West Neck adds rosy outlook to its Signature

By Steve Rocca, Contributor

No. 11 at the Signature at West NeckVIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Everything is coming up rosy for The Signature at West Neck, the Arnold Palmer-designed course in Virginia Beach that had its grand opening just a year ago.

This plot of land that started out several years agon as nothing more than an open field, a muddy field at that, has been transformed into a scenic garden with a golf course in the middle. At the grand opening, Palmer said, "You should've seen what it looked like before we started. It was essentially just a big open field with mud and slop, and I'm particularly proud of the job that Vicki & Ed (Seay, his longtime design partner) did to build and shape this place."

But you should see it now. It has been transformed into something that might grab the attention of Home and Garden more than Golf Digest. The course has added more than 10,000 rose bushes in recent months, making the grounds of this challenging 7,010-yard championship course look more like something that might belong in George W. Bush's backyard at the White House instead of the back yard of the sandy dunes of Virginia Beach's oceanfront.

There are tree carvings of Palmer and his caddy in old oak tree stumps. There are palm trees on islands of green in the middle of the bunkers. There are flower beds and azaleas and trelises ringing the 9th and 18th greens filled with "knockout roses" that bloom from April to December.

In the February issue of Travel & Leisure Golf Magazine, West Neck was called "a mini-Eden of roses, azaleas and other botanical lovelies (that) will happily pull even the most engaged golfer off the scent."

Tom Stevenson, The Signature's director of golf, says it's all part of the original plan, which was to make elegance a major element on the grounds.

No. 14 at The Signature at West Neck "The thing that really sets us apart is our gardens and landscaping," Stevenson has said in the past. But now, as the course matures in its second full year, the ideas are starting to come to fruition. He credits Baymark Construction's Dick Foster's vision, saying Foster wanted to bring the beauty of a garden setting to the game of golf, which is a pretty interesting piece of foresight, considering he doesn't even play the game.

When the course opened, Stevenson said: "Dick Foster and I had a conversation a few years ago, before we even started building these golf courses -- and he said 'I want to build a golf course so beautiful and offer it at such a reasonable price that people will walk away shaking their heads, thinking 'How can they provide such a great golf course at a price like that?'"

"He's a gardener at heart," said Stevenson, who also is the director of golf for Baymark's other Palmer designed track, Bay Creek, which opened last June in Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore. The Signature is the second of three courses in Foster's golf community plans, with a Jack Nicklaus course slated for building at Bay Creek in the next few years.

"We're constantly manicuring it, and it's getting better all the time," Stevenson said. "It was mature the day we opened it, but we just keep adding to it."

While the ground crews keep adding -- like the planned flower bed between the tee and the green on the par-3 seventh hole -- the course, with its TifSport Bermuda tees and fairways and smooth A-4 bentgrass greens, keeps challenging golfers of all skill levels.

Put in a querry about the best hole on this course, and you're likely to get as many different answers as people you ask.

No. 5 at The Signature at West Neck "Well, it used to be No. 11," said Joe Burbee, the course pro. "But we're putting in a bunch of roses there, so it's a little torn up right now. It could be No. 3. It could be No. 5. Everyone seems to like No. 9 and No. 18.

"Every hole is a signature hole on this course."

Let's take a closer look at those, in order.

The par-3, 155-yard 11th hole is named "Stonewall" because of the stone wall that spits all short balls back into the lake. Even though it is the shortest hole on the course, and rated as the easiest, don't be fooled. The wind can be tricky, making the correct club selection harder than it may seem at first. Don't be fooled, and whatever you do, don't leave it short.

The hardest hole, No. 3, is aptly named "Deadman's Curve" after the old Jan and Dean song. At 455 yards, this par-4 has water short and OB to the right, a steep dogleg right awaits off the tee. If you can cut the corner, or if you can play your slice, Deadman's Curve could be a joy ride. But if you get careless, play it too far to the left, or catch this hole with the wind in your face, you'll be praying for an air bag before the crash comes to a halt.

No. 5 is probably the toughest hole on the course, despite being a par-3. From the back tees, it's 203 yards; all carry, with water and a large bunker in front. If you go long, the hole slopes well away from you. There is a bailout area to the left, but why shoot for the fairway on a par-3. If you believe in ghost tales and think it may help your game, you might say a quick prayer to this hole's namesake, Grace Sherwood, before teeing off. Sherwood was tried in 1706 as Virginia Beach's first witch, so depending on where your ball lands, she's either the wicked witch of the north or the fairy godmother.

The round concludes with a classic finishing hole, 451 yards long and named "Coliseum" for the amphitheater-like mounding around the green. There's plenty of room off the tee, though water hugs the right side. One of Palmer's philosophies in his course design is to provide generous landing areas, and he has stayed true to that with this course. The landing areas on most Palmer courses are at least 150 feet wide because, as he has been known to say, "golfers hate looking for golf balls in the woods."

While you can accomplish the feat if you try, this course is much more likely to swallow one of your balls in the drink than in the forest.

For there are 13 lakes that accent the course, meaning there are only five holes in which its impossible for your ball to find the water. With that image, one might have the idea that this course is like a lot of courses in South Florida that are so flat that the only way to make it challenging is to add 13 lakes. That couldn't be further from the truth. This course offers rolling topography, making it look like it doesn't belong in flat-as-can-be Virginia Beach.

But believe it or not, the lakes are there for the public's protection. What's that you say? Protection?

Indeed.

The property is part of a tidal area, so Martz needed to account for the occurrence of a once-in-a-lifetime event, like a hurricane. So, he put 13 lakes on the course, and lowered the water level anywhere from five to seven feet below the playing surfaces to provide for a large amount of storage capacity if and when that happens.

But until that Category 5 hurricane makes its way onto the shores of Virginia Beach, the lakes will have to serve another purpose -- providing the perfect backdrop for 10,000 roses.

Other activities

The Virginia Marine Science Museum

The state's largest aquarium with 800,000 gallons of aquariums and live habitats, this 1997 'Travel Attraction of the Year' is one of the top 10 most visited aquariums in the country. A must see for all ages. For more information, call (717) 425-FISH.

Oceana Navel Air Station

One of the U.S Navy's four master jet bases with 22 squadrons. Seasonal tours are available by calling (757) 433-3131.

Historic Cape Henry

Go stand where your ancestors may have first set foot on the New World back in 1607. The first landing cross marks the place. Also, here you will see the oldest government built lighthouse in the country, dating back to 1791. For details, call (757) 460-1688.

First Landing State Park

With more than 27 miles of hiking trails, camping and picnic areas this 2,700-acre area is a nature lovers paradise. For more information, call (757) 481- 2131.

Rudee Inlet

Fun for all if you plan a day out here. Whether it's a Chesapeake Bay and Virginia Beach tour of 2 hours or a full days sports fishing you're after, you'll find it here. It's located at 7 Marina Winston-Salem Ave, (Nr. Pacific Ave).

Directions

From the Virginia Beach oceanfront, go South on Pacific Avenue, which becomes General Booth Blvd., which becomes Princess Anne Road, which becomes North Landing Road. Turn left on West Neck Road and continue 1 mile to course entrance on right. Total time is 15 minutes to course.

Fast fact

The fifth hole, the toughest on the course, might just be haunted by Grace Sherwood, who was tried in 1706 as Virginia Beach's first witch. Depending on where your ball lands on this challenging par-3, she's either the wicked witch of the north or the fairy godmother.

The Signature at West Neck

3100 Arnold Palmer Drive
Virginia Beach, Va. 23456
Phone: (757) 721-2900
Web site: signatureatwestneck.com

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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