared to "vacationers." (Who wants stress on a vacation?) The Blue Heron, which featured some nice elevation changes, fairly slick and smooth greens, and just enough in-play water to keep some adrenaline pumping, was the right medicine to boost my ego with a decent score. But I am not sure this, or its companion courses at Ford's Colony, would satisfy me day in and day out while I still pretend I am the golfer I once was.
Those of us contemplating retirement to a golf-oriented lifestyle face a dilemma: Will the course we choose to play a few times a week pose enough of a challenge or too much of one? At the brutally tough Davis Love III course in Chapel Hill, The Preserve at Lake Norman, breaking 80, for a 10-handicap golfer, would be a thrill; but the thrills would be far and few between. I also have played a course in eastern Tennessee, at Rarity Bay, that was so forgiving that the thrill was gone by the end of one round.
The Blue Heron tended a little toward the easy side, but in five years, who knows? It might be all the challenge I would want, and then some. So in choosing a community and its adjacent golf course(s), do we make the big investment based on our game today or the one we project for ourselves a few years out? My own theory is that many of us will have it both ways, moving a few times in retirement for a number of reasons, not the least to rehab our scores on courses more suited to our then-current game. As the generational psychologists like to say, baby boomers want what they want.
Last night's dinner was at a local Vietnamese restaurant called Chez Trinh. The "Chez" part is a little frilly, since there are no combo French/Viet dishes on the menu, but the food was serious, ample and quite tasty. The crab and asparagus soup was the real thing, not those ubiquitous, imitation and unfortunately named sea legs, but real shredded crab. The white asparagus may have come out of a can, but the half dozen pieces held their own in the silky broth. The rice paper that enclosed pieces of garlic pork, mint leaves and bean sprouts was a bit spongy, and the pork seemed a little past its prime, but the mint gave the dish a refreshing kick.
The Saigon Seafood plate announced itself just as the kitchen door opened, a sizzling - almost howling - dish that included small shrimp, the oxymoronic large shrimp, and scallops, as well as a heady dose of ginger. Well-prepared Vietnamese food depends on the freshest ingredients, and this dish did not disappoint.
Later today I play the River Course at Kingsmill, which Pete Dye renovated a couple of years ago. Stay tuned.
The 17th on the Blue Heron at Ford's Colony is not as tough as it appears. That bank in front of the pin is not steep and you can land just short of the green without fear of rolling into the water. However, the pin position indicator -- halfway up the stick -- was wrong. The pin was at front on a very deep green, and I hit way too much club.
The finishing hole on the Two Rivers course is a hard dogleg left around the marshy indentations of the Chickahominy and James Rivers.
I won't burden you with a restaurant review today; I left the haute cuisine circuit last night and opted for the Chinese buffet down the street from the hotel. All I'll say is it was pretty mediocre.
Yesterday I toured the community of Governor's Land at Two Rivers and played the golf course. Governor's Land is pretty well completed, with just 80 lots of a total 733 still waiting for houses. The homeowners association runs the community and the members guide the golf club, having been handed the reins by Dominion Resources, the developers, a few years ago.
The community is all single-family houses, no town homes, and the starting prices are in the mid $500s. The James and Chickahominy Rivers merge at Governor's Land, thus giving the community its embellished name "at Two Rivers." Homes that overlook either or both of the two rivers run into the few millions.
The Tom Fazio-designed Two Rivers Golf Club course meanders through woods until it emerges at the confluence of the rivers for the three finishing holes. For the most part the water is not in play, but it does form an impressive backdrop. I didn't play the course on its best day - it rained hard the day before and the greens had been aerated and top-dressed a few days earlier - but it gave every indication that, in a month, it will be in splendid shape. The greens, despite the sandy surface, were almost fast. And, as always, Fazio has done a splendid job of burying the cart paths behind mounds and in the woods. Since it was cart-path only, I was exhausted by the end of the round with all the walking back and forth. I'll have more to say about the Two Rivers course later here and in an upcoming issue of HomeOnTheCourse.
After golf, I stopped by the pro shop at Colonial Heritage, a fairly new age-restricted (55 years) community just north of town with a few months old Arthur Hills course. It the weather holds out, I am hoping to play the course later in the week; I have yet to play anything less than a good Hills design, and from the looks of the 18th, with a lake fronting the greenside, this one may not change my mind.
