Since March, I’ve been pretty cautious about everything, much less my golf travel. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t hit the road.
In June, I drove to Tobacco Road to play in a Solstice event. I went back and forth from the golf course to my hotel to my car. That was it.
Four months later, I drove 16-and-a-half hours to Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri. Under normal circumstances, our trio might have stayed in a hotel room. Given COVID-19, we decided to rent a standalone cabin on property and mostly have food delivered there after wall-to-wall 36-hole days of golf.
Then, earlier this month, I was invited to visit Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. It’s about a three-hour drive from my house in the D.C. area. I’ve heard from years how nice the place is. It has a pedigree of hosting PGA Tour and LPGA Tour events on their Pete Dye-designed River Course, and most every LPGA-associated person I talk to has told me to make the Kingsmill stop the next one I cover. (Fingers crossed for 2021.)
That’s about all I knew about the place when I accepted their invitation to visit. I tend not to do a ton of research on the places I go. I like being surprised. I don’t want everything revealed before I experience it. Other than directions and looking at a few pictures, I fly in blind. So when we arrived on Friday afternoon to Kingsmill, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
As it turns out, Kingsmill is the ideal place for a golf vacation in this awkward time of travel. And it’ll be really good when life starts to again resemble the way it was.
In the resort’s main building is registration, along with a bar, restaurant and conference space. Beyond that, however, the accommodations are spread out in garden-style condo buildings and homes that fan out concentrically.
My family didn’t have to share a common indoor space — not even a hallway — with anyone else. With six condo units in our building, everyone had their own entryway from the outside. It made us feel much more comfortable, as we could go from our accommodations to our car and around the resort without concern. I realize not everyone feels the same need for space and air flow that we might, but it’s a great benefit.
The resort set us up with a condo that could be split into two units. The main portion of the unit was what amounted to a one-bedroom condo with a lovely bedroom with a king bed and four-piece bathroom, a fireplace (which we used both nights), a small-but-full-featured kitchen, a dining area for six and a balcony. The connected adjacent unit was more like a hotel room, with two queen beds, a balcony and a full bathroom. Condo owners can rent out their spaces, and dividing up the units like this is a great idea to accommodate parties of different sizes. A buddy trip could have easily given four adults their own bed, adding in the pull-out couch.
There are two courses at Kingsmill: Dye’s River and the Arnold Palmer-designed Plantation Course.
I played the River Course the first morning. Before I got to the tee, I had a sense of dread that this Dye could stain the trip. Sometimes Dye courses are just too exacting, and that’s not always what I want in resort golf. This Dye lays down a challenge, but it’s more than reasonable for someone on a holiday.
A PGA Tour player — Mike Weir, maybe — once told me that Dye makes you think through the hole, starting with the green and moving backward. The greens on the River Course aren’t particularly big, which becomes clear on the short-ish par-4 first, which is a blueprint for how to play the rest of the day. If you take your chances and execute, you can score. If you choose to get the ball in play by taking a conservative approach, you best have your iron game working to score well.
It had rained several inches a few days prior to our arrival, and the course played soft. That meant I was more free to attack the course because balls wouldn’t roll out of fairways and approach shots would stick at the target. The greens ran a nice speed to make birdies but not so quick that many putts felt defensive.
The par 3s on the River Course offer some of the best views. None are too long — all in the 150-yard range from a box up — but they have greens which require a precise shot to secure a two-putt par.
As a longer player, I was thrilled with the par 5s. They’re not very long, which is great for every golfer, but earning an eagle putt requires two precise shots instead of two long shots — and there’s a big difference. The 15th hole was my favorite, which featured a narrow-looking landing area that tightened up where longer hitters are going to put the ball. Stick the landing with a shaped drive, and the entire hole opens up to a potential eagle.
The 15th gives way to the three-hole finish that really sells Kingsmill as a golf destination. Dye always had a thing for a closing trio. At his final design in Maryland, he called it the Good Night Kiss, and it was Dye’s way to keep a golfer coming back for more.
The par-4 16th plays under 400 yards and curls down and to the right off the tee. The target looks smaller from the fairway than it is, and that makes a conservative approach attractive.
The 17th hole is just 140 yards from the 1-up tee, but it’s a great short-iron hole. With a big valley between the tee and the green, which slopes from back to front, the approach shot has to meet the moment. With the James River serving as a beautiful distraction on the tee and at the green, it can be a pivotal hole in a tight match.
The closer on the River is quintessential Dye. The 380-yard par 4 features water all up the left side, with the ideal tee shot played over a mounded hill which shrouds the landing area. The temptation is to try to bite off as much of the hole as possible off the tee. However, with a generous downslope in the landing area, a drive that feels like a bailout will leave an uphill short iron to create a good birdie opportunity.
