By: Jeff Thoreson
History rarely walks hand-in-hand with golf, though there are many examples where the two meet. Only in Williamsburg, Virginia, do they enjoy a marriage of golden proportions.
It has been more than 80 years since the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation organized behind benefactor John D. Rockefeller’s quest to rebuild the historic town and preserve an era of American history as important as any. It was 1937 when the centerpiece of Rockefeller’s effort opened. The Williamsburg Inn has become one of the country’s great hotels, one so well oiled that it can gracefully and simultaneously accommodate couples on a luxury retreat, families seeking history and theme park thrill rides and foursomes out for a great golf getaway.
For the later, Robert Trent Jones Sr. opened his magnificent Golden Horseshoe Golf Club’s Gold Course in 1963, laying down a classic that has withstood the tests of time and technology. For more than a half century now the Gold Course has remained on lists of America’s great classic courses and our best resort courses.
Golf may have started as an afterthought in Colonial Williamsburg, and it certainly wasn’t on the minds of the men who made history in this town in the 18th century, but now the game is firmly entrenched, working side by side with history to make Williamsburg one of America’s great destinations.
The restored colonial capitol building where America’s founding fathers renounced British tyranny, debated the course for American independence and ultimately won liberty over death is a meaty par 4 from the land that became one of the country’s great golf courses.
The distance is easily covered even by men carrying such heavy burdens, so it would be no stretch to believe Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and compatriots hunted this land, or just walked it to clear their minds during a break in the heady debates of American independence.
“It’s like our founding fathers left it there years ago just waiting for it to be turned into a golf course,” says RTJ’s son Rees Jones, who came along a few decades later and added the Green Course to Colonial Williamsburg’s golf portfolio.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation actually introduced golf to the restored colonial capital 15 years before RTJ when in 1947 it built a nine-hole course as a recreational outlet for guests of the Williamsburg Inn. As the game’s popularity grew, the foundation recognized the need for a championship course and enlisted the preeminent course designer of the time to build it. Jones had dotted the country with fine layouts just like Donald Ross a generation before.
On the thickly wooded and sharply undulating land right outside the back door of the Williamsburg Inn, Jones built what he considered later was his best effort. The course was vintage RTJ – ‘runway’ tees and small, sharply sloping greens and kinky doglegged fairways, all built while clearing as few trees as possible.
After building the Gold Course, RTJ focused on the existing nine-hole course. He added a couple of new holes and turned it into a 2,000-yard course with six par 3s, two par 4s and a par 5s.
“To show you what a genius he was,” says Glen Byrnes, CW’s director of golf and recreation, “he knew there would be a role for a nine-hole executive length course. To me, he was ahead of his time.”
But it was the RTJ’s masterpiece that garners all the attention. And rightfully so. Known simply as the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club when it opened, RTJ’s layout brought the Williamsburg Inn up to the level of other resorts, many of which has been in the golf business for decades by 1963. But the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club had the added attraction of colonial history; although actually it’s the other way around.
“The reason the courses are here is to be part of the recreation component to support visitation to the historic area,” says Byrnes. “Everything we do as a golf operation is to support the not-for-profit foundation in promoting the history of the founding of this country.”
Golf may have a tendency to be overshadowed by everything else that happens in Colonial Williamsburg. Few resorts can offer such a full plate of activities.
“Because we’re so much more than a golf resort, we don’t always get the attention of being a great golf resort,” says Byrnes. “But that also makes the Golden Horseshoe a special place for the game to be played.”
For golfers, CW will always be known as a luxury golf resort with upscale accommodations, outstanding dining and a classic course one never tires of playing.
“I started playing there in 1976,” says Williamsburg businessman Jeff Fleishman. “I’ve always loved the compact holes, the tree-lined fairways and the hard finish.”
The course nurtures the player for the first nine holes, offering a few short par 4s and two reachable par 5s offset by two outstandingly difficult par 3s. RTJ turns up the heat on the back nine and when you step on the tee for the long and difficult par-4 14th, you’re just hoping not to melt.
Horseshoe legend has it that the 630-yard par-5 15th has been reached in two only once, by Dustin Johnson in the NCAA Championship in 2007. And then comes the island green, par-3 16th, believed to be the first island green ever built. The long, arduous, uphill par-4 17th and the long dogleg-left par-4 18th with its tiny green fixated next to a small pond finish a closing stretch that has few equals.
It was 1991 when the course took on the moniker of the Gold Course. The game’s popularity again on the rise, the foundation hired Rees Jones to build the resort’s second course. Bigger, wider and friendlier, the Green Course helped take the load off the original course, leaving CW the ability to host large corporate outings and still have golf available for resort guests and members. A few years later, the foundation had Rees Jones back to modernize his father’s original layout.
“Really, we just did some things my father wasn’t able to do when he built the course because the equipment and technology wasn’t available back then,” Jones says. “We graded some fairways and took some slope out of the greens to accommodate modern green speeds.
“It’s held up wonderfully and not because of its length,” Jones says of the course that tops out at 6,817 yards. “It’s a true test of all of your skills.”
If golf gets the best of you, and it likely will, Colonial Williamsburg has outlets where you can vent. At the ax range visitors learn the history of ax throwing in the Revolutionary War and actually get to throw axes. At the shooting range you can prime and fire replicas of colonial-era muskets.
Rest assured there is plenty of pampering to be had at resort and throughout the colonial area. The Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge are CW’s luxury hotels where golf, dining, the historic district are all just steps away. For the true colonial experience visitors can stay in one of the Colonial Houses in the historic district and sleep in a canopy bed next to a crackling fire. The Woodlands is CW’s third hotel, more comfortable and convenient than luxurious.
At the Williamsburg Inn, the Rockefeller Room is a culinary adventure in modern dining with traditional white-glove service. Across the street at the lodge the regional cuisine is served in a more contemporary setting. Period-themed taverns in the historic district offer the feel of 18th century dining, although the food is likely far better than what was served when our founding fathers gathered at these taverns. Christiana Campbell’s, Shield’s, Chowning’s and King’s Arms taverns all do a good replicating that experience, so much so that your meal may be serenaded by a small musical group playing colonial instruments like fifes, lutes and bassoons.
The height of luxury in Colonial Williamsburg may well be the sumptuous spa, where your pursuit of wellness can include a 17th century detoxifying herbal wrap and hot stone massage or a more modern (18th century, that is) colonial orange-ginger scrub and massage. Like all the other treatments, each comes with the modern touch that defines Colonial Williamsburg – history and modern elegance.
For Golf Packages at the Colonial Williamsburg Hotel, visit https://www.colonialwilliamsburghotels.com/offers/