A wooded "mountain course" of deep ravines, broad hilltops and scrub-bound creek beds, Stonehouse, like its sister Strantz creation, Royal New Kent, farther up the road, strikes one at first as being a bit too self-consciously crafted, more like a series of natural-history-museum dioramas of golf holes imposed upon the natural landscape than a layout that follows the suggestion of the terrain itself. A good number of tee shots have to carry thicketed ravines just to reach the field of play, which is invariably studded with hazards, from deep pot bunkers to elevated, precipitously pitched greens. Over and over I watched decent shots spill back off the putting surface. In fact, there aren't many level spots on the course, and with all the dwarfing hills, occluded views and tilting greens, you often get the unsettling feeling of being tossed about on wave swells. But the course is quite spectacular to look at and, yes, to play—especially my recent obsession, the par threes. Numbers three and seventeen, in particular, are gorgeous evocations of that essential par-three dynamic of the green as a miragelike atoll in a deep sea of trouble.
Of Strantz's two bold new concoctions, I felt a bit more at home on Royal New Kent, designed as an homage to the classic links courses of Ireland, Royal County Down and Ballybunion in particular. In a part of the country where well-wrought reenactments of distant realities are the norm, the endeavor seems right at home, and—in spite of the anomaly of the surrounding landscape—it somehow works. There's the same element of fright and foreboding to playing the course that attends a true links experience: the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements. The roaring sea and the high-mounded, grassy hillocks and dunes all conspire to dwarf you and your craven golf miseries.
And oh, those sirenlike par threes! Numbers seven and twelve were my favorites. The former presents a stunning vista from an elevated tee over a creek to a raised, two-tiered green, and even when the pin is back left, you're tempted to play for the wide visible swath of lower green to the right of the creek, a decision that will invariably cost you a three putt even if you do catch the green. The only shot, of course, the one you picture, then live or die by, is to go left, over the creek and directly at the flag. Number twelve is another vixen, featuring a whopping eighty-six-yard-long green that ensures another three putt if your tee shot finds the wrong end.
I Took A Break From The Links the following day to pay a visit to the site of Jamestown, the first permanent European settlement in the New World and Virginia's first capital. It's situated on the banks of the James River about seven miles from Colonial Williamsburg along a lovely, wood-lined stretch of smooth paving stones known as the Colonial Parkway, which I traversed on a rented bike. It's a good way to feel the tug of the past upon you, the sensation of being drawn back to the point of origin, when what is now the United States was nothing more than a meager array of pitched tents surrounded by a triangular fortification of bound tree boughs.
As historical sites go, Jamestown is a perfect illustration of the precept that less is more. Somehow, the very paucity of discernible original structures there—the glass-encased rubble of one of the settlement's first churches, the outlines of a few original brick house foundations—allows you to make more easily that "leap of historical imagination," as one of the visitor-center brochures puts it, "needed to see the human face of Jamestown as it existed four-hundred years ago." Standing alone on the banks, I was overwhelmed by the very audacity of the original undertaking, 104 colonists on three ships arriving from London in the spring of 1607 in hopes of carving a permanent settlement on the edge of a vast, unknown wilderness. Battling disease, starvation and their own inexperience with hunting, fishing and basic survival skills, the group lost more than two-thirds of its members.
Grand expectations degraded by daunting realities. If that's not an apt description of golf, I don't know what is. I showed up bright and early the following morning at the Kingsmill Resort & Club, the largest golf resort in Virginia. Of its three championship courses, the Woods is the newest, designed by Tom Clark and Kingsmill's touring pro, Curtis Strange. It's fairly forgiving, with wide fairways and open approaches to the greens. But for a dicey stretch of ball-swallowing trees that line holes eleven through sixteen, the course's steep, wooded ravines mostly make for lovely scenery on cart rides between holes.
I was met that morning by the head of instruction at the Kingsmill Golf Academy, Steve Geisler, a native Iowan who proved to be an ideal partner despite all my efforts to dissuade him from accompanying me.
"How bad are you?" he asked in a soft, laid-back, Midwestern lilt.
"In the nineties," I told him.
"Oh, that's fine," he said, waving us toward the first tee. "Over 110 is when I start gettin' scared."