Royal New Kent

6,733 yards, 149 slope from the Black tees

In Providence Forge, Virginia, the course was designed by Mike Strantz, opening in 1996. The distinct personality Strantz rendered to each of his courses is one of his most famous design traits and here is no different. Modeled in the style of the links in Ireland, Royal New Kent features a barrage of dynamic mounding, bunkering and elevation changes that never cease to challenge the golfer starting from the opening tee shot. One of Strantz’s earlier designs and where he and his close friend, Forrest Fezler, began working together, this is a great example of how Strantz interlaced his brilliant artistic vision with a solid playing structure, calculating each shot the golfer would face and how he would see it. The towering mounds and twisting fairways against the backdrop of fescue and the sky above effectively evoke the feeling of Portmarnock or Ballybunion. Make no mistake, however, this is a tough golf course. Forced carries, blind shots, darting greens, seemingly impossible approach angles; all of it is here.

As I wrote in, “The Strantz I Know,” “. . . the dunes and hills flummoxed in how they’d hide the path of play, then part altogether, yielding incredible vistas of other hills and meadows, all of it a brilliant hue of green and auburn. Visually mesmerizing yes, but very much in the style of Irish links in appearance and in play, as intended. The bunkering and slopes would suddenly pop before you while others would slowly rise to impressive heights and shapes. It was apparent that every feature; bunker, ridge, hill, spot of fescue; was placed carefully and deliberately. It was a strategic explosion navigating all of it and of course, while it seemed as if everything had been in place like this for centuries, the site was mostly built up. Yet out on the course, with the land, it was an adventure. The movement, how the terrain revealed itself and the decisions I had to make, all of it inspired and reached to the more expressive side of golf. If you’re lucky, you come away from a round of golf a little bit wiser, a little bit more relaxed than when you started. I certainly did here. A much better play even than the accolades it receives, there were layers to how impressed I was.”

That about sums it up for me. I found it to be a very good course in both presentation and playing structure. Yes there are some houses that muddle up the routing and ambiance on a few holes of the back nine but otherwise it’s a well varied course that keeps the challenge and strategy fresh with each shot. How hills come across the fairways at an angle, how greens are set in every direction and configuration, uphill shots, downhill ones, carries, interesting ground game decisions; there’s a lot out there and a lot of ways to go about playing it. This is a terrific example of engaging public course architecture you would love to see more of but as it stands, is one of the best non-resort stand alone public courses I have played.

View from the Clubhouse

This was the first 18 of a 54 hole 24 hours to start my Pinehurst vacation. It wasn’t a bad drive from Philadelphia and after the round, it was only a few hours to where I was staying near Tobacco Road. It was long overdue to play Strantz designed courses and I was about to dive in head first. It was all with a smile on my face.

The First is a 372 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). An elevated tee shot is to a fairway that snakes and climbs between fescue lined mounds. The golfer is free to take on the mound to the left in order for a shorter approach but must be sure to clear it or will be in a world of trouble. The fairway in view from the tee appears narrow but there is more room out there than it looks. The approach looks straight up to the green, with the fairway taking a hard left turn, falling off into the abyss on either side. Then there’s the green, moving like there’s no tomorrow from back to front, happily sending your ball back down the hill if the opportunity arises. There is no handshake here. This is a get your affairs in order, put your boots on and salute opening hole.

The First
The fairway
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 561 yard par 5. Another hard turn dog leg, this one to the right. A forced carry tee shot that’s also blind, for the uninitiated using the tree line as a guide is about the closest it gets to figuring out where to hit. The fairway curls around a deep valley below that banks steeply down on the right side, so those who are adventurous can try and carry it to the green on the second shot while the rest of us can continue down the fairway, leaving a straightforward approach slightly downhill.

The Second
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Third is a 160 yard par 3. The amount of tees here are staggering. Set on a wide ridge, they take advantage of every angle possible into the green, which is generally a deep hourglass shape and falls off steeply on either side. From the tee, it is tough to tell just where the flat area of the green is but there is a lot more room than it looks. As we are learning very quickly, trust in one’s swing and decision is paramount despite what one sees ahead.

