6,557 cards, 140 slope from the Blues
Stonehouse is in Toano, Virginia, which is down the road from Royal New Kent, and was built by Mike Strantz in 1996. Yes, the same design team built two courses at the same time essentially twenty minutes from each other. While I have all kinds of questions about that arrangement and how it worked out, there is surprisingly little out there on the history of Stonehouse. In an interview with Golf Club Atlas in 2000, Strantz stated that he was always proud of the dirt he didn’t move at this site, which he described as full of bold, abrupt contours, steep ravines and natural drainage basins, which he and his team tried to leave alone as much as possible, weaving golf holes over, around and through them to keep moving dirt to a minimum. The interview is worth reading in its entirety for those interested in Strantz, so here is the link https://golfclubatlas.com/feature-interview/mike-strantz/. Strantz emphasizes this later in the interview; the effort to accentuate the bold contours and natural features here. I found this jarring to some extent, as there is much about the course that emphasized strong shaping that I assumed was to inject interest into the site. Instead, it seems it was there all along and was more highlighted than anything else. In this way, it seems to be a more more natural course than some of his others, even if its presentation veers towards the bold artistic. At opening, Stonehouse was awarded Best New Upscale Public Course for 1996 (Royal New Kent would be awarded the same the next year).
As I wrote in, “The Strantz I Know” about Stonehouse, “Hills and valleys form the backbone of the design, where broad sweeping strokes interlace with smaller, finer, intricate features. It’s a flow from one side to the other throughout the round, the pulse of those hills rhythmically expanding and contracting. The landscape is sculptured, giant hands coming down from the sky and massaging, smoothing, kneading the hills to its will. Rising and falling, always one or the other, the hills and meadows and woods are the art, again showing us how spectacular that triumvirate of man, nature and art can be. As the third course of his I played, it showed a layer of versatility and a restrained daring. While Tobacco Road is full of above ground grandiose and elaborate bunkering with an emphasis on sand, Stonehouse is a much more low profile affair, focusing on the ground and molding it in every direction. It’s more subdued here, a lazy cadence that occasionally funnels its focus as the terrain dictates.” The land is very much part of the course here. Severe, abrupt, jutting and sharp, it does not flow and naturally accommodate golf as many sites might at first blush. That’s part of the impressiveness, however. Strantz was able to highlight the features here that made for thrilling golf while using the landscape in unusual and interesting ways.
Stonehouse is under appreciated in my opinion, but like Royal New Kent, the real estate development component of the course substantially interferes with its routing. As someone that started the game in the La Quinta area, this is something I have grown accustomed to but it is always more of a stand out on the East Coast. The drives between the holes and the homes lining the holes can become a detraction if you let them. Others may not enjoy the suddenness of the ravines or the sharp, jutting nature of the course. It’s different and while Strantz does present more grand, wide open views at some of his other courses, you will rarely come across them here. The course is too busy turning, twisting, rising and dipping to give you that kind of inspiration that you’d come across elsewhere, until you get to some of the closing holes and it comes as a crescendo of sorts.
Like Royal New Kent, the course closed down completely in 2017 until new ownership came in. Conditions had deteriorated during the transition but are revitalizing. I played here in late 2020 and while some areas were raw and the greens a little slow, it played well and am sure plays even better now from a conditions perspective. I hope that this continues, as Stonehouse is a very important piece of Strantz’s portfolio. While it’s easier to appreciate some of his other grand works, Stonehouse shows another dimension of Strantz and how he saw the game residing in all natural landscapes, and what he would do if given the chance to put a golf course on them.
This was the last round of my Pinehurst trip. I pulled in to the parking lot as the first car of the day, the first guy on the driving range. A mere twelve hours before, I was among the last guys leaving Pine Needles. I felt like I needed a round to take what I learned this trip, as well as the culminations from the season, and put it into a finale, unencumbered by time restraints where it would just be me and the course in that last final dance. That would be here, another Strantz course, which I will now need to seek out and play all of his designs, seeing what I have thus far. The course was wide open, the morning fog lifting and I was at the First tee, alone. In reverential solitude.
