With my golf ball resting on the back fringe, 100 feet from the front pin of the first green, I make a smooth strike with my 56-degree wedge. Clipping just underneath my Irish-themed Chrome Soft, it pops up nicely and plops down near the dramatic ridge running across the green. Backspin slows the ball’s roll just enough so that when it catches the slope between the tiers, it gently glides down to within six feet. The perfect chip gives me the first of what would be 16 makeable par putts on the day.
I would go on to make just two of those putts. But this day isn’t about my score or sudden inability to use a putter. Royal New Kent Golf Club is back, the weather is dry and I am in heaven.
Designed in 1996 by the late Mike Strantz, Royal New Kent was one of his two Virginia golf courses — and the one that most closely resembles his greatest work: Tobacco Road Golf Club in Sanford, North Carolina. Royal New Kent shares many attributes with its big-time brother, most notably the open, rustic and undulating aesthetics.
But it also has the reputation of being extremely difficult and taking a long time to play. A myriad of blind shots can make knowing where to hit the ball and where to look for it once you do a frustrating recurrence for the unacquainted golfer.
Because of this and other factors, Royal New Kent’s popularity dwindled in recent years and the course’s upkeep followed suit. By 2017, the dramatic bunkers guarding many of the greens were bare enough to expose the drain pipes, ready to take out an ankle or two. The fairways grew patchy with as much weeds as grass in some areas, and the greens looked as worn out at as 70-year-old rock star after too many days on the road.
The signs of neglect led to a predictable announcement that the course’s owner, Traditional Golf Properties, would sell the course. There were no immediate takers, and Royal New Kent was allowed to go dormant heading into the spring 2018.
But just a few months later, word came that Wingfield Golf Management (owner of the nearby and popular Rees Jones-designed Club at Viniterra) had purchased the property. Hope for the Strantz design was restored as Winfield set out to invest $2 million in renovating the course and fixing the poor drainage system once and for all.
Perhaps even more ambitious was Wingfield’s plan to replace the bentgrass greens with champion Bermuda grass, a bold move in an area of the country that has recently experienced some cold winters. Nearby Independence Golf Club had done the same two years prior and paid for it dearly when the relatively harsh 2017-2018 winter killed nearly every green. That club ended up closed for most of the peak 2018 season as they re-sodded the dead warm-weather grass.
With so much to do to get Royal New Kent back in shape, the new owners set an ambitious goal of re-opening the club in less than a year. When news came just a few weeks ago that “Opening Day” for Royal New Kent would be just a day after that of Major League Baseball’s seasonal inauguration, I was one of the first to jump on the new course website and book a tee time. Months of anticipation had me brimming with excitement and optimism.
I arrive at the course a full 90 minutes before teeing off, wanting plenty of time to soak in the joy of reconnecting with a old friend. Even with the sub-par conditions that had plagued the course before its closure, I had ranked it as one of my favorite courses. Royal New Kent’s layout had encouraged some of the most memorable shots in my 10-year golfing career.
One of my favorites was a utterly blind approach on the par-4 No. 8. Back in July 2017, I needed to walk 20 yards to the side to pick out a tree limb in the backdrop as a target, then returned to my ball and struck a smooth 8-iron that landed 12 feet from the pin. Similar to the par-5 13th hole at Tobacco Road, Strantz designed No. 8 at Royal New Kent so that the mounding reveals the green in small glimpses as you drive your cart around to the back side. It wasn’t until I was nearly behind the green that I even saw where my ball had landed and was as delighted as a 6-year-old unwrapping a birthday present.
Walking into the freshened clubhouse on opening day, I couldn’t ask for better weather. After a relentlessly wet winter, it had been a full five days since the last rainfall and the temperature was already at a pleasant 50 degrees and warming quickly. Inside the clubhouse I’m greeted by the warm face of Chip Sullivan, Royal New Kent’s general manager who also oversaw the renovations. He’s standing behind the pro shop counter guiding his team members through the new point-of-sale system. I give them a bit more practice by purchasing half of the available merchandise and checking in for my round.
After an encouraging warmup session on the driving range with my bag of complimentary range balls, I head back up to the main practice green (there are two of them) and run into Chip’s two pre-teen sons, Colby and Ben. Later they would both embarrass me with their distance, accuracy and touch around the greens, but right now they are chatting about their experience with getting the golf course back up and running. They’re still new at this; it took Colby a few tries to get my golf bag secured properly to the cart, but his persistence paid off.
Recently relocated from Mississippi, they tell me their dad moved here to take a job as head professional at a course on Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula that had since closed down. With his new gig at Royal New Kent, the daily commute for the three of them is an hour of back roads each way.
PLAYING ON VIRGIN GRASS
They invite me to join and tee off a few minutes early, and we get off to a great start with all of us in the fairway on the first hole. If I had to guess, I’d say the boys’ handicaps are under 10. And with my putter going ice cold, I’m playing more like a 15-handicapper today. But the score is of little consequence. This is likely the only time I will get to play a course as fresh as this. No divots, no ball marks, hardly so much as a pair of cart tracks interrupt the otherwise utterly virgin (if still dormant) grass.