The four communities I'm visiting this week are remarkably close to one another. Kingsmill, Governor's Land, Ford's Colony, and Colonial Heritage are no more than 15 minutes apart. Only Governor's Land is private, so those opting not to join a club have these good choices, as well as the heralded Golden Horseshoe courses and about a dozen other fine ones within 35 minutes.
I visit Ford's Colony tomorrow.
The 4th hole at Two Rivers could qualify as the signature hole at many other courses, but since it does not run along the two rivers, it must settle for tough and good looking status.
One of the nation's first cities, Williamsburg, VA, has been in a perpetual state of torpor since its earliest days. One anonymous 19th Century pundit summed it up when referring to the local Eastern State Hospital (the lunatic asylum), the town's main source of income and employment for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries, as "500 lazy [living] off 500 crazy."
Today, the town lives substantially off the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit annually the privately run Colonial Williamsburg and the state run settlements of Jamestown and Yorktown down road. In the summer they clog the roads, the oldest among them coming in for a little benign, behind-their- backs abuse from the townspeople, who refer to them as "creepy crawlers" for the speed with which they move (or rather don't move). Still, the townspeople know better than to bite the hands that feed them, and whether they mean it or not, they are friendly and helpful in the stores, on the streets and in the pro shops of the area's fine golf courses.
Many of those tourists come back to Williamsburg eventually to live. An estimated 60% of the residents of Kingsmill, which we visited yesterday, first encountered Williamsburg on a vacation. Most of the rest of the residents are current and former members of all branches of the armed services, as Williamsburg is within an hour of Norfolk and two hours of D.C.
Kingsmill is a resort community, but the residential areas are well separated from the modest sized resort, which comprises just 100 of the community's 3,000 acres. Kingsmill has no hotel. Every day, one of the resort's three excellent golf courses is designated for member play only, a very smart move on the part of the courses' owners, Anheuser Busch, whose brewery and famed Busch Gardens are at the edge of the property but well out of site. The nine-hole par 3 course, squeezed in below and beyond the resort's pool, is an amazing sight, sitting on some of the best real estate in Kingsmill. The two-mile wide James River is in view from every hole, making this possibly the most scenic pitch and putt course in America (and it is in pristine shape as well).
Kingsmill is quite laid back despite the resort traffic but consistent with Williamsburg's own demeanor. Sleepiness is part of a great tradition in the town. An editorial from a 1912 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch put it best: "Tuesday was election day in Williamsburg but nobody remembered it. The clerk forgot to wake the electoral board, the electoral board could not arouse itself long enough to have the ballots printed, the candidates forgot they were running, the voters forgot they were alive." Now that's sleepy.
Someone forgot to tell Tom Powers that he is supposed to take it easy. Powers is the creative chef at the always busy Fat Canary restaurant off Merchant Square in downtown Williamsburg. My meal there last night more than made up for a mediocre one the night before (see the review on 4/15) and showed some big city inventiveness.
As a single diner, I feel as obvious as a fat canary when I sit at a table in a crowded restaurant, and so I opt for the bar. On this Monday night, the Fat Canary was crowded, a good sign insofar as Monday is typically slow. (Most savvy patrons are nervous that they might be served the weekend's "leftovers.") But Fat Canary is a full-steam-ahead, seven-day a week operation, dinner only, so there really aren't any weekends per se.
I would have been content ordering off the five-appetizer, seven-entrée menu, but I was hell bent on having seafood after a few days of steaks and barbecue in North Carolina. So when the friendly barkeep mentioned the appetizer of seared tuna, served rare on a bed of Japanese ponzu-broth- infused diced vegetables ($14.95), the healthy part of my heart skipped a beat. It turned out to be everything I had hoped for, the tuna rare as promised, and sparkling fresh, with only a light searing, and the crisp nuggets of vegetables perfumed by the fragrant sauce (sorry for the purple prose, but it really was good).
For the entrée, I stuck with my resolve for seafood, forgoing the special of halibut on a bed of lobster risotto at the pricey $38.95, and opting for the roasted monkfish with curried Virginia clams & oysters, chorizo sausage, charred tomato, basil and chive couscous at a relatively reasonable $25.95.
I'm glad I did. Talk about fusion, this dish melded wonderfully the tastes of Asia (the curry flavor was somewhere between India and Thailand, pungent but not at all overpowering), the couscous a delicate version of the usually taken-for-granted Moroccan grain, and the chorizo (which was both sweet and a little spicy) representing the northern Mediterranean. The last fluffy little pile of couscous soaked up the last droplets of curry sauce; I thought the perfect timing was pretty cool.
