WILLIAMSBURG, VA - Secrets, everybody hates 'em. Let's face it, you can't stand it when someone's got the dirt on you, and it's equally hard trying to keep it to yourself when you've got a juicy clip on someone else. When the cat's still in the bag, we're all a little nervous.
But there are times when you'll benefit from a secret, too. For example, on those rare occasions where you've got dibs on a place that's a pretty special retreat-and not many folks know about - chances are you'll have more motivation to keep it to yourself.
Now, nobody wants to sit in a baseball stadium by themselves, or be the only one in line to see Santa at the mall around Christmas time-but there are other places where keeping the location under wraps is definitely to your advantage.
The golf course is one of 'em. Golf's one of those unique endeavors where it's great to be walking with the crowds at a PGA event, but it's also nice to play a round with just your thoughts and the elements once in a while. More than one amateur philosopher has taken his clubs to a golf course in hopes that he might get the chance to spend some time knocking the ball around with no one else to interrupt a moment of reflection.
At times like those, it's nice to have a 'secret' place-a course that's thoughtful in layout, excellent in conditioning, and unheard of on the lips of some golf nuts. Ford's Colony in Williamsburg, Virginia, is such a place. It's got 54 holes of pristine Dan Maples inspired heaven-and after going there, I was amazed at how few folks in Mid-Atlantic circles are aware of the quality of this place.
I hesitate to let the secret out-but I suppose that's my job.
Don't get the wrong impression-you won't find total isolation when you come here-there's a Marriott resort on property, and Ford's Colony's residential development is rated one of the finest in the country. The club itself boasts a healthy membership list, and they're not wanting for business. But what's nice about the 'secret' of Ford's Colony is you probably won't have to fight for a tee time, and most days even walk-ups won't be turned away during prime-time (the benefits of having three championship layouts). The courses themselves will provide the solitude you seek.
The fact that Ford's Colony is open to the public at all is a blessing for non-members. So take advantage of it.
Dan Maples, creator of Ford's Colony's three layouts, says he's not surprised they're not more well known-it's that way for a good portion of his work. "We don't really do that many golf courses, mainly because of the time I like to spend working on the details of each layout I design. I guess if we had a few more projects here and there, the name might get out a little more. But it's not such a bad thing to let the work speak for itself either."
Maples continues, "The thing I'm most proud of about Ford's Colony is it's 54 holes of excellent golf. When you consider the amount of energy that goes into designing just one hole-it's especially gratifying when you get the quality on a complex the size of Ford's Colony. I'd challenge you to find a weak hole on any of those courses."
Never one to turn my back on a challenge, I'll nonetheless take a pass on this particular dare-no use making a fool of myself. You can't disprove the truth, so why even try?
Ford's Colony has 'grown' over the years, and features three fairly distinct layouts - pretty incredible considering they're all proximate to each other. The original eighteen, known today as the Marsh Hawk course, was actually the product of Dan's father, Ellis Maples (Dan worked on the original layout also). When the Fords bought the property in the mid-eighties, Dan was brought in to touch up the original, which had fallen on some hard times-hence today, it bears his signature as well as his Dad's.
Four subsequent nines were added over the next fifteen years, with the final set opening up in summer, 2000. Ford's Colony is now complete, from a golf course standpoint. I'll touch on the Blue Heron and the Blackheath courses in separate reviews. Here, I'll focus on the original, the Marsh Hawk course.
Marsh Hawk is probably the most famous of the three, having hosted a number of notable tournaments in its history, including the Virginia State Open and several qualifiers for Virginia's annual PGA stop, the Michelob Championship. It winds in and out of woodlands, over lakes and through open-space, and is bordered in many spots by large luxurious homes, well set back from the course (I doubt you'll be yelling 'Fore!' to avoid bombarding a pool party).
There's hardly a cramped feeling. The entire Ford's property is characterized by incredible terrain variety, as is true for most spots in this region of the state. The same ups and downs, twists and turns and watery vistas that you'll find at the more well known Kingsmill Resort and Golden Horseshoe-you'll find at Ford's Colony. And the Marsh Hawk course has 'em all in abundance. Williamsburg golf is extremely hard to beat in quality and variety of the terrain.