The First is a 382 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A dog leg right where the end result of the tee shot is blind. The fairway ends up dropping downhill and narrowing a bit into what seems to be a chute running to the green. A well hit tee shot could possibly reach the downhill and move closer to the green down it, which brings the deep bunkers on the right more into play. The left side is safer but means the approach will be longer and blind. The green sits on a ridge at the back of the valley, the left side twisting and pulling up to it while bunker are below it on the right. The green seems difficult to access at first but the left side and rear can be used as sideboards to bounce the ball towards the hole. The approach is indeed the key here and the freedom of the tee shot should be used accordingly.
The Second is a 373 yard par 4. The tee shot looks wide from the tee yet there is even more width once you get out to the fairway. Generally, the room is on the right but the more right you go, the longer the approach. The approach is a forced carry over a creek to a massive green that encompasses and entire hillside, which moves from back to front towards the creek. The green made an impression and despite hitting it on the approach, the work is far from over. One could be close to 100 yards away from the hole and still be on the green and will need to negotiate the movement of the hillside as well. The green is fairly unique in its size. Some designers may have felt the need to place some bunkers on the hillside after the creek and minimize the size of the green but transforming the entire hillside into a green are the types of things that set this place apart.
The Third is a 194 yard par 3. A bit of work was being done on the day I was there but the hole was still in play. An elevated tee shot to a large deep green where native overgrowth must be carried, the surrounding hillsides all lead into the green and as we’ll see frequently, the hillsides are fairly friendly in deflecting shots back to the line of play.
The Fourth is a 540 yard par 5. The tees are set to the right of the tee but we can see the fairway on the left, which runs ahead. We must carry the hillside on which we are on to get down to the fairway. The configuration reminded me of the tee shot at the Eighth at Pine Needles, which I had played hours beforehand. Knowing how much of the hillside to take on off the tee means knowing just when the hillside yields to the fairway and if done correctly, one should reap the benefit of the ball springing forward down the fairway. The fairway keeps its march ahead, to a creek, the green on the other side. This green is on a hillside as well, but with a precarious fall off to the right. Pin position becomes important and those trying for the high left side to accommodate the movement of the green will need to be precise. Most everything moves quickly to the creek.
The Fifth is a 381 yard par 4. The tee shot is essentially into or over a hillside, which climbs before cresting at a plateau before heading downhill to the green. A wide hole from start to finish, this is a bit of a reprieve then we’ve come across and with the width comes an array of flexibility. Yet as we saw at the Second, the larger green places pressure on the flat stick to gauge longer distances to the hole accurately.
The Sixth is a 406 yard par 4. A dog leg right moving downhill the entire way, the hillside on the right is with us to the green and moves down to the line of play consistently. The green is wide, pretty shallow and on the other side of a creek. A great green site and distance control is a must here.
The Seventh is a 526 yard par 5. Another hillside tee shot, straight out or 11:00 are good lines. Above and ahead is a double dog leg, turning left at first after the tee shot, then hard right to the green. The fairway is a wide one and the inside of the left turn falls into a ravine so make sure you carry it if you take a line over it. But getting to the left for the approach is ideal, which will give you the better view and angle into the green. More conservative players can hedge to the right, but the approach will be tougher over there; the bunkers and hillside will all need to carried and trees may come into play as well. There are various nooks and hollows that will send the ball is different directions and those who have had the benefit of seeing how the ball reacts to them have a decided advantage on this hole, where the rest of us are fighting for views and subject to the whims of the land in that regard.
The Eighth is a 180 yard par 3. The tee shot has an obscured view of the green but some of its contours can be seen. It’s below us and to the left. Just enough can be seen to know where in general to send the tee shot. Once we’re able to see the green, however, it’s a glorious boomerang around a bunker on the left, which drops abruptly towards the front. The green is a massive one and pin position dictates the tee shot to a large extent in terms of if you want to belong on the top rear or lower front. Once again, putting comes into the foray a lot more than one would expect and landing on the green is not necessarily a guarantee of two strokes. The tee to green configuration is similar to one Pete Dye did at Nemacolin Mystic Rock at the Seventh, but the green here is a lot more fun. A great par 3.