When I first read the menu item, I thought, "Who cares where the clams and oysters are from?" but I realized later that I had missed the point. The point was that "Virginia" clams and oysters meant fresh, and were they ever, tiny little things that were easy to pluck from their shells and were bristling with briny flavor. Oh yes, the monkfish itself had a really nice char on the outside and managed to be both flaky and almost creamy beneath. What a great dish!
I will say, though, that my entrée last night took as long to deliver as it did the night before, almost a half hour after I had finished my appetizer. It must be that lazy Williamsburg thing.
The Fat Canary, whose name is from a poem by John Lyly, a Colonial era poet ("Oh for a bowl of fat Canary, rich Palermo, sparkling sherry...") does not maintain a web site since, according to the bartender, "the owners are 80 years old." And why bother?
We'll have more to say about Kingsmill and a few of the other area golfing communities in an upcoming issue of HomeOnTheCourse. Look for a special announcement about the newsletter coming in the next few weeks.
We spent Friday at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. Son Tim, the golfer, has been accepted there, and although we had made a prior visit, we had not met golf coach Gavin Colliton. And in evaluating his choices, Tim insists on taking a look at the golf team's home course before he decides on his college (Davidson College and University of the South in Sewanee, TN are also in play).
We didn't have time to play the course, but we did stop to look at the sleek Lexington Country Club, whose original nine were opened in 1906. Today, the course is a hilly, tree lined 18 in excellent condition, very green for mid-April in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with just a little more grass growth needed on the greens. The adjacent community sits well back from the course, and from most holes you cannot see any houses.
At less than 6,400 yards from the tips, Lexington certainly is not long, but views of #1 and #18 from behind the clubhouse indicate it is tricky. The first fairway, lined with trees from about 200 yards out, tilts hard from high right to low left. Assuming the tee ball stays out of the trees, the approach is uphill to a smallish green with traps guarding its right half.
The finishing hole, a 520-yard par 5, is downhill from the tee, so a well-placed drive puts you in the go zone to the green. But the approach - whether the second or third - is not for the faint of heart, with a stream at the base of the steep hill that leads up to the elevated, two-tiered green. On the day we visited, the pin was on the far right, just in front of a trap. Put your approach on the top tier of the green on the left side and your putt will likely roll past the cup and off the green. Go for the pin and you will face the prospect of rolling down into the creek if you are short; or if you go long, a trap shot with an impossible downhill blast and the risk of being back down the hill. The only bailout area is to the right of the green, leaving a delicate but not unmanageable chip shot. It is a beautifully designed hole by Ellis Maples and Ed Seay, the course's most recent designers (1971).
The club has a longstanding affiliation with the university and offers membership to non-resident parents of students for just $1,000 per school year. Lexington is a small but culturally rich town, given its two schools (the Virginia Military Institute is just down the road from W&L).
If you are wide open to choices about where to relocate and would be happy playing just one excellent golf course is a strongly collegiate town, Lexington is worth a look. Phone: 540-463-3542. One caveat: The driving range is irons only.
I am visiting communities in the historic town of Williamsburg, VA, this week. The plan is to gather information about Kingsmill, Governor's Land, Ford's Colony, Washington National and Colonial Heritage, a 55 and over community with an Arthur Hills golf course. If you are interested in the area and want me to address specific questions about Williamsburg, please contact me through the "Contact" button at the right. Although I will write extensively about Williamsburg and its golfing communities in a future issue of HomeOnTheCourse, our advisory newsletter, I'll file a few notes in this space in the coming days. The following is a quick review of dinner at a local restaurant last night (Sunday).
After a six-hour drive, I was looking for a good meal in comfortable surroundings, including a bar, a TV and something on draft. I found it - for the most part - at the Blue Talon Bistro in the quaint and historic Merchant Square section of the town. The bar had a zinc top, very modern and, though out of place in Colonial Williamsburg, it was wide and immaculately clean. Above the bar was the requisite plasma screen. The programming was a little monotonous, a continuously looping DVD of Julia Child cooking. Without the sound on, Ms. Child's cooking appeared to have no other purpose than to get the taste buds going. It worked.
