The most fitting place to begin a golf trip in the Virginias is where the game began in America, at a farmhouse called Oakhurst. Beginning in 1884, this simple white-clapboard structure with a wraparound porch served as the clubhouse for the country's first golf course. A coterie of Scottish expatriates laid out nine rough holes on ridges and hillsides reminiscent of their native Highlands and played them avidly. But the club disbanded a couple of decades later, and the land reverted to pasture. Little changed until the 1990s, when Lewis Keller, an entrepreneur and fine golfer, came to the village of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to rediscover Oakhurst Links. Sure enough, he and architect Bob Cupp found original greens and bunkers, buried under the pasture grasses. Keller brought in sheep to chomp down the turf, imported replica gutta-percha balls and hickory-shafted clubs, and reopened the course.
For golfers who prefer to swing titanium clubs on tightly mown fairways, Virginia and West Virginia are home to two of the country's classic resorts, the Homestead and the Greenbrier, plus a collection of newer gems. And in this land of Thomas Jefferson and Colonial Williamsburg, there are ample opportunities to visit places where American history of the nongolf variety was made.
Where to Play
The Homestead, Cascades *****
Standing on the first tee at the Cascades, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Sure, there's the famous sign quoting Hot Springs native Sam Snead: "if you can play the cascades, you can play anywhere." But all you see ahead is an unassuming tree-lined fairway rising gently to a green less than four hundred yards away. By the turn, however, you've begun to see why this course—whose bunkers were restored over the winter to their original shapes—has hosted seven USGA championships. The holes wind through clefts in the Allegheny Mountains and along gurgling Cascades Creek. The fairways fit the terrain. Consider the tenth, called Slippery Hollow: It follows the contours of a small ridge down into a dell, tumbling like a pooling stream from one landing area to another. The greens, subtly affected by the surrounding hillsides, can be as difficult to read as Sanskrit.
1766 Homestead Drive, Hot Springs, Virginia; 540-839-1766, thehomestead.com. Yardage: 6,679. Par: 70. Slope: 137. Architect: William S. Flynn, 1923. Greens Fee: $235.
Golden Horseshoe, Gold ****1/2
John D. Rockefeller Jr., the prime mover behind the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, decided the place needed a golf course to amuse visitors after they'd had their fill of docent-led tours and candle-making demonstrations. He gave Robert Trent Jones Sr. a prime piece of land, and Jones produced reason enough to visit the area: a course so good that it might have distracted Thomas Jefferson from his legal studies at nearby William & Mary. The strength of Jones's Gold course at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club, in addition to its wonderfully rolling and wooded terrain and meticulous grooming, is its four par threes. Each of them requires a heroic carry—be it over ravine, stream or pond.
401 South England Street, Williamsburg, Virginia; 757-220-7696, goldenhorseshoegolf.com. Yardage: 6,817. Par: 71. Slope: 144. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1963. Greens Fee: $155.
The Greenbrier, Old White ****1/2
Back in the day, the Old White course at the Greenbrier resort was like an annuity for Sam Snead. As resident pro, Snead made himself available for matches with guests, winning most before they started. He'd ask a guest for his handicap, and if, say, the guest answered "ten," Snead would offer him ten strokes. Then they'd agree on a set of tees, usually the whites. "Of course," recalls a longtime Greenbrier member who sometimes filled out Snead's foursomes, "from the white tees, Sam rarely shot higher than sixty-six." The course is no pushover, though, and it ultimately wasn't for Snead: The greens are so subtle they're believed to have caused his infamous case of the yips. This spring, architect Lester George will finish a restoration of C.B. Macdonald's original bunkering and contours. Expect retro-looking cross-bunkers and humps and swales in seemingly random places.
300 West Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; 800-624-6070, greenbrier.com. Yardage: approximately 6,825. Par: 70. Slope: approximately 140. Architect: C.B. Macdonald, 1914. Greens Fees: $185 (resort guests), $350 (nonresort guests).
Bay Creek, Nicklaus ****
Developer Dick Foster wanted to build two golf courses for Bay Creek Resort & Club on the Delmarva Peninsula along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, and he hired Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to design them. Although both courses are good, the Nicklaus layout, which opened just last year, gets the nod thanks to several picturesque holes that play among the dunes skirting the bay. The par-three fourth looks as if it were on a links in Ireland: The green is nestled in sandhills covered by swaying fescue. The eighth hole, back inland, is a short (327-yard) par four curved around a lake. Trying to drive the green is a tantalizing, if inadvisable, gamble.
One Clubhouse Way, Cape Charles, Virginia; 757-331-8620, baycreekgolfclub.com. Yardage: 7,417. Par: 72. Slope: 144. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2005. Greens Fee: $95.