Stonehouse Distinguishes Itself From All The Rest

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

TOANO, VA - It seems like everybody’s aiming for distinction these days. For example, automakers spend billions on research every year to design new four wheeled vehicles that won’t be confused for another’s. Or basketball players sport ever wilder tattoos and hairstyles to set themselves apart from their competitors. Even golf architects use a jolt of style from time to time to separate their work from their colleagues’—after all, golf courses are all made of grass, sand and water. When it comes to golf, distinction’s a good thing.

For some walks of life, however, looking different is more than just an ego trip—it’s a necessity. Such was the case for two Mike Strantz sister courses near Williamsburg in Virginia, Stonehouse and Royal New Kent. There were (and still are) a number of incredible, very traditional courses nearby—the Golden Horseshoe’s Gold and Green courses, as well as Kingsmill’s trio along the James River to name a few.

To build a carbon copy of those tracks would’ve been most welcome in some golfers’ minds, but wouldn’t provide distinction from the rest. So the Legends Group hired Strantz (who’s known for distinguishable golf design) in the early nineties to take two large parcels of variable Virginia forest and carve out a pair of new and very different golf courses. There’s no doubt Strantz’s accomplished that goal—and as Head Golf Professional Jerry Burton says, “there aren’t any courses quite like ours in Virginia. If you’re a good player looking for a little bit different golf experience, you’ll get a real challenge out of it.”

Stonehouse is patterned after a mountain course, despite being hundreds of miles from a mountain range. Royal New Kent is patterned after ancient (in relative golf time) Irish links courses, despite being thousands of miles from the Old Country. It may sound strange, but the theme works well on both accounts. And if you can block out reality, you just might believe you’re miles away from your current existence.

Both are well received from the golfing public and have won numerous awards. Here, we’ll concentrate on Stonehouse.

It’s ironic that Stonehouse was designed as a mountain course, because the land it inhabits probably isn’t more than 100 feet above sea level at its highest point. Laying about fifteen miles west of Williamsburg and 30 miles east of Richmond, this stretch of peninsular ground in between the York and James Rivers tends to be somewhat swampy and variable—though not mountainous. But there is just enough elevation change to give it that flavor—and Strantz is masterful at routing a golf course to fit its natural environment. Stonehouse blends in very well.

Virtually every hole features some sort of elevation change, be it downhill tee balls or second shots to elevated greens over ravines. You’ll need to pay close attention to the yardage book, or potentially find the ball’s found some slope that you may not have anticipated.

If there’s a knock on the course, it’s because of numerous blind shots (mostly well marked). But the only aspect I’d call unfair is the bunkering. Some of those sand monsters belong in a Hollywood horror flick—they’re gargantuan and nasty. I didn’t see any teeth in them, but there were often times when the ball went in one and you’d have to slay the wild beast to get it out.

Burton acknowledges that Stonehouse can be intimidating to the first time player, but insists that once you know where to hit the ball, it’s a lot less difficult than it appears. There are certainly some player friendly aspects there, so I’ll take him at his word.

First, the fairways are extremely generous. Because Strantz likes to position tee boxes at different locations and angles, the fairways are often receptive to shots from all over the map. You won’t see any 180 degree fairways, but on some holes it would be difficult not to hit the short grass. It adds a lot of confidence when you’re up there on the tee and you know you won’t be hitting from the weeds on the second try.

Second, the greens are huge. This certainly will frighten those with putting yips, but will compensate by increasing greens in regulation figures. They’re so large on some holes it’s conceivable you could have a hundred foot putt. It’ll definitely put your putting stroke angles to the test.

Finally, it’s a visual delight. If you’ve ever been hiking and experienced a moment of golf delirium by imagining a golf hole perched snugly against a cliff, then Stonehouse brings hallucinations to reality. There are several holes here where you won’t believe how they ever put a green there, but they’ve done it. It’s stunning the whole way through.

For a course that’s so remarkable, it’s tough to pick out just a few holes that stand out. The layout begins with a couple nice par fours—good warm up holes for the round. The third could garner signature honors on most any course. A 204 yard par three, downhill to an amphitheater green bordered by a stream on the left side, with a false green in front and a steep slope in back. No bunkers! Again, the green is large, so there’s a good target to shoot at.

Six is a tough 435 yard dogleg right, with a downhill tee shot. It’s also the #1 handicap hole. Burton says “Number six is a great example of how the course tames once you’ve played it a few times. If you’re long and know where to drive the ball, you’ll get a springboard effect off that hill and leave yourself a very short iron into the green.” If you don’t know where to drive the ball, you’ll have to negotiate a creek in front, a narrow kidney shaped green, and avoid an incredibly steep slope in back with a mid to long iron.

Seven is a great par five, and a pretty easy birdie try if you know how it’s played. Not much challenge on the tee ball—the fairway’s huge. Second shots provide some interesting choices. Lay up left and short of the green for an easy pitch—or try to fly a monstrous bunker and rough short right of the green. Risk reward all the way.

Eight’s a great visual par three with an incredibly severe tiered green. Stay out of the bunkers though, or you might not finish before dark.

The back nine begins with another couple solid par fours, elevations and ravines again. The twelfth is a great hole, a 402 yard par four. Tee balls should favor the right side of another wide fairway, bunkers on the left and hillside to the right. Second shots must avoid a creek short and left, as well as two large bunkers guarding the green and short approach.

Thirteen has one of the most incredible tee shots I’ve ever seen (529 yard par five). From the back sets of tees, you’ll need to fly a wetlands area through a chute to what looks like a narrow fairway (here, looks are deceiving—the hillsides bordering the fairway will kick tee balls back down, unless the rough stops the ball). The second shot’s most likely a lay up, as there’s really not much chance of making it in two, and a creek bisects the fairway.

Fifteen and seventeen are two more great par threes. Fifteen features another huge green that slopes severely right to left. As one of my playing partners demonstrated, you can hit the ball to the right side of the green and have it roll down pin high on the left.

The yardage book says seventeen is ‘one of the most beautiful par threes in the world.’ I’ll admit I haven’t played most of the world’s par threes, but I’d say it would rank up there with the ones I have tried out. Your tee shot must carry a sizeable ravine, and there’s trouble all around the green. It’s a good thing the putting surface is Stonehouse large—so there’s a good chance you’ll hit the target.

Eighteen is a spectacular closing hole, 453 yards from the back left tees. Another generous fairway awaits—and Burton says the smart play is to favor the left side for a flatter lie and shorter approach shot—even though you’ll be carrying the entire way to the green over a steep ravine. But the second shot is severely downhill, and plays about a club and a half shorter than the yardage. Great way to finish up.

Stonehouse is the type of course you’ll probably either love or hate. Golf’s strict traditionalists will definitely find themselves in the latter category. But if you’re looking for a solid test of golf that qualifies as something different, then there’s no doubt that Stonehouse distinguishes itself from all the rest.

(Note, there's new ownership, so the name and rates have changed)

The Tradition Golf Club at Stonehouse
PO Box 3508
Williamsburg, VA 23187-3508

Course Designer: Mike Strantz
Head Golf Professional: Jerry Burton

Phone: (757) 566 1138; Tee Times: 1-866-284-6534
Website: http://www.traditionstonehouse.com/

Jeffrey A. RendallJeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.


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