Nansemond River is Hampton Roads' unknown treasure

By Steve Rocca, Contributor

SUFFOLK, Va. -- If you're a Civil War buff, do we have a course for you!

The Tidewater section of Virginia is loaded with Civil War museums, memorabilia and battlegrounds, but you don't often find historic sites on a golf course. Nansemond River Golf Club in Suffolk breaks that mold because of the nine archeological sites on the grounds.

The area looks much like it did in the 1860s, thanks to some expert routing from architect Tom Steele. The artifacts are preserved, and in many cases marked for golfers to see. Take the earthen fort that the Confederate soldiers guarded by No. 13. Union gunboats circled around to the river banks at No. 4 and sneaked into the Confederate camp without a shot being fired. In the end, 167 Confederate soldiers surrendered without a fight.

Back then, it was called the Battle at Fort Huge.

"It took a little more thinking to get the routing correct," says Steele, who also designed Kilmarlic Golf Club in Harbinger, N.C., on the Outer Banks. "I worked hard to preserve them all. There were Indian villages and Civil War aspects that all needed to be taken into account. I tried to fit the holes in with the landscape."

When Steele finished his first work just three years ago, what was left was one of the finer waterfront golf courses in the Middle Atlantic. The club offers more than three miles of riverfront and 14 holes on the water, including the natural island green on No. 17. There are five natural greens on the course, which is spread along bluffs overlooking the Nansemond River. It's a beautiful layout, but at 7,337 yards it can be a killer.

Washington Golf Monthly has included it in its "Top 100 Courses in the Middle Atlantic" since the club opened in 1999.

"Steele used the land the way he found it, but that means the wind affects it a lot," head pro Mark Lambert says, "but it's a fair test of golf. The better the player, the more they will enjoy this course."

Steele wants golfers to be challenged, and he says there are 20 other courses in the area where good players can play driver, wedge and two putts.

"My goal was to put together a facility where the top player must go through the bag," Steele says. "They can start with the $500 driver and work all the way through the bag, and be tested the whole way. I love the challenges of different shot values."

To illustrate this, look no further than the par 3s, which play 248, 240, 175 and 132 yards.

The test is holding up, because the course record is just 68. What one man calls a test, another might call unfair.

"Good players don't think we have a bad hole here," says Lambert. "I think No. 5 is a great golf hole, but it will definitely test you. You have the river to the left and two marshes to navigate, and that can be very satisfying if you do it correctly."

The 17th is an intriguing, short par 4 played to a peninsula/island green. The tee shot, played with a mid-iron, must be placed in the fairway to avoid the punishing three-inch rough and to set up a good approach to the green. Picking the correct club on the downhill approach is critical. Depending on the wind, you could be hitting wedge from 150 yards out or a 7 iron from just 100. Pick the correct one, and you'll love this hole. But if you drown your second shot, or aren't in a good spot off the tee, you'll be cussing it.

Once on the green, you still have to deal with interesting slopes. A right front pin placement can make the knees shake on the best golfers.

"A lot of the members think this is unfair, but it's not unfair if you are on the green," says Lambert.

"There was a little spit of land jutting into the lake," Steele says. "I wondered if I could make it a green surrounded by water. Some people really like how it turned out, and others think otherwise."

The club, just 20 minutes from downtown Norfolk, is gaining notice as a place the best golfers can be tested. It is not a high profile course, but it has high profile shot values. Consider that in just three years Nansemond River, which is being rated by Golf Digest for inclusion in the 2004 top 100, has hosted the Virginia State Golf Association Team Championship, the National AAU Championship and the Middle Atlantic PGA Assistants Championship.

It is gaining notice, and it'll only get better with age.

"In the next three or four years, this will be one of the area's best courses," predicts Steele, who has 25 years' experience as a landscape architect.

"This course has the best scenery and the best landscape in the entire Tidewater area. It's not easy, though, and you really have to think your way around."

Where to dine

Ryan's Steak House
1202 N Main St.
Suffolk, Va.
(757) 934-0924

Applebee's Neighborhood Grill
1206 N Main Street
Suffolk, Va.
(757) 934-8676

Where to stay

Holiday Inn Suffolk
2864 Pruden Blvd.
Suffolk, Va.
(757) 934-2311

Best Western Suffolk
1503 Holland Rd.
Suffolk, Va.

Off course: Be sure to visit the historical sites in the town of Suffolk, which was established in 1608 as an English trading post with the Nansemond Indians. Cedar Hill Cemetery has several interesting Civil War monuments. The Greek Revival Riddick House, now a museum and cultural center, once served as Union headquarters.

Fast fact

Nansemond River Golf Club is the region's premier waterfront course, with three miles of riverfront, 14 holes on the water and a natural island green.

Orientation: Follow route 58 to Suffolk and take the route 10 exit; at the traffic light turn right and go one mile to Hill Point Road and follow the signs.

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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