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Royal revival in the Commonwealth

A round at Royal New Kent Golf Club may conjure up thoughts of Royal County Down and Ballybunion — two of course architect Mike Strantz's favorite Emerald Isle favorites. [Photo: Royal New Kent]

Time was when Royal New Kent Golf Club was all the buzz of golf course architecture not only in Virginia, but nationally

Time was when Royal New Kent Golf Club was all the buzz of golf course architecture not only in Virginia, but nationally. In 1996, the Mike Strantz-designed layout was named the Best New Upscale Course in the Nation by Golf Digest and was consistently a fixture among Golfweek’s best courses to play in the commonwealth.

The course is about a 45-minute drive from Richmond. On one miserable, rainy Sunday, around the time the layout was gaining critical acclaim, I ventured down Interstate 64 just to look at the course from a distance in the golf shop rather than play it. 

I wandered around like an interested sightseer before a golf shop worker noticed my meanderings (and the fact was that I was probably the only non-employee at the course that day.)

“You ought to,” he said, “come play.”

I did at a later time. So did my buddies. A lot. We made Royal New Kent a regular stop on our rotation and I loved playing it as a single. Truth is, I haven’t played New Kent in probably 20 years. Yet, I still remember every hole.

The golf course, best described, was an experience. Strantz, who died of cancer in 2005 at age 50, had designed a one-of-a-kind in Virginia, partly modeling Royal New Kent after two of his favorite courses of the Emerald Isle — Royal County Down and Ballybunion. A lot of layouts are into comparisons of renowned, famous courses (you know the catch-phrases, ‘Built in the same model as Pinehurst No. 2!’ Yada. Yada. Yada.) But Strantz’s routing at Royal New Kent seemed like the real deal in terms of aesthetics, shot values and, most importantly, design.  

In keeping with Strantz’s approach to bring a taste of Irish golf to the commonwealth, the landscape was complete. There were huge mounds, well-maintained fescue grass that helped offer a sense of seclusion on most holes, cavernous bunkers, waste areas and imposing hazards. Greens were so countered that players felt like they could slide off them.

Still, my buddies and I returned — again and again. Until we didn’t. There wasn’t a rhyme or reason, either. Royal New Kent just kind of fell off our radar as more quality courses were built in the central Virginia area, despite Royal New Kent being located halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg. 

And the hard truth was that despite the awards, word of mouth gets around via truth or fiction. Critical recognition for the course was nice, but if you were a high-handicapper, a tour around Royal New Kent could turn into a six- or seven-hour round. Pack a lunch. Or even dinner. 

And as play around the country sputtered and the domestic economy, gently put, resembled a roller coaster ride, Royal New Kent, like a lot of courses in the U.S., struggled. Over the years, New Kent’s infrastructure and conditioning eroded. Bunkers, where the majority of maintenance hours are spent, began to resemble concrete and lost their shape; drainage systems were dysfunctional; tees, fairways, grasses on greens and once-pleasing native grasses grew to a length that rubbed the line of troubling in golf ethos. 

Given its detreating conditioning level and lack of upkeep on a number of levels, it was as though Strantz’s creation had been spray painted with graffiti. The disrepair and other factors led to a quasi-standing-eight count, with the course basically closing at the end of 2017, having lost its punch and allure. 

After being closed for more than a year, this former king of Virginia golf is regaining its luster, reopening in March. Buoyed by Wingfield Golf Management Services' purchase of the course in June 2018, more than $2 million has been invested in the layout. 

Providing a major assist, two of Strantz’s original shapers returned Royal New Kent to help resurrect the course, which was in awful shape when the team arrived at the site. Strantz’s widow, Heidi, provided Wingfield with some of Strantz's original drawings and fans of the course supplied old photographs in hopes of respecting his legacy and vision for Royal New Kent.

“Mike had artistry in his background and he found a way to translate that to designing and building golf courses,” says Chip Sullivan, the club's general manager. “He knew how he wanted a hole to look with its lines of play, strategic placement of bunkers, grasses on the perimeter and that’s certainly been evident here. We haven’t lost his vision.” 

In 2002, Strantz was hailed as one of the 10 best golf course architects of all-time by Golfweek magazine. Barton Tuck, the owner and president of Wingfield Golf, regards him as a visionary.

“One of the interesting things is that Mike was ahead of his time when he started with the ‘wow’ look and a lot of distinct shaping in the fairways and things like that,” says Tuck, who learned of Strantz’s reputation after the architect won a number of course design awards in the Carolinas. “Now, you see that in so many other places.”   

As for the on-the-ground dirt, sand and grass restorations, more than 2,300 tons of sand were hauled in to fix the once concrete hard bunkers, The high-faced lips on the bunkers were also restored to their original look using capillary cement to help keep the sand from washing out and making them easier to maintain. The management group tore up the greens like a piece of junk mail, changing the surfaces from bentgrass to Champion bermudagrass in a smart move intended to combat withering summer heat. Wiry grasses have been cut, giving way to a fescue look.

“The greens are running true and fast,” Sullivan says. “I think we have as good as greens as there are in the state. With bentgrass, you have to keep watering it in the heat or you could lose your greens in 20 minutes. Golfers are walking away saying that they haven’t putted greens as good as ours.”  

Water-wise, the team has installed an updated drainage system complete with a complementary pump station and 120 inlets were rebuilt. Old piping that dated back to the course’s opening was pulled out and replaced — it’s the kind of thing golfers don’t notice unless they face poor conditions.

The course has come a long way since Tuck first saw Royal New Kent. One day, while the course was closed, Tuck was driving his SUV around the middle of a fairway, not paying much attention — that was until the two front wheels of the vehicle plunged into one of several unmaintained drainage areas.   

“My car was halfway down there. That tells you how bad it was. It was a mess, a bigger mess than I thought it was and I try to be very analytical and basic in what we do,” Tuck says. His company has focused on golf operations in the Southeast since 1985, managing more than 50 golf properties. “You could walk the fairways and the grass was above your knees. I bet you I saw 100 snakes the first day I walked it.” 

For all of its calamities, Tuck and his team found some semblance of hope amid the mess. The snakes are gone, along with the dead grass.

“We tried to find some bermudagrass under three-foot tall weeds—and we found some,” Tuck remembers. “That was enough. Once we got the grass off the top of it, got it some sunlight and fertilized it, we grew grass. The fairways are really good.”

Today, if there were a comeback course of the year award, Royal New Kent would be worthy of such recognition, considering its fall and remarkable rise.

“It was really worth saving. This is one of Mike’s best. We had fun doing it. It was a tough, tough project,” Tuck says. 

One of the best moves Wingfield made was the hiring of Sullivan, a veteran of 30 years in the industry, mostly in Virginia. 

From a marketing standpoint, the hope is that Royal New Kent and two nearby courses, Brickshire Golf Club and The Club at Viniterra, will piggyback off one another to attract clusters of golfers both in Virginia as well as those travelling to destinations such as Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach. Royal New Kent is in the midst of local membership offerings and connecting with golf packages in the region.

For those who left, it’s a new day at Royal New Kent and worth a return visit.  

Providence Forge, Va.
Phone: 804.966.7023
Website: www.royalnewkent.com
Facebook: @royalnewkentgc
Instagram: @royalnewkentgc
Twitter: @RoyalNewKent_GC

Author Andrew Blair is a writer from Glen Allen, Va.

Email: ajblair@earthlink.net