The Third

The Fourth is a 383 yard par 4. The fairway is almost perpendicular from the tee and goes out of view as it runs to the green off to the right. Once in the fairway, we realize that it’s a valley with hillsides banking towards the center on each side. The fairway then narrows while bunkers are scattered about leading up to the green. The green is above, with a single green side bunker on the right and a drop off the side to the left.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 571 yard par 5. Continuing on in the valley from the prior hole, bunkers intersperse each side as mounds give the shape of a saddle ahead of us. Bunkers in this saddle make it look like a necklace of bunkers and the whole ordeal must be carried to reach the fairway on the other side. On this other side, the fairway widens and leads downhill to the green with an entry point at the left center, large bunkers at green side and a rather big green that runs front to back. It’s a gorgeous par 5, full of options and multiple paths and shots to the green, marvelous bunkering throughout.

The Fifth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Sixth is a 379 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left that gently climbs to the green, bunkers are on either side tempering that tee shot. The approach is fairly straightforward so long as the tee shot is well executed as the fairway leads right into the green. A refresher hole of sorts, get your bearings and soldier on.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory, from the right
Looking back

The Seventh is a 167 yard par 3. A craggy creek runs up the left side very much like a burn we’d see across the pond. The green is deep and runs away from the tee, the creek close at hand on the left and bunkers on the right, all of it a forced carry from the elevated tee. It’s a wonderful green site.

The Seventh

The Eighth is a 398 yard par 4. A dog leg right in standard parlance but the hills and mounds do their best to confound that proposition. While the hill on the right obscures any view of the fairway or green after the turn, all the golfer can see from the tee is the fairway to the turn, with bunkers on the right and various undulations tilting the ground this way and that. The tee shot determines a lot in terms of what you can see and how you approach the green. Generally, the shorter the tee shot, the better chance of ending up in the fairway but the approach will likely be completely blind, the green hiding behind the hills. Those challenging the bunkers on the right and clearing them and the hillside from the tee are rewarded with a better view and options into the green. Those that know the hole better than others have a decided advantage here in that they can take a more conservative line off the tee and know where to hit it on the approach. It’s strategic, can be played a number of ways and requires lots of plays to learn its idiosyncrasies. In other words, it’s a terrific hole.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Ninth is a 352 yard par 4. Contrast this with its predecessor and the variety of the course is apparent. Here, it’s all in front of you. A creek runs across our view of the fairway which runs perpendicular to us. This sets up a decision from the tee in how much you’d like to take off of the creek to set up the approach, which is to an uphill green. While the hole looks like it’s a few miles long, the green is closer than it appears, so trust the swing and distances, hedging a bit for the uphill. The clubhouse, on its perch, awaits.

The Ninth
Moving up the fairway

The front nine is very well put together in its variety, challenge and presentation. One must be ready to game from the opening tee shot and continue on relentlessly to keep up in both swing and wits. I’d rank them 8, 4, 1, 5, 3, 2, 7, 9, 6.

The back nine starts with the 578 yard par 5 Tenth. Going off away from the back of the clubhouse, the tee shot is obscured b y a mound of bunkers while water is off to the right. The fairway on the other side of the bunkers is wide and runs perpendicular form the tee. Sweeping off to the right, then turning left down to a ravine, the green on the other side. The green moves from back to front, towards the ravine, with bunkers at the front and both sides. The heave of the fairway provides several different lies and slopes for the shots and the approach must be a precise one based on the fortifications around it.

The Tenth
Looking back at the clubhouse
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green, from the right

The Eleventh is a 377 yard par 4. The tee shot heading straight out with a forced carry over another ravine, the fairway then climbs uphill and turns to the right. Bunkers are on either side of the fairway off the tee, then to the right closer to the right. In fact, that bunker is one you’ll want to avoid, as it’s steep and rigid and brings into question reaching the green. The green sits wide on a ridge, allowing freedom of pin positions. Yet another terrific green site.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory, from the right
Approach more towards center

