Wintergreen's original golf course is an Ellis Maples design that opened in 1976, known then and today as Devil's Knob. It's a curious title, in that hell is supposed to be hot and excruciatingly painful-and neither of those two adjectives comes close to describing what's offered up in the mountains of central Virginia. Wintergreen resort is about an hour's drive south and west of Charlottesville, and even the drive up the mountain could be considered angelic. Nothing but cool temperatures and stunning mountain views accompany you as you make the journey up to the resort-and once you're there, you'll find excellent accommodations and facilities to welcome you to heaven. I bet the devil hasn't been seen around these parts for an eternity.
If anything, the course may get its name from the difficult nature of the layout. Number one greets you with a slight dogleg right, and one of the first things you'll notice is that the landing area is guarded by dense forest on each side-and the cleared space isn't very wide. Some might call it tight.
Our playing partners for the round, Ed Gilliam and his neighbor Charlie, are members on the course-and they told us to leave the driver in the bag. That's well suited advice, as anyone brave enough to grip it n' rip it on this course is probably going to find themselves in the woods quite a bit-as we were on several occasions.
In most ways, that's not a good thing, but on this day it was-Ed had the most incredible knack for finding golf balls-I don't think I'll need to visit the pro shop for the game's essentials for months.
Devil's Knob's head pro, Lance Reynolds, echoed Ed and Charlie's advice: "It's the type of course where if you play it from the white tees-where 95% of the players play it-that you really only need about 170 yards off the tee on most holes. For that reason, it's a great course for seniors and ladies, where they can hit long irons from the tee box and still score well."
The course's high altitude (almost four thousand feet) and location (on top of a ridge) can lead to devilishly difficult conditions. Breezy a good portion of the time, the smart player must keep the wind direction and severity in mind on every shot. Even then it's tough-because once your ball's above the treeline, it's anything goes for the flight. Lucifer probably has a good chuckle or two watching players try to figure out the prevailing wind direction, then curse when he changed it in mid-flight.
Adding to the challenge is the distracting imagery in the form of gorgeous mountain views. There are also natural rock outcroppings on many holes to accent the beauty of the scenery. Reynolds says that they're making a conscious effort to expose the rock as much as feasible - "The course is essentially built on a rock, so wherever possible we cut back the growth to give the course it's extra, own unique flavor."
All in all, it adds up to quite a test-much more than you'd expect from a track that measures 6,576 yards from the back tees-and even plays somewhat shorter than that. The sloped fairways will often give you generous rolls if you manage to hit it where it's supposed to be-but doing that is much easier said than done.
The greens at Devil's Knob also deserve special note. Not only were they in great shape, but they rolled fast and true. Maples obviously set out to challenge you in the putting game with some significant undulation and tiered greens-but also with your iron play in reaching the putting surface. It is essential to keep the ball below the hole. Any shot long is trouble-if you're over the green, forget it. If you're above the hole, good luck finding the brake lever on your golf ball.
Reynolds adds "After you've played the course a few times, it's a good strategy to go for the same areas off the tee to set up your approach shots. It's better to be short of the putting surfaces, because it'll be a much easier pitch up the slope than down-and there are runup areas in front of almost every green to give you the option of that shot."
Choice is the sign of an excellent golf course-it forces you to think from the first tee shot through the final putt on the 18th. Devil's Knob certainly does that. Having Ed and Charlie along also helped immeasurably-they could tell us when were the proper times to gamble, and which to just play it safe. There were plenty of both situations in the layout.
The third hole is an excellent example of how distance, elevation, and wind direction combine to play havoc with your golfing common sense. Measuring 478 yards from the back tees, you're faced upon arriving on the tee with a severe downhill shot to a dogleg right. The shot plays to a fade, and the distance calls for a driver, but you might think twice about what appears to be, versus what is and should be. On this day, the wind direction was slightly in our face, but mostly left to right, so it was okay to pull out the '1' wood. On a day with a different wind pattern, it would be very easy given the elevation change to put it through the fairway. And the rough on this course is another place you don't want to be-extremely thick.
Another unique aspect of Devil's Knob is its hole sequencing. The course plays to a par 70, but the front nine contains two par fives and three par threes. The back is a more standard, one par five, two par three configuration. The par fours are a good mixture of doglegs and straight on challenges.
But even the straight on holes usually have something distinctive to them, such as the twelfth hole-which has a sharp sloping fairway to the right. Even a well struck straight ball here might roll into the rough. Better try and get some draw on the tee if you want to stay in the short cut.
Three other holes on the back deserve honorable mention. The fifteenth is a 185 yard par three from the back tees where the tee is essentially carved into a slope. Playing the white tees chops off about 60 yards from the shot, and really takes away quite a lot of the challenge. The hole requires an accurate shot, as there's very little room left or right to miss-and the exposed nature of the tee box adds the pressure of choosing the right club for the wind. Here, again, you can be short, but not long.
The elevated tee shot on the sixteenth presents a spectacular mountain view. Measuring 408 yards from the back, it's one of the few opportunities where driver can be hit comfortably, and you may be able to record a 300 yarder if you strike it well-because of the steep slope and fairway roll.
Practice Fac.: B
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: B
Pace of Play: B
Resort Hotel: A-
Overall Rating: B+