Williamsburg, VA - It's inevitable that with the passage of time there will be changes. Sometimes, even timeless classics will transform themselves - some for the better, others for the worse. Recently, The Golden Horseshoe Golf Club's Gold Course, a timeless classic in its own right, has been the subject of change. But just as its neighbor, Colonial Williamsburg, has been refitted to meet the changing times, so has the Gold Course.
The track is an original Robert Trent Jones creation - the one that Jones himself called 'My finest design,' but it was decided a few years ago that the layout needed a few alterations in order to make the course a little more friendly to the average resort player.
Much has been written about how RTJ felt that technology was allowing professional players to gain a little too much ground in the fifties and sixties - at the expense of golf courses. Equally significant amounts have been written about how Jones' style morphed to meet the new demands - and it included producing ever increasingly difficult layouts.
Jones designed courses to punish the professional, yet wanted them fair enough to be enjoyed by the average player. Hence, he pioneered the idea of multiple tee locations and positioned hazards so as to be most threatening to the best players.
Despite Jones' philosophy (punish the pro, spare the weekend warrior), it was felt that the Gold Course was still too difficult. Del Snyder, the Ambassador of Golf for the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club and good friend of Sam Snead, said "Sam only played this course once - and he said it was too difficult to be a resort course." As a result of Snead's and others' similar opinions - in 1996 - Trent Jones' son Rees was brought in to make some changes.
Rees reworked the greens, reshaped some bunkers, added height to some of the tee boxes and made other subtle transformations to improve visibility - all in the notion of making the course a tad more playable for the resort player without dramatically altering the genius of the course. Snyder says the changes only made the classic design better.
When I asked him what the elder Jones thought of the changes his son was making, Del replied "He wasn't told." I hardly would want to speak for the legendary Robert Trent Jones, but I'm guessing his boy's changes wouldn't have bothered him at all.
With this knowledge in mind, and its history to be revered, I took on the Gold Course. Mr. Snyder added his infinite wisdom to the round, as did Assistant Golf Professional David J. Bobber. The track is not one that should be tackled for this first-timer without some guiding assistance from those who know. Del Snyder no doubt should be grouped with those in the latter category.
At 68 years of age, he can outplay 99% of those who are half his age. Bobber added a native Wisconsin's humble nature, along with an excellent golf game to make this a memorable day.
It's been said in the past that the Gold Course at the Golden Horseshoe compares favorably with any course on American soil - and from what I've seen, I believe it. The first hole and a half are tree lined, undulating, and aesthetically pleasing. But they don't prepare you for what's about to happen.
After teeing off on the second and walking to your ball, you are faced with the most defining site on the Gold Course - and can only be described as "a lake runs through it." Once you clear the crest of the hill, your view turns to a large ravine with a set of greens that all share the same water hazard.
The second shot on this reachable par five is all downhill - but must clear 55 yards of water in order to reach the putting surface. Jones especially loved the concept of the risk reward, and this hole defines the principle. If you choose to have a go at it, you'll have approximately 220 yards from a downhill lie - and it's all carry. The hole's setting reminded me of the 15th at Augusta - but that's not the only reference to the famous Georgia course that's conjured up in this picture.
Immediately to your right is another green, not sixty yards away - the par three 12th. It too commands a downhill tee shot over the same body of water as the second, and presents a comparable, though shorter challenge than the second shot on the adjacent par five. The views of this golf hole are surprisingly similar to the hole of the same number at Augusta - though the Gold's plays a tad longer and from farther up the slope.
There's even a bunker in the same central location in back of the green. Uncanny.
Glancing further to the right, you see the island green that is the Gold's signature hole, the 16th. All three of these greens are within easy hailing distance of each other, and are set at the bottom of a natural amphitheater. What a setting for a tournament - you could find a good patch of grass somewhere on the slope and have a great view of three greens. After playing the holes, it's very easy to see why the Gold has been favorably compared to the most legendary of American golf courses.
It should also be pointed out that the seventh hole - the second of the Gold's four stunning par threes - also plays over the same body of water, but the green is not at the bottom of the amphitheater like the aforementioned three holes, nor does the water as easily come into play.
This does not lessen the quality of the seventh whatsoever, but I mention this to particularly highlight the genius of Jones' placement of the 2nd, 12th, and 16th holes.
While the lakeside holes tend to take the star billing on this course, every hole in the layout seems to have its own charm. Particularly of note on the front side is number six, a 485 yard par five. Here too, Jones tempts you to go at the green on the second shot if you have the opportunity. Tee shots must find the plateau on top of a ridge, and avoid the right hand side, which slopes down towards the woods. If you carry the plateau, you'll have a slightly downhill lie for your second, and leave yourself a fairway wood to the green.
As with the second hole, the approach shot will need to carry, as you're hitting into an elevated green guarded by bunkers to the center-right and center-left. A great golf hole - short enough at 485 yards for some players to have a go at it - and difficult enough for those who do, to be forced to hit good shots to score well.
Practice Fac.: A-
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A
Pace of Play: A
Resort Hotel: A+
Overall Rating: A