The Twelfth is a 172 yard par 3. A drop shot par 3 that must be carried all the way to a deep sliver of a green with bunkers essentially trying to climb on to the green itself. The front of the green is wider than the back and by all means don’t stray too far off green or you’ll start hoping your ball gets into a fairway instead of the fescue beyond. This hole wants precision and is not really too compromising about it.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a 338 yard par 4. A dog leg right where the fairway is wide to start off and a swatch of bunkers sits on a ridge to make sure those trying to get closer to the green from the tee properly belt their shots out. This is a wide affair with all the room one could ask for off to the left, yet that ridge to the right continues, where bunker expanses sit below the green. The entry point is inviting yet sits to the front left, so all ends well for those sticking to that left side from the tee.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 332 yard par 4. The drive to this hole makes walking all but impossible here, which is one of the knocks on the course as it maneuvers around the housing in place. Such is the breaks some times. Yet once we finally reach this hole, we are met with an interesting proposition at the tee. Downhill al the way, the fairway begins to funnel narrower and narrower to a set of mounds before moving through. Determining whether the wider start of the fairway is preferable for a longer approach, one must also account for the downhill and how much the ball will move towards the mounds. Of course, some may throw caution to the wind and decide to hit their tee shot over the mounds altogether and go for the green. Then there are those among us who will go for the tee shot that gives us the best view of the green at the approach. In this was the hole is strategic fun yet short enough for everyone to decide for themselves, rely on whatever trait of their game they wish and get to the green in exciting fashion. A short par 4 done well.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory
A bit closer
The green

The Fifteenth is a 209 yard par 3. A long par 3 where the tee and green are set at high points of hills so we need to get from one to the other and avoid the chasm between. The false front of the green falls off into this chasm at the front and the green is deeper than it looks, appropriate for receiving the long shots necessary to get there. There are a variety of tees and while mine were those straight to the green, there are others more off to the right of the green, which sets up a pretty interesting angle in to the green. A tranquil spot for a hole, the long iron or hybrid now has time to shine.

The Fifteenth
Looking back at the various tee areas

The Sixteenth is a 448 yard par 4. A forced carry tee shot to a hillside that turns left abruptly. In fact, getting the tee shot to turn left along the fairway is a good idea, as the ball will get some advancement towards the green, all of it sorely needed for the longer approach shot awaiting. A forced carry over a ravine, then bunkers guarding the green and of course consider the false front. I found it to be one of the tougher shots on the course and in general, a stiff challenge of a hole.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Seventeenth is a 534 yard par 5. Moving out of the hills, this hole is one of the flatter on the course. A meandering creek must be carried to reach the fairway from the tee, which then moves up the right side with us before making another more confrontational appearance at the approach. The fairway is wide as it moves yonder, the green no where to be found. It is not until we get into the meat of the fairway that we finally see the green tucked away to the right. The creek crosses back over the fairway, making all approaches a carry over it. Some may try to go for it in two while others will use the vast fairway to set up a closer and more ideal angled approach to a wide green. It’s a strategically enjoyable hole, much more relaxed in its presentation as the golfer starts to feel the round wind down to its close.

The Seventeenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
A bit closer
Looking back
Looking out from the rear of the green towards the Eighteenth

The Eighteenth is a 400 yard par 4. Water decides to become a big part of the finale as it’s generally off to the right yet breaches in both the tee shot and approach, making both a forced carry. The fairway is wide enough but there are bunker at the sides that need to be avoided. The green sits on a peninsula of sorts, perpendicular to the fairway with water at the front left and even the rear. The last approach must be true and precise and there is no hiding from it. With that, the round is over, the clubhouse rests above us and the land waits to greet us again, whenever that may be.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
The leveling before the water
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The back nine matches the front with its bold challenge and thrilling variety. I would rank them 17, 13, 14, 16, 11, 10, 18, 15, 12.

Generally, Strantz focused on providing memorable impressionable golf courses for the public that were every bit as complex and engaging as anything that is private. Like the UK, Royal New Kent is an ode to that model in accessibility and offers the same type of playing experience. There are layers that make it worthy of play over and over again; from learning more and more about it and how your game fares best to simply understanding the contours and angles of the fairways and greens, there’s a receptiveness of all styles of play. The hills, mounds and bunker placement are sound design and the challenge comes in waves. An idyllic public course, from the views, artistry and play; even the view from the clubhouse impress. Offering infinite challenge and intrigue, this is a course the locals are fortunate to be near while worthy for the rest of us to include on one of our journeys searching for those courses that speak to us. It is here.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Set on a ridge with expansive views of the back nine and a fitting Strantz’s Pub, it is well set up.

Practice area: There is a range down the hill from the clubhouse and a putting green just outside the pro shop.

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