Mike Hayes, Ford's Colony's Head Golf Professional, says Marsh Hawk's greens are what sets it apart from its younger siblings. "You'll see more undulations in Marsh Hawk's greens than the others, and that's what makes it special. When you see the course, you'll think it's one where you should be able to score pretty low. But when we cut down the putting surfaces on this course, watch out."
Sure enough, the layout looks fairly tame, with wide landing areas on many holes and several short par fours. Marsh Hawk stretches to 6,715 from the back tees, but the slope of 126 will give you an indication of its player friendly nature. Having never played it with the greens at full speed, it's simply an enjoyable golf round that won't leave you gasping for air at the end. Hayes says it's a "perfect blend of water, open space, trees and sand." Well put.
Hayes adds that hazard placement is particularly well thought out on Marsh Hawk. "Dan Maples did an exceptional job of placing the hazards on this course. Because of the nature of the terrain, you'll have a lot of uneven lies-and the hazards are located where your basic shot tendencies are. If you have an uphill lie, you'll tend to hook-so the bunkers are on the left. If you have a downhill lie, you'll tend to slice-and the bunkers are on the right." I've gotta admit, I've never looked at it that way. Golf's a never-ending education, that's for sure.
The first hole sheds light on what's to come-and introduces the elements you'll find throughout. Not lengthy at 376 yards and downhill, consider clubbing down off the tee to avoid going long (there's a lake long and left). Water and sand protect most of the approach, but you should leave just a wedge to fly it on.
Three, four and five are probably known as Marsh Hawk's 'signature' series of holes. Three's a 538 yard, slightly downhill, risk-reward par five. It is possible to go for the green in two if your drive's a good one, but check the lie before grabbing for the three-wood.
Four is a picturesque 402 yard par four with a tee ball over water, and a second shot to a peninsula green-sand and water on all sides. Beautiful to look at, fun to play-and most likely won't bite you. Vintage Maples golf.
Five is a beautiful 179 yard par three with a full water carry. Natural wetlands border the wet stuff-a pretty scene.
Seven's a deceptively difficult 399 yard par four. It's got about a 70 degree dogleg, and getting the proper distance off the tee is crucial to shooting at a very difficult green-well protected by bunkers to the right and long.
Eleven's the strongest par five on the course, because you'll really have to work your way around the options (and hazards) presented. If you choose driver off the tee, you'll need to be more accurate (water squeezes the fairway long and left), but you may have a chance to go for the green in two. If you club down off the tee, you'll probably leave a long and a mid-iron to get home-no picnic either. The green's elevated and protected by bunkers to the short right, so accuracy's the key.
Thirteen and fourteen are back-to-back short par fours-doglegs right and left, respectively. Long hitters can try for it off the tee on both holes, but there's plenty of wet or sandy trouble waiting if you miss wide on either link (sand only on fourteen). Two holes to get either a low or potentially high number-or play it safe for a reasonable chance at par.
Sixteen's probably the toughest par four on the course-a 452 yard, dogleg right monster with a tee shot to an elevated landing area, bordered by trees on both sides. The second shot's no candy striper either-a long iron from a potentially downhill lie and-you guessed it-sand on the right side of the green.
Eighteen's a nice risk-reward par five to finish the round. 515 yards in length, the green button-hooks to the right. A long and accurate second shot may give you an eagle try, as it did for Head Pro Mike Hayes in the '95 Michelob qualifier (he made it, too!). But unlike Hayes, most of us would probably be putting for bogey instead-when we miss the green to the left and botch the ensuing recovery.
But should you make three or six on the last hole, it won't matter for anything but the final score. A good time's assured at Ford's Colony-on the Marsh Hawk course, as well as the others. After playing, you'll probably realize it's foolish to keep those secrets on Ford's Colony-so go blab all you want about it-as long as it's down a well at midnight.
240 Ford's Colony Drive
Williamsburg, VA 23188
Phone: (757) 258-4130
Fax: (757) 258-4168
Head Golf Professional: Mike Hayes
Director of Golf: Scott Jones
Course Architects: Ellis and Dan Maples
Black 6715 126
Gold 6230 122
Silver 5579 115 (men), 124 (ladies)
Rates:$59 weekdays; $69 weekends
Note: Marsh Hawk will undergo some renovations to its greens next year.
Practice Fac.: B+
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: B+
Pace of Play: A-
Resort Hotel: N/A
Overall Rating: A-