The Blue Talon offers daily specials as well as a set menu that presents a range of meat, poultry and seafood items. In addition, a special menu with three appetizers and entrees was also offered. Sunday's weekly special is coq au vin; I was tempted, but I opted for the pork belly special, and ordered the country pate as my appetizer. The pate ($7.95) was presented beautifully on a plate that included fanned out slices of fresh French bread, a tiny frying pan filled with gherkins and chunks of candied fruit and a little jar of grainy mustard at the center of the plate. Tiny, salty, pitted French olives and larger green olives were scattered around the plate, making the entire portion as generous as it was pretty. Too bad the pate was lacking the same level of taste of the accompaniments.
Given the size of the appetizer, I wished I had not ordered a salad ($4.95), but it turned out to be a simple plate of lettuces with a tasty vinegar and oil dressing, a generous ramekin of blue cheese chunks on the side. No harm done.
I was looking forward to the pork bellies which, when done properly, have the kind of lustrous texture you would expect of a piece of meat generously layered with fat. The cast iron pot and fragrant beefy and anise scented steam promised something special, but sadly, these pork bellies ($21.95) didn't measure up. The meat was not only too chewy, but the fat was cold and un-melted. This was curious coming from a steaming cast iron pot - I was warned not to touch it - and I can only think that my bellies had been taken out of the refrigerator, or maybe even the freezer, just moments before immersion in the pot. I put the meat back in the pot, which helped a little. But since it took 25 minutes after my salad for the steaming pot to arrive, there was no good excuse for this miss. If I'm going to give up so many calories, I want my fat melted at least.
My meal at the bar took a full 90 minutes, not long if you are in the dining room with wife and friends, but too leisurely for eating at the bar. And to add insult to injury, the bartender coughed continuously throughout the meal.
The Blue Talon promised a lot but came up short on its delivery. I might give it one more chance this week, but I will choose my dishes more carefully. Web site: www.bluetalonbistro.com
Island living is not for everyone, especially on an island reached only by ferry. Just getting used to trading a car for a cart as your major mode of transportation is daunting enough, but then consider no shopping malls, no doctors' offices within 15 minutes, no hospitals in case of emergency.
But of course, there are the compensations. No cars mean no pollution, no honking of horns or the potential for road rage. Life is so much gentler than on the mainland, and you can walk or drive your golf cart to just about everything, including the golf course in just a few minutes.
For those drawn to the notion of island living without having tested their resolve, a place like Bald Head Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport, NC, offers a couple of options. The customary one is to rent a house for the summer, or any other season for that matter, and try it out. But if you plan to live in a place year round, a one-season summer or fall sampler will not necessarily tell you all you need to know about life on an island in the dead of winter.
Purchasing a piece of The Hammocks at Bald Head is an interesting alternative. It is based on the time-share concept. Essentially, you purchase one week per season - four weeks annually - at one of the nicely designed cottage-like buildings in the island's maritime forest, overlooking a part of the golf course. The units are fully furnished and maintained and virtually all come equipped with the golf cart that is ubiquitous on Bald Head. Ownership conveys membership in the Bald Head Island Club and its links-style golf course, the oceanfront Shoals Club and the on-site Hammocks Club which includes a clubhouse with fitness center and other amenities, as well as a "services coordinator."
Four weeks at the Hammocks begins around $150,000 for a two-bedroom unit and $160,000 for a three bedroom. Insofar as homes less than a ½ mile away on the beach at Bald Head are on the market for as much as $4 million and more, The Hammocks provides an affordable entry into the high-end beach life. Contact Bald Head Island agent John Liles at 800-346-5192.
Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, has been in the news lately for its five-year, $500,000 renovation program to restore the community's Jack Nicklaus Signature Course to a top ranking among the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach's 115 courses.
Writing in Golf Business magazine, Peter Blais indicates that 250 trees have been removed and others pruned to increase sunlight to the turf on the 1989 layout. The greens on the course, which had become thin on top and thick with organic material below the surface, are now under an aggressive agronomic program to promote grass growth, and all the sand traps are being refaced and reshaped. We know it is working because we played the course in March, and it was in its best condition in five years. Initiation fees are $15,000; a 4 BR, 3BA home in Pawleys Plantation is currently listed at $549,900. If you want to read the entire article, it is posted at the Nicklaus Design web site.
Speaking of Nicklaus, the upscale Fairmont chain has announced that Jack will design its new course on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. Not only will the course be designated a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, but also it will bear (pardon the pun) the distinction of being one of only 25 Jack Nicklaus Clubs worldwide. The Clubs are part of a network of Nicklaus designed clubs that provide reciprocal privileges. You will find more information at www.fairmontanguilla.com ...
