Summon the luck of the Irish at Royal New Kent Golf Club in Providence Forge, Virginia
PROVIDENCE FORGE, Va. -- "Come to rural New Kent County, Virginia, for a taste of Ireland." Somehow, I doubt that's a thought rolling through the minds of many folks.
But if it finds its way into your noggin', you'd actually be right on. It's because there's an Old Country-style links course just a few miles off of I-64 (about 25 miles west of Williamsburg), the product of the fertile brain of Mike Strantz and the Legends group that conceived of the idea. And like its sister course to the east -- Stonehouse -- Royal New Kent Golf Club is definitely a distinctive layout in Virginia -- or anywhere else in this part of the globe.
I don't think I'd call Royal Kent a true seaside links course -- there are way too many trees -- and a hot, steamy Virginia summer day would remind no one of a stiff, cold breeze blowing out of the North Atlantic. There's also a sizeable lake to the right of 10 and in play on the second shot of 18 -- and that's not the look of the Irish either (I'm told).
But if you block out the climate changes and the water -- and remove some of the deciduous forest -- you're right on the shores of Ireland. Royal New Kent (RNK) bills itself as a tribute to Ballybunion in Ireland and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland -- and having seen neither of these courses, I can't say whether the comparison's an accurate one -- but there's little doubt in my mind that the same type of challenge that exists at RNK is what you'd find in the land of Shamrocks and Guinness.
Similar to impressions of Stonehouse, I don't think I've ever seen another course like Royal New Kent Golf Club. Just the view off the first tee extinguishes any thoughts you might have about the nature of the course -- you're essentially hitting your tee shot in between two hills -- it's like nothing encountered in this golfing hemisphere. Some may say they'd rather not encounter it -- but for those looking to challenge the toughest public-access course in Virginia, Royal New Kent's the place.
Jerry Burton, head professional at both Legends courses, says Royal New Kent resembles Irish layouts because it's carved right out of the land's natural contours.
"You can tell just by looking at the shape of the course that they didn't move much dirt when they built it. They just kind of used the lay of the land, which is pretty nice-and it's one of the reasons why the course is kind of severe in spots. But all in all, the property's natural ebb and flow really adds to the layout."
"Strantz was able to effectively shape the holes because of the sheer size of the property. Because he wasn't forced to put golf holes within certain boundaries, he could place them where they seemed to fit naturally into the surrounding environment. The result speaks for itself-you've got a lot of unique looking shot values, a real visual experience."
There's little question about that -- and you'll get to see a lot of it. Something characteristic and different of both RNK and Stonehouse are the cart path rides. Sometimes, it seems like there's a half-mile in between holes, but the ride adds a certain quality to the outing that you won't get at more traditional courses. That's not always a good thing -- mostly because it guarantees a long round. But if you're not in any hurry -- play your game, pay close attention to the yardage book, follow the signs and enjoy the ride. The scenery is very beautiful.
And while Royal New Kent Golf Club is incredibly difficult from the back sets of tees, the forward sets make it much more player-friendly-because you're able to club-down from the tee boxes. Again, like Stonehouse, the fairways are quite generous.
Burton says the second shots are really where the challenge comes into play at Royal New Kent, and I'd agree, because the putting surfaces are heavily guarded-by bunkers, streams, or steep slopes. If you miss on the approach, you'll pay.
Royal New Kent Golf Club course conditions shine
Special kudos are given to the course conditions -- especially the greens. One word: pristine. They're huge-but they roll extremely well -- you won't find better putting surfaces anywhere in terms of quality and true reads. If you've ever dreamed of figuring out the line on a 30 yard putt, then calculating the speed, here's your chance. The 12th hole's green is 86 yards long. Yes, 86 yards. By my calculations, it's about seven clubs long right there. 'Hmmm, should I take a nine iron or a three iron?' It's never boring.
Starting off, you're faced with the aforementioned tee shot-squeeze it in between two hills. Long hitters can try and carry the hill on the left, which would cut the dogleg off quite a bit (the second shot's to an elevated green), but you'll also need to carry a depression to reach the fairway if you choose that route. First-timers beware. The smart play is to the wide fairway, but will add 40 or 50 yards to the approach shot.
Two is a really interesting par five. Tee shot's uphill to a plateau fairway-don't go too far right, as there's a grassy waste area waiting (semi-blind shot, aim for the directional pole). The second shot is a layup to a wide fairway unless you can hit a fairway wood about 250 yards in the air and stop it quick. The hole's not too tough if you choose the three shot route.
More variety is found on three and four, but five is worthy of special note. It's the toughest hole on the toughest course in the state. Again, the tee shot's not that difficult. But on the second, you'll have to hit it high as well as long, or there are tall bunkers and grasses encroaching on the fairway. The massive green is also well protected, mandating precise third shots-with tricky fast contours.
Seven is a great par 3. 186 yards from the gold tees, you'll need to carry a stream that guards the entire left side, and avoid a pair of bunkers long. Club selection is crucial, as the hole plays downhill and you'll almost always have a breeze to contend with. A back left pin placement is extremely difficult.
Royal New Kent Golf Club's back nine
Royal New Kent Golf Club's backside starts with an incredible par five. Tee shots must carry a set of bunkers and stay to the left of a stand of trees that could interfere with second shots. Not really reachable in two, so second shots must carry a large sandy waste area to set up a short iron to the green. The putting surface is practically surrounded by steep bunkers, so hit the target if you want anything close to par.
No. 12 is the par 3 with the 86-yar-deep green. Not only is the green really long, it's pretty undulated. If you're above the hole, you'll have a very tricky downhill putt.
Fourteen's a unique hole. There's a downhill tee shot, with a wide fairway fronted by large hills to the left and right, about driver distance away. It's possible to try and hit the narrow neck in between the hills, but it'll still leave a shot in to an elevated green. Smart play is a long iron or five wood off the tee, which leaves a short iron up over the hills to the huge green. Fun hole.
Seventeen is the last of a group of strong par fives on the course. Tee balls must steer clear of a creek that runs the entire length of the hole on the right side, but there's plenty of space in the fairway. Definitely a risk-reward -- if you've cut off enough of the slight dogleg right, you may have a second shot to the green-but you'll have to carry the creek and the green's not very deep.
Eighteen is the only hole where a lake comes into play. Tee shots must fly it, but it's only about 150 yards of carry, even from the back tees. The fairway is extremely wide, setting up the challenging final approach to the round. The green is surrounded on three sides by the lake (which curls around the wide fairway), so choose carefully the mid to short iron you'll use to stay dry.
When the final putt rolls in, a wave of feelings hits you. First, you're invigorated. Second, you're exhausted. Third, you'll be proud you met the challenge. Finally, you might feel lucky-fortunate even. Fortunate, because there'll always be another chance to try out this intriguing layout once again. And maybe next time you won't need the luck of the Irish to score well.
September 8, 2003