Charlottesville: Prime golf to be had in the land of the master architect

By Dale Leatherman, Contributor

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -- “The Eden of the United States” was how Thomas Jefferson described Charlottesville, a city set in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia. It was here that the master architect built his mountaintop plantation, Monticello, and designed the University of Virginia’s famous Rotunda. Since Jefferson’s time, there have been architects of a different sort at work, carefully etching tees, fairways and greens into these magnificent hills so that it’s a bit of paradise for golfers, too.

As tempting as the area golf courses are, visiting Jefferson’s city without seeing his work is like taking gimme putts. You’re missing something important.

Monticello, where the master architect lived for 60 years, is the only house in the country on the United Nations’ World Heritage List of international treasures. Over the years, the mansion, the plantation community where slaves and free men worked and lived, and the gardens and orchards where Jefferson cultivated new strains of vegetables and fruit have all been carefully restored. Touring the place is like visiting a time warp: it seems as if the master of Monticello could arrive home at any moment.

Jefferson’s presence is also to be felt at the Rotunda, his half-scale interpretation of Rome’s Pantheon, which he called a “temple of knowledge.” It is the centerpiece of the University’s “Academical Village,” a maze of colonnades, arcades, pavilions and gardens where you can wander by yourself or tag along on a group tour.

Having paid homage to Jefferson, you can sample the fruit of his experiments with European grapes in more than a dozen area wineries (Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, 804-295-2176). Or enjoy a midday meal such as he might have had at the circa 1784 Michie Tavern (804-977-1234) near Monticello.

Over the course of nearly two centuries, Charlottesville has evolved from the country town of Jefferson’s day to a bustling hub of commerce, education and good living.

Good golf being a necessity for good living, there are prime courses tangled among the sprawling farms and grand estates now occupying Jefferson’s Eden. Some of the best layouts are forbidden fruit (members-only), but a growing number of reasonably priced public access courses ensure that no golfer goes wanting.

In the heavyweight class of courses a visitor can play are those with the names Palmer, Maples, Jones and LaFoy attached.

Wintergreen Resort

The champion for breezes, vistas and frustration is Wintergreen Four Seasons Resort’s Devil’s Knob. At 3,800 feet, the 6,576-yard Ellis Maple layout is the highest course in the state. Tight tree- and rock-lined fairways penalize a big hitter unless he has terrific control, which makes Devil's Knob a perfect setting for a woman to challenge the men in her foursome.

The course has its equalizers. On the par five seventh hole, even a short hitter from the back tees can get on in two. Two holes later is a 600-yard double dogleg, clearly a three-shot hole even for the pros.

In a valley 3,000 feet below Devil's Knob lies the 7,080-yard Rees Jones-designed Stoney Creek Course, built in 1988 and ranked second in the state. Fairways flirt with the stream for which the course is named and twist through woods around 20-acre Lake Monocan.

In 1997, Wintergreen added the Tuckahoe Nine at Stoney Creek, also crafted by Jones. The addition brought radical elevation changes and bentgrass fairways to the 27-hole mix, with Jones' trademark mounding and sightlines still a common denominator.

It's hard to top the beauty of the original Stoney Creek 18, especially holes playing around Lake Monocan, but long-time director of golf Mike Mayer is smitten with Tuckahoe.

"Several holes could be signature holes, starting with the first," he says. "On this 457-yard par four, you hit from an elevated tee with a prevailing wind at your back. A lake begins on the right side of the landing area and runs all the way to the green, so there's no margin for error there. It's beautiful from tee to green.”

"The third hole, a relatively short par five, is a risk-reward hole. If you hit a perfect draw, you'll be using a long iron to the green. Fall short or left on the approach and you'll be in a strong creek. The hole drops 100 feet from tee to landing and another 100 feet to where you'll lay up.”

"The last hole on the Tuckahoe Nine is our greatest finishing hole," Mayer continues. "It's a 587-yard par five into the wind and slightly uphill-- unreachable in two. The first eight holes were carved through forest, but the ninth is in former pastureland. Because there are no trees, you feel as if the mountains are on top of you."

Devil's Knob has a multi-million-dollar clubhouse with an elegant restaurant and lounge and a massive deck – all with a great view. In the valley, the casual Stoney Creek Bar & Grill is known for its great hand-cut steaks. There’s also a swimming pool at Stoney Creek for a quick dip after a mid-summer round.

