In a sense the picturesque qualities of the course are its most formidable challenges. The vistas and open approaches to all the greens can lull you into carelessness, deadening your senses to the fact that the tall pine and white-oak lined fairways are often quite narrow and require fairly precise shot making. Rees Jones's renovations in 1998 were geared largely toward making the course more accessible to all levels of golfers, softening its surfaces and better defining its targets to speed up the pace of play. But it can still mess with you big time, especially those par threes.
"If there is a stronger set of par threes," a writer from the Fayetteville Observer-Times said of them, "it's not on this planet."
Each one pivots around water. The first, hole number three, is a 201-yard, tree-lined jewel with the tee set forty feet above a green guarded by water in front and a bunker on either side—"the prettiest hole on the course," as Justin Leonard once described it. I promptly made a double bogey. Number seven is 206 yards, most of it over water but with a generous allotment of landing room between the lake's far bank and the front of the green, should its three imposing bunkers cause you to lily-liver your tee shot. Number twelve is more petite, at 188 yards, but water rims the front and right sides of a two-tiered green that is a nightmare to putt should your tee shot find the tier without the pin in it. The last is the sixteenth, the Gold course's signature hole, which features the country's original island green. Here, desire abandoned, I hit a picture-perfect seven-iron that caught the back of the green, then followed its gentle slope to within ten feet of the pin.
I met up with Golden Horseshoe's ambassador of golf, Del Snyder, after completing my round. Together we drove over to the Green course clubhouse for lunch before my afternoon round there on Rees Jones's own creation, the other half of the only father-son golf course duet on record. Opened in 1991, the Green course, host in 1998 and '99 to USGA national championships, is a more willed concept than the Gold, a beguiling contradiction: an open, links-style layout cut into rugged, ravine-filled woodland. It's longer than the Gold but more open, with the mounded fairways molded to feed many an errant shot back into play and, as Del Snyder put it, "move people around the course quicker."
It also features a stellar quartet of par threes. The eleventh hole has a particularly dramatic design, measuring 195 yards between an elevated tee and an amphitheater green with a pond in front and four pot bunkers behind. It's one of those holes where the prospect for disaster overrides that for success, and you often end up, as I did, changing your swing at the last second and then dropping another ball.
Snyder, a kindly, soft-spoken "old sand"—that would be golf's rendition of the seasoned seaman—is the only senior to have won the PGA Mid-Atlantic Championship and was named 1999 Teacher of the Year by the PGA Mid-Atlantic region. Now sixty-eight, he was a teaching pro under Sam Snead at The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. Snead recently wrote Snyder a letter congratulating him on his Teacher of the Year award and citing him as "one of the greatest hand players I ever saw." When I mentioned the praise to Snyder, he didn't exactly demur. "That's quite a compliment," he said, smiling sweetly, "coming from him."
I mentioned to Snyder that next I was intending to play two of the Williamsburg area's notable recent additions, the Traditions courses at Stonehouse and Royal New Kent.
"Take a lot of balls," he said.
One Shouldn't Approach Stonehouse the way I did, that is to say, ass backward. To avoid the large group that had begun teeing off at number one, I opted to start on the tenth hole. Especially for a first-time visitor, that can be deeply disorienting. Mike Strantz's Stonehouse is such an outsize, upscale high concept of a golf course, one so hell-bent on taking your breath away, that you really need the front nine to ease into it.