Heron Ridge matures into one of area's best

By Steve Rocca, Contributor

Heron Ridge Golf Club

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It's not very often a golf course relishes the idea of houses. Many golfers are turned off by the prospect of rows and rows of houses interrupting their precious sightlines on the links. But in the case of Heron Ridge in Virginia Beach, the houses are actually a welcome sight for a variety of reasons.

When the design team of Fred Couples and Gene Bates opened the course back in 1999, one hole ran into another for as far as the eye could see. The team worked wonders turning a plot of land formerly used for farming into an undulating golf course with character. It opened to rave reviews and had a good run of popularity, partly because at the time it was the first new public golf course to open in the area in 10 years.

But soon came the openings of Arnold Palmer's The Signature at West Neck in Virginia Beach and Bay Creek Golf Club up the road in Cape Charles. Some of Heron Ridge's luster, and customers, started to fade away.

But now things seem to be turning back in favor of the signature Couples design. With Couples' win last year in the Shell Houston Open, his first victory in more than five years, the course has been gaining popularity and rounds have jumped to nearly 40,000 per year. But more importantly, the 23456 zip code that includes Heron Ridge is the top place to build houses these days.

A December article in the Virginian-Pilot detailed the rise in construction of expensive homes, which average $500,000 in this section of town. The designer golf courses and brick mansions that nudge up next to soybean fields, horse ranches and wild woods have helped define the boundaries of the course.

"In the early days, you'd stand on the first tee and you'd see the second hole and the sixth hole and the seventh hole," said PGA professional Glen Pierce. "Now these homes, some of them worth $2 million, really help frame the course and add a nice touch.

"But they aren't the type of houses that sit right up on the course," Pierce added. "They are set back away from the golfers and really help make it feel more secluded."

It's all been good for business on the course and off the course. Missy Elliott, the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist who grew up in Hampton Roads, owns an estate up the road. The NFL's all-time sack leader and former Washington Redskin and Buffalo Bill Bruce Smith has been known to show up with NFL veteran Darren Perry. Both grew up in the area, and both can afford the neighborhood.

Yuppies looking for more room, empty nesters and even military personnel migrating from D.C. all are finding Heron Ridge and the accompanying estates one of the nicest upscale places in the area. Open spaces, no traffic and fresh air all are adding to the allure.

Heron Ridge is located just 15 minutes from the Virginia Beach oceanfront, and after five years it now seems to be hitting its stride. The 7,010-yard, par-72 course that winds links-style through rolling hills and natural water hazards on the front nine and then turns into mature strands of oaks and elms on the back nine grabbed runner-up honors in the "Best of the Beach" course competition in 2003.

Just like Westfields Golf Club in Northern Virginia, another classic Couples/Bates design in the state, Heron Ridge features generous tee landing areas, ample bunkering, and very puttable greens. They let you hit your big clubs, but you are going to have to work your irons to card a good score.

The prevailing winds make getting to the greens, in some cases just 20 yards deep, tough enough. So once you get there, you have a chance to make the putts.

The course offers a variety of challenges, such as a 30-foot elevation change and 14 holes with water hazards, creeks, and wetlands. The fairways are planted in lush Bermuda and the greens are bent. The front side offers challenges aplenty, especially on the odd-numbered holes.

Heron Ridge Golf Club No. 5 is a 196-yard par-3 hole that plays over a marsh and water fronting the green. If you pick the correct club, you'll love it, but if you don't you'll suffer the consequences. With a bunker behind the green, there's really is no place to go but on the green. No easy task, when you consider the green is just 31 yards deep.

No. 7, a 404-yard par-4 hole plays along a canal that separates mansions with palm trees and swimming pools from the fairway. The approach shot here is the key, usually from about 140 yards, but uphill with a creek encircling the green and sand in front makes it more difficult that it might appear. It's a pretty hole, though, but don't get caught looking because trouble lurks at every turn. Par is a great score here.

The ninth hole is the signature hole at Heron Ridge in, and it's a double-dogleg par-5 with water almost from tee to green on the left, pot bunkers, a viscous right to left slope, O.B. and a creek to the right and a relatively tiny green. Long hitters can get there in two if they say left, but a large undulating green assures you of nothing even if you get there in two. It's a hole that makes you think, tests your precision, and it might even determine whether you continue to the back side.

But those who bag it at the turn are missing some of the best parts of the course.

Beauty takes over on the back nine where the beast left off on the front nine. Holes 11 and 12, a 312-yard par-4, wind through mature strands of trees, and back in these wooded pockets of the property the wind dies down and you almost feel as if you're on another course. It's a great yang to the front-nine's yin. Back here, you'll feel like you're one with nature. The woodsy feel is relaxing and the lack of development or houses is almost serene.

"We were faced with the prospect of converting a pretty bland landscape into a workable golf course," co-designer Gene Bates told TravelGolf.com when the course opened. "Half the property was used as farm land prior to our arrival, and the other half was a wonderful stand of hardwoods with some real nice variation and contour to the land. A real split personality."

No. 15 is a downhill 182-yard par-3 knee-knocker that leaves no room for error. A huge slope right of the green funnels all balls into huge lake, and the same fate lies for anything over the green. The only place to go here is onto the center of the green, and that's never easy. The tendency is to aim left to avoid the water right, but that could leave you with an uphill chip out of a deep bunker. It's enough to make you jump for joy on the elevated tee box if you can pull it off.

The entire package is enough to draw in the Nationwide Tour's qualifying events for the annual stop at the TPC of Virginia Beach. Every year 150 of the best young players vie for just seven spots in the tournament, and none of them has managed to best the course record of 64. That should tell you everything you need to know about the true test of golf this place offers.

The challenge is not lost on Pierce, who boasts, "tee to green, I think we've got the best course in Tidewater."

Getting there

From the oceanfront: Take Pacific Avenue South. Pacific Avenue will turn into General Booth Blvd, follow General Booth Blvd for about six miles and Gen. Booth will turn into Princess Anne Road. The next light is Seaboard Rd. Turn left on Seaboard and Heron Ridge Golf Course is about a mile down on the right. About 15 minutes.

From I-264 East: Take the Birdneck Road Exit. Go right for four miles to General Booth Blvd. Turn right on General Booth Blvd, follow General Booth Blvd for about six miles and Gen. Booth will turn into Princess Anne Road. The next light is Seaboard Rd. Turn left on Seaboard and Heron Ridge Golf Course is about a mile down on the right.

From I-64 East & West: Take Exit 286B (Indian River Road East) and follow for about three miles and merge onto Ferrell Parkway. Stay on Ferrell for three miles to Princess Anne Road East. Follow Princess Anne for five miles until it ends. Make a left at the stoplight to stay on Princess Anne Road. Make a right at the second stoplight onto Seaboard Road. The course is about a mile down on the right.

Grub

Don't be afraid to grab a dog or a burger at the turn, but be sure to save room for some of the best seafood in the area. Just down the road, across from the 7-11 on Princess Anne Rd is a local favorite you should check out. The Seacrest Restaurant (1776 Princess Anne Rd., 757-426-7804) will satisfy your desires with plenty of local flavor.

Fast Fact

The "Ridge" part of the name comes from the fact that the course sits on top of Pungo (the name of the Indian tribe that once inhabited the land) Ridge.
Course Designers: Fred Couples and Gene Bates
Head Golf Professional: Glen Pierce

Steve RoccaSteve Rocca, Contributor

Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.


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