Never to be outdone by Jack without a fight, Arnold Palmer recently announced something called Arnold Palmer Premier. As far as we can tell from the firm's press release, those courses designated "Premier" will be of the highest quality design and, therefore, carry higher design fees than The King's current highest price of $1.5 million; and the clubs will have to maintain a high level of service, quality and course conditions to retain their Premier status. In a recent interview in Golf Business, Erik Larsen, an exec with the Palmer Design group, said "Arnold likes to measure a place by how his friends and family would enjoy it, and not just once, but year after year." As long as they don't have to pay that design fee...
Rarity Ridge, one of the group of handsome Rarity Communities in eastern Tennessee, sent us a brochure recently touting a new release of properties and indicating two previous events had sold out in four hours. The copy mentions "One Day Only Pricing and Incentives" and an invitation to visit during the community's "Priority Selection Event weekend." To qualify to attend, you must provide a fully refundable $1,000 deposit. Only one problem: No dates are indicated for the special event. Just our luck: We'll give them the $1,000 and find out the event is the same weekend we've been invited to Pine Valley.
Golf Digest has just published its annual list of "America's 100 Greatest" golf courses a week after we received this year's Zagat's survey of "America's Top Golf Courses." There are two fundamental differences between the ratings: Golf Digest includes private, as well as public, courses; and the magazine rates the courses based on the opinions of a panel of 800 low handicappers, whereas Zagat relies on anyone willing to submit courses, ratings and a few words of support for their assessments. A comparison indicates that, for the most part, Joe Golfer knows his golf courses.
The two courses that receive perfect ratings of 30 in the Zagat survey, Pacific Dunes in Coos Bay, OR, and Whistling Straits in Kohler, WI, rank # 2 and #4 respectively on the Golf Digest list. Pebble Beach (#1 in the magazine) ranks a near perfect 29 in Zagat. The two lists concur on a number of other top courses, with the Zagat list of 29s being matched by the magazine's top courses, including Bethpage Black (#5), Steve Wynn's for-high-rollers-only Shadow Creek in Las Vegas (#6), Bandon Dunes, OR (#7), the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC (#8), and Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, MI (#10).
A few surprises: Pinehurst #2, ranked third in Golf Digest, rates "only" a 28 on the Zagat list; and The Prince Course in Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii, rates a top 10 at #9 in the magazine and just a 27 in Zagat's. Those who rated it for Zagat called The Prince a "treacherous test" and advised bringing "aspirin," "a lot of golf balls," "your sense of humor," and money for the $175 greens fees.
There are just a handful of community golf courses on the Golf Digest list, including Cuscowilla, in Eatontown, GA, which we have reviewed here, rated 58th on the Digest public course list. On the overall list of the best 100, including public and private courses, Wade Hampton, in Cashiers, NC, at #15, is the highest-rated course within a neighborhood. The house-free Pine Valley in New Jersey is #1 once again.
January clearly is not the best month for golf equipment sales. It is still a few months before the season starts up north and a few weeks before the big golf show season begins with the introduction of new technology. That said, this past January was pretty much a disappointing one for pro shop sales, on a comparative basis.
Compared with January 2006, sales of all golf equipment and accessories was down across the board in both dollars and units, and not insignificantly so (according to a chart in Golf Business magazine whose source was Golf Datatech). Equipment sales in units fell between 10% and 12%, with balls down 9.7%. Dollar volume losses were more moderate in view of price increases across all lines, except for woods, whose prices dropped an average 4.8%, leading to an overall retails sales drop of 15.5%. With the new square Nike driver, the Sumo 2, recalled in mid-March for not conforming to USGA specifications, and no other drivers achieving break-through status, I may wait for a price drop on that Titleist 905R driver, the one Zach Johnson used at the Masters.
Golf Business, again courtesy of Datatech, published an interesting chart in its April issue. It displayed rounds played in January state by state compared with January 2006. The red numbers are across the board, with an average loss of rounds of 16.3% nationwide. Only Oregon, up just 1.5% in rounds played, and Connecticut, up an astounding 50%, were in the plus column. Every golfer in Connecticut must have scooted out to the courses the first week in January when the temperatures were well into the 50s and courses that had closed reopened for a few days. We took advantage of the weather surprise, and although the hairy, uncut greens putted like burlap, it was an unexpected treat to be able to play the day after New Years.