The Ninth is a 365 yard par 4. The front nine ends with our familiar friend, the uphill blind tee shot. Favor the left side to avoid the waste bunker on the right but also mind the bunker duo on the left just before the fairway starts. In fact, carrying those duo bunkers sets you up for the best approach in, as the fairway flows along right into the green on that side. Those on the right will be met by a series of bunkers and will be more downhill from the green, and probably a blind approach. It’s a cool little par 4 and the tee shot dictates most of your fate on it.
The front nine fluctuates from wide to narrow constantly, with the hillsides affecting visuals and ball movement, both strategically and entertainingly. The closing two holes are very good examples of the character here that’s worth the price of admission and shows how creative Strantz was with challenging topography. I would rank them 8, 9, 6, 2, 1, 7, 4, 5, 3.
The back nine starts with the 364 yard par 4 Tenth. The tee shot is to a fairway running diagonally across us yet is a bit deceiving since it really isn’t running all that much in the direction of the hole. While the fairway runs left to right, the green is straight out from the tee, well below us. The tee shot could end up at the top of the ledge looking down at the green, or try to assuage the downhill to move the ball ever so closer to the green, but mind the bunkers that are past the ledge unseen from the tee. It is not enough to simply hit the fairway here; plotting the approach is critical or else the golfer will be wasting a stroke trying to get in position. The green is deep and there’s not much around it in defense, recognizing the challenge getting there is enough.
The Eleventh is a 383 yard par 4. The driving around the housing starts to grow thin here but after some twists and turns we finally arrive at the tee. The fairway appears on the other side of a ravine, a hillside where it’s tough to decipher where exactly the best area to end up is. The tree lines helps us in that regard some what, which indicate that the green is off to the right, out of view. And so it is, on another hillside, sharp ravines and valley in between. Like the Second, the green encompasses most of the hillside, moving back to front and impressive in size. This site is necessary for most to hit the green from wherever the ravines and valleys have taken their tee shot, unless it was well hit and stayed on the ridge before us. This is a good example of Strantz leaving the sharp hilly landscape alone and making it work as a strategic, fun hole full of innumerable circumstances.
The Twelfth is a 378 yard par 4. The tee shot is to a wide landscape but the bunkers in view complicate where to land. Threading them in between is an option but others may want to lay up or try to carry them. The right side is obscured but there is room over there for the tee shot as well. The green is set off to the right, raised on the other side of a creek. The green is set at an angle with the creek, so that the lower carry is to the left while the shorter is to the right. Knowing how the hillside upon which the green is set is vital for the approach and pin position certainly impacts the character of the hole. Traditional tones here but relying on the landscape for much of its interest.
The Thirteenth is a 516 yard par 5. A blind tee shot to an uphill fairway through an imposing chute of trees. There’s width here, but it’s not on flat land. Instead, the hillsides on either side turn, twist and tilt in a random slew of directions until we reach a creek. The green is on the other side, this time off to the left, with some fairway to work with before it as well. Once again, knowing the terrain and how it influences the ball at each shot is critical information to set up an approach that will be dictated by angles and terrain movement.
The Fourteenth is a 385 yard par 4. Yet another uphill blind tee shot with a pair of bunkers for us to look at. Getting past them to the downhill area of the fairway helps, as the approach will likely be blind unless the tee shot is hit far enough along the fairway. Like the First, the green sits substantially downhill from the fairway but is larger than the First. While there’s room before the green to work with, there isn’t the sidehills and contours we had at the First to use so it’s a much more aerially demanding shot in that way, although the larger green counteracts that.
The Fifteenth is a 187 yard par 3. This hits you as it should. Out of the maze of hills and ravines, the majestic wide open space between tee and green is inspiring, and completely different than what we’ve encountered thus far. What is consistent though is the hillside blocking a complete view of the green, which is much larger and wider than we can see. The bunker at the front is no good to be in since it’s so far below and the entire rear of the green is lined with a trench bunker, also below the green. The tee shot has no option but to soar in the air amongst the circling hawks, then land with authority, before it then succumbs to the pull of the terrain. It’s a massive green and should be fairly easy to hit, but then the challenge is with putting among all that distance. A fantastic par 3.
The Sixteenth is a 343 yard par 4. Something less than driver may be a good idea here, as the diagonal fairway before us doesn’t have much beyond it. While we’ve become accustomed to blind fairways and all that, the green is straight out and beyond the left side of the fairway is a ridge that leads downhill to a ravine. So a tee shot that lands on that ridge is all that is needed for a clear shot at the green, which is on the other side of the ravine. There is room to work with before the green, which stretches close to the tree line on the rear side.