If you’ve played enough Dye courses, you kind of know what to expect. The River is a solid representation of his portfolio without being so difficult that you need a stiff drink afterward. That’s not to say that I didn’t have one, but it didn’t feel required.
That afternoon, my wife and I took the kids out for a drive around Williamsburg. We’re Beer People (TM) who go to breweries on weekends. The kids play board games or watch their screens, and we sip our way through a menu. Virginia Beer Company was a great scene for a weekend afternoon. With firepits outside and a musician strumming hits on the guitar, VBC was a great spot. They offer a wide variety of beers, with well-crafted brews for pretty much every taste on the beer spectrum.
The night prior, we picked up some cans and crowlers from Alewerks and Brass Cannon Brewing. Brass Cannon’s salted caramel stout was incredible, and their pumpkin ale might be the best I’ve ever had — tied with Alewerks’ rendition. The Precarious Beer Project is in downtown Williamsburg, and looked fun on a drive, but we didn’t get to partake there.
For dinner that night, we went to the resort’s James Landing Grille. Situated right on the river, the restaurant sources local sustainable seafood and farmed-nearby veggies. The oysters were excellent, and the gumbo I had was tasty. In a more normal time, it has to be hopping there well into the night. It was a great place to watch the sunset while we ate.
Afterward, we walked back up to our condo, with a quick stop on one of the nice playgrounds on property for the kids. I can’t tell you how nice it was to side around the fireplace, watch Masters highlights and drink some beers with my wife. It was a great night.
The next morning, I came in hot for my tee time on the Plantation Course, which was bad form since I was a 20-second drive from the clubhouse. Not knowing what was coming on the Palmer design, I asked the man at the bag drop what I needed to know. He said I didn’t need driver, that it was shorter than the River and that it was tight. Not the best sell ever, but it was practical advice.
Turns out, the Plantation Course is actually more fun than the River Course. That’s weird coming from a golfer who lives for banging driver, but it’s true.
I used driver on maybe four holes all day, and that was because avoiding the tall trees lining the fairways was imperative on this course. Sacrificing a few yards off the tee to put the ball in the right position was absolutely worth it. On hole after hole, hitting from the fairway to targets about as big as the River Course paid off.
That’s not to say I was hitting short irons in all day. On several holes, I left myself mid- and long-iron approaches, incidentally often to the tightest targets on the course. Laying up is the smart play on most every hole, save for a couple of the par 5s, but Palmer didn’t make it easy to bail out.
The par-5 eighth hole was the lone tee shot on the course that confounded me, forcing me to hit no more than an iron out to the dogleg-right fairway without fear of taking too much club on a mishit to the left.
In summer months, I might have been tempted to hit the driver more often. With several par 4s under 320 yards, it would be a blast to be aggressive knowing the ball would fly. With a cold, two-club wind when I played, there was no point.
The Plantation Course finishes with a par 3-and-a-half, a 264-yard par 4 that plays to a small green protected in front by a mid-depth bunker. Hitting into the wind, I wasn’t getting there, but it was fun to finally feel like I could let one rip.
I ended up with 67. With a course rating under 69, the Plantation wasn’t designed to be difficult, but it could easily play that way for a golfer whose ego gets in the way.
Given that it was November, the resort wasn’t crazy crowded, and playing golf was a pleasantly quick affair. I played each morning starting at 9 a.m. and finished in about three-and-a-half hours. In prime season, I imagine rounds stretch closer to five hours, but that’s to be expected.
I would love to see a revamped merch selection in the pro shop. The River Course has an alternate cannon logo that would look great. I love a pro shop with a great T-shirt, and that was missing here. But they still had logoed apparel from all the major golf fashion brands. Did that affect my enjoyment of the resort whatsoever? No. But great merch makes me more likely to become a walking billboard for a place in the future.
I texted some buddies while I was at Kingsmill and told them I thought it would be a great place for a semi-local weekend buddy trip. With two courses, a group could play each course twice over two to four days. Downtown Williamsburg, with the College of William and Mary nearby, is an excellent spot with a mix of restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries to please anyone. For those who like a theme park, Busch Gardens is a great place to spend an afternoon or evening. Colonial Williamsburg is fun for the history geek in me. The resort’s accommodations offer options for any group size and their preferences, with plenty of trails on which to run and bike, as well swimming pools and a spa to relax.
On the way home, stop at the Mike Strantz-designed Royal New Kent, and that right there is a great weekend.
Kingsmill isn’t a golf resort. It’s a resort with golf. There’s a difference, and there’s pluses and minuses to both. With Kingsmill situated in one of my favorite small towns in America, the resort is a great place to stay and play without having to live and breath golf for your entire vacation.