Wintergreen, an 11,000-acre resort with nearly half of its acreage devoted to open land, is a consistent award winner for its environmental and recreation programs, and ranks among the country's top golf, tennis, ski and family resorts. Lodging is in condominiums, most with fireplaces and panoramic views. Several restaurants offer a variety of dining options, from pizza to casual to gourmet.

Wintergreen Resort is 28 miles southwest of Charlottesville, via a circuitous but easy to follow route, in Wintergreen. Phone 804-325-2200 for directions.

Keswick Hall

I have seen Keswick Estate (phone: 800-274-5391) at its sublime best, and at its worst -- on a foggy, rainy fall weekend, when the gardens of Keswick Hall were bare and the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course was mottled with patches of brown. Even at its worst, it was nevertheless delightful. The point is, Keswick is the sort of place you never catch with its pants down.

Palmer's well-maintained greens (He has said they are "the finest in Virginia and probably on the East Coast.") were as true as if it were mid-summer.

The golf course, built in the 1930s and re-designed by Palmer in 1992, ranges over hills, some quite steep, some heavily forested, and loops around lakes and through forests. It has an old-course feel, with huge oak trees and other mature vegetation. When Palmer re-designed it, he kept its classic flavor.

Highlights of the par 71, 6,307-yard layout include the picturesque fourth hole, a 374-yard par four which appears to have been twisted by a giant hand. From the tee, the fairway pitches right, then left. On the drive, a gully and spreading oak beckon; on the second shot, the terrain pitches toward three big bunkers. The green is uphill, and canted to shed balls.

The 433-yard, par four ninth hole has as its landing area a narrow strip of level turf. Miss and your ball kicks down into a pond, drawing comment from the resident Canadian geese. The second shot is a long carry to a very elevated green; short shots hang up in heavy grass. Your struggles here are in full view of the clubhouse and the terrace of Keswick Hall. Expect a similar scenario on eighteen.

After our round, fireplaces blazed in the parlors of the 48-room country house hotel and in the golf club's English tavern-style pub, bringing warmth to other ruddy-cheeked golfers. Within minutes of our settling into comfortable chairs in one of the hotel parlors, a butler appeared bearing an afternoon tea any Englishman would approve -- fresh scones with clotted cream and jam or lemon curd, finger sandwiches, and fruit pastries, all served on English china. We had to restrain ourselves, knowing that executive chef Bruce MacLeod’s wonderful dinner wasn’t that far off.

Sir Bernard Ashley, who with his late wife Laura Ashley found stunning success in the retail textile industry, purchased the defunct golf club in 1992. Under his hand, the 600-acre estate became one of the "little gems" cited in Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report and began carefully developing into a residential community of fine homes.

Keswick’s centerpiece is the massive Italianate "Villa Crawford," now Keswick Hall, built in 1912 and used as a golf clubhouse since the late 1930s. When Ashley set out to turn the mansion into a hotel, he said he wanted it to have "a kind of peace." Mission accomplished. Each room is individually decorated in Laura Ashley style, with British towel warmers and huge footed bathtubs. Deep couches, filled bookshelves, and current magazines invite lounging in common rooms.

A few years ago, Keswick Hall became an Orient-Express Hotel, which made the resort even more luxurious, if possible. Condé Nast Traveler magazine's 2002 Gold List names Keswick as one of "The World's Best Places to Stay.”

A promenade runs along the front of the building, with French doors thrown open to wonderful formal gardens in warm weather. Gardens surround the manor house, crowding the dining room’s stone terrace and framing an overlook of the golf course. In the evening, candlelight and chamber music transform the room, giving it a cozy intimacy perfect for fine wines and memorable dinners, graciously served.

Staff members wear traditional British black-and-white, but their attitude is more Southern hospitality than stiff upper lip.

Guests at Keswick Hall have access to Keswick Club, with its comfortable locker rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam rooms, a Jacuzzi, an exercise room, massage rooms, a pub, a dining room, tennis courts and golf and tennis shops. Services range from facials and aerobics to golf lessons.