The Seventeenth is a 177 yard par 3. The inspiration of the Fifteenth is here, almost doubling down in its intimidation and glory. The carry to the green here is more imposing and direct but the green is in plain view, larger and moves from back to front. The bunkers at the front should be avoided and message to us, helpfully, to make sure you have enough club to get to the green. It’s another great par 3, coming so soon after the Fifteenth, gives memorability to this closing stretch.
The Eighteenth is a 477 yard par 5. A more wide open and expansive theme has been rearing its head the last few holes and comes out full force at the last. A broad, sweeping dog leg left where a deep ravine intrudes on the left side the length of the hole. In fact, it cuts into the fairway enough that it must be considered at the tee and again at the second shot. After the tee shot, the fairway begins its descent to the green, where it feeds in from the right, yet the ravine makes any shot from the left need to be a forced carry. The terrain helps on the right even though it’s a more conservative line yet the left side is more direct.
My putt for par went in. The last few holes turned kind of automatic and it was one of those times when the game seemed ever so simple. I knew, the course knew, my clubs knew . . . the ball certainly knew. It was all coming to an end. While I conveyed just how much of a struggle this season was with my swing and in retrospect there was a lot to learn from it, there certainly was also a lot of dark times and rounds with no answers. That late morning as the crisp sunlight shone down on that green and I saw the ball track for the hole, there was a sense of calm that hadn’t been there for a while. I don’t know why it matters but it does. Why does it matter whether it’s an 80, or 95, or 103 or 89, I don’t know. But it does. Perhaps it’s a sense of accomplishment, or a tangible benefit from all the time and passion spent, or some indication the game likes you back. I don’t know. It just felt good.
It was the lowest round of the season.
I started at a Strantz course down the road and ended things at another Strantz course and as I reached down in that final cup for my ball, a deep sigh followed by fulfillment washed over me. I finally felt content with letting the golf clubs at ease, got in my car and didn’t get out again until my family was in front of it. Then came the Holidays and the cold weather and saying goodbye to my old home course and the early spring then the early summer and that brings us to where I am right now, which, after all those months from the day of this round, is still on an upswing. Of course, there has been lots of interesting twists and turns that I’ll get into but beyond the swing issues I realized that the onslaught of brilliant courses and discussions and people, and beer and bourbon, was something so simple and fundamental. Soaring golf shots into intricate greens crafted by man and nature, shots through the air, shots tumbling and bouncing as they expertly dance and side step towards the hole ran through my head as I slowly dozed off that night. The soul reaffirmed, reclaimed.
The back nine serves up the exclamation points of those closing par 3’s and along with the Eighth, there is a very strong par 3 trio. The par 4’s become more strategic with more emphasis on ball striking yet the hillsides and contour movement keep it fresh for the most part. My ranking would be 15, 17, 13, 11, 12, 18, 10, 16, 14.
Generally, Stonehouse sets itself apart by how it uses the severe terrain upon which it is set. The dance between focused shots to more wide open versatility is an interesting one and I certainly found myself more drawn to the wider and larger features over the tighter ones. There is a lot of aerial necessity here but I never found any of those shots asking too much, or failing to have reasonable bail out or alternate areas in kind. Knowledge of the terrain is important with the blind shots and setting up the approach shots from the tee, all of which will become more important as the greens and fairways mature and start running faster. Knowing the places where the ball will take a favorable bounce, or veer into one of the cavernous ravines, will assuredly save a stroke or two during any round. I found the course engaging and while it’s fair to comment that the land isn’t the most accommodating for golf at first blush, Strantz certainly figured out interesting ways to go about it. The par 3’s are a highlight as are some of the larger hillside greens, both of which are worth the price of admission. As a newfound super fan of Strantz, I appreciated the differences here in how he coaxed unique golf from the other courses of his I played. Strantz’ ability to draw strategic golf from the land isn’t talked about enough and while he is generally known as a virtuoso for the unique artistic, his ability to anchor it to venues that facilitate really good golf is just as impressive.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Two separate buildings and of course, the clubhouse is stone.
Practice area: A range and putting green.