The difference in the bunkers is certainly the most notable change. Fresh, beachy, white sand covers every inch of every trap, and it is piled high for good measure. My golf ball was fortunate to evade capture by the bunkers until my approach on the par-5 No. 10 where a delicate pitch shot from 40 yards came up about eight yards short in one of the larger bunkers wrapping around the entire front side of the two-tiered green.
Though every green had been rolled daily for the past week, the bunkers had not, leaving the sand a little on the soft side. My first attempt to remove the ball from the fluffy trap is successful, but just barely. Perhaps taking Chip’s advice to play the bunkers as ground-under-repair would have been prudent. The same can be said about the areas surrounding the new fairway drainage grates because the sod hasn’t yet fully gelled with the surrounding turf.
Those issues aside, the course is supremely playable, and a joy at that. The choice of Bermuda has paid off with a beautiful, carpet-like feel to the greens. Rolling around an 11 on the stimpmeter, the undulating and tiered putting surfaces are at the very limit of speed for casual golfers. Any faster and they’d have to be run by the USGA. The greens aren’t too firm though and are receptive to well-placed approach shots.
Royal New Kent’s new management takes the heritage of the course and inspiration of its design very seriously. Strantz’ creations like this one were heavily influenced by his love of Irish links courses. After my first round at Royal New Kent in 2016, I called the layout “the closest you can get to Irish links this side of the Atlantic”. To that end, the Royal New Kent has rebranded itself by using an Irish flag and regal coat-of-arms logo emblazoned in the middle with the word “Invicta” (“unconquerable”) written below it.
The cool logo is even used as a label on the water bottles found in your cart (along with complimentary towels). The gas-powered carts are also brand new and include a club-ball washer, cooler for your drinks and USB charging port. I often wonder if golf course operators understand how much these amenities mean to the enjoyment of golfers. You’d think they’d all offer at least a couple of these features at every course by now.
All these amenities come at a price though. Rack rates are up to $95 for 18 holes Friday through Sunday, but there are a host of different rates for different times and types of golfers. There’s even an implied-but-not-posted walking rate for those brave enough to attempt such a feat. Besides the hilly terrain, Royal New Kent’s layout does have to traverse a couple neighborhoods (though no houses come into play) and there are some sizable gaps between many of the holes, particularly on the back nine. Days when the course is playing as cart-path-only or is otherwise backed up are likely the only times walking would be feasible.
A COURSE THAT BUILDS MEMORIES
The boys stop at the turn for a bite to eat and tell me they’ll catch up later on the back nine. With no one yet in sight ahead of me, I wonder how the two of them can play any faster than the one of me. My putting woes continue, but I’m enjoying a solid ball-striking round, a trait that comes in quite handy on a tough course like this. Right now the perimeter of the fairways is forgiving, but in a few months’ time the fescue will have grown up long enough to swallow beach balls.
As I look back from the tee at the nasty long par-4 16th, I see the Sullivan boys just a hole behind me. After a five-minute search for my tee shot (oh wait, no, it was three minutes … yeah, definitely only three) they are hot on my heels and finally catch me on 18. But not before I execute my best shot of the day.
With water in play about 270 yards from the middle tees, I club down to 3-wood and hit a floater that leaves me an uncomfortable 199 yards from a peninsula green — guarded front, back and right by a pond. Better still, the green sits 30 feet below the fairway, completely hidden from where I stand just inches from a fairway bunker. I walk up and inspect my target line, then pull a hybrid from my bag. I wave the cart girl by, wanting no witnesses to my stubbornness as I take my stance with a club that rarely goes more than 190. With one last deep breath I swing away and make perfect contact. My ball sails over the hill in the general direction of the green. I sprint to the top of the hill, desperately trying to get a glimpse as it lands, but there’s too much ground to cover. It’s not until I drive up near the green that I see the ball is safely on the left edge.
After waving up the youngsters, I recount my glorious shot. They do their best to act impressed. Colby jams his par putt in and Ben scrambles for a two-putt bogey. I take yet another disappointing three-putt in stride and then take a moment to appreciate the scenic view from the cart path that sits on a ledge overlooking the 10th and 18th holes. What a round. I’ll remember that shot for years to come. The challenge, the execution, the mystery. Royal New Kent knows how to transform your round of golf into a work of fantastical fiction.
Rather than trunk-slamming and hitting the road right away, I stop off inside the clubhouse where I discover a full-feature restroom complete with showers, dressing area and lockers sporting name placards such as “B. Hogan” “S. Snead” and “B. Jones” among others. It’s quite lovely. The main hallway is adorned with another impressive touch: sketches of the holes done by Mike Strantz himself. I grab a lunch at the “Strantz Pub” while watching the Dell Match Play coverage from five television screens in the dining room. I say “room” but it’s actually an entire wing of the clubhouse with giant bay windows overlooking the course in three directions.
These days, the idea of a shuttered public golf course getting a second life seems like a fairy tale. Located off a sleepy highway exit miles from the nearest metro area and with a reputation of being a beast of a course, Royal New Kent is less of an unlikely success story and more of a small miracle. Today, most struggling courses are focused on making themselves easier, simpler and cheaper.
Chip Sullivan and his team have a different vision. The yearlong remodel wasn’t designed to improve play or lower scores. It was designed to bring back the designer’s true spirit, paying homage to his vision. And that’s a very good thing because Mike Strantz’ idea of what a golf course should be is an idea that more courses — and more golfers — should embrace.