Another good place for visitors to experience good living Charlottesville-style is at the Boar’s Head Inn (800-476-1988), a 53-acre country estate known for its excellent dining (the Old Mill Room has had a four-diamond designation for more than 15 years) and hunt country atmosphere. The 171-room hotel oozes Southern hospitality and has a great sports club and spa. On a smaller scale than the Boar’s Head, but no less reminiscent of the area’s historic roots are bed-and-breakfasts such as the five-bedroom Inn at Monticello (434-979-3593), a circa 1850s manor house at the foot of Monticello Mountain.

The Boar’s Head is next door to Birdwood Golf Course (434-293-4653), once the University of Virginia’s private turf. Consistently ranked among the country’s top ten college courses by Golf Digest, Birdwood is now open to the public and is comparing quite favorably to the state’s other public and resort tracks.

Set on 500 acres in a pretty valley replete with wildlife, the 6,865-yard Lindsay Ervin design (1984) has wide, inviting fairways with superb mountain views and enough blind shots to call for a high degree of strategy, especially on the risk-reward par fives. Though it is a mere two miles from downtown Charlottesville, you’d swear you were in the middle of a thousand-acre preserve.

That sense of isolation is particularly true on the heavily wooded back nine, a long gauntlet of elevation changes, bunkers, and doglegs – all subject to wind. The fourteenth hole, the course signature, is a 150-yard par three to an island green which repels balls toward the water. The four finishing holes make up one of the toughest finales in the state, ending with a 450-yard par four to an elevated green. With a 20 mph wind in your face (the norm), it can play like 500 yards.

Ervin’s bentgrass greens are slick, contoured, and often tiered. Members tend to whine “unfair” if the pin placements are particularly devious.

Glenmore Country Club

A few miles along a bucolic country road from Keswick is Glenmore, a private 1,200-acre county club community on the site of one of Albemarle County's oldest horse farms. Just beyond the gatehouse and stable, the lane dead-ends at a stunning 27,000-square-foot Georgian-style brick clubhouse overlooking a John Lafoy creation playing from 5,100 to 7,000 yards.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. The club is private. You must play with a member or have a member call and say you are playing as his guest. But if you are staying at one of the local hotels, ask the manager or concierge if he can help you get on the course. It’s worth the effort.

Mounds undulate down the first fairway like the backbones of prehistoric beasts. The first hole is an overture, a warning of mounds to come. Some conceal bunkers, others hide lakes or streams; on the whole, their presence insures that you'll never play the same lie twice on this course.

The opening holes also presage another LaFoy theme: extreme elevation changes -- airy tees and tightly-bunkered greens perched on plateaus.

Among the most notable holes is the par three fourth hole, dropping 75 feet and 240 yards from the back tees. The 400-yard seventeenth hole tops the par fours with its rippling fairway and long second shot to an uphill green. Short shots dig into the hillside or roll back to you. The eighteenth hole furnishes a panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a glimpse of Monticello.

Watering holes in the clubhouse are the Nineteenth Hole, a room furnished in mellow wood and deep green carpet or the terrace of the elegant Piper Club. Glenmore is five miles east of downtown Charlottesville, off Route 250. Phone 434-977-8865.

Other Public Courses

If you’re not looking to pay serious money on a round but want it to be stimulating, there are some interesting public courses in the Charlottesville area. The Laurel Ridge Golf Club (434-589-3730), 15 miles south of Charlottesville in Palmyra, is a first effort by local designer Brian Smith. Doglegs and carries over gulleys spice up this short (6,375-yard) route, but you’ll come away remembering the greens -- moderately-sized but extremely undulating.

A cut above most municipals is Charlottesville’s Meadowcreek Golf Club (804-977-0615). The 6,000-yard route can be toughened considerably by tournament pin placement on the large greens. Buddy Loving designed the first nine in 1973; Bill Love crafted the second nine in 1992.

Half an hour north of Charlottesville in Stannardsville is the Greene Hills Golf Club (804-985-7328), designed by Buddy Loving in 1968. This hilly, 6,376-yard track has long par fours balanced by short par fives. Success here depends on a good read of the carefully tended, speedy greens. Make no bets with locals till you’ve played it once. Greene Hills is open to the public weekdays only.

Mr. Jefferson’s “Eden” is a pleasant dichotomy of modernity and history, surrounded by a cocoon of open countryside which residents zealously protect from development. Golf courses old and new play their part in that preservation effort, while providing even more reasons to visit Charlottesville.

Dale LeathermanDale Leatherman, Contributor

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment