Colonial Williamsburg is a time machine that takes visitors back to 1774 – America’s pre-revolution days when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry walked its streets. As he sat in a comfortable high-back chair inside the Williamsburg Lodge, Rees Jones’ thoughts went only as far back as 1963 – the year he graduated from Yale University and the year his father, legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr., opened the Gold Course at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club.
“He loved this job,” Jones said.
It’s easy to see why. While Colonial Williamsburg is a living museum and great example of the vision of the Rockefeller family, the Gold Course is a living testament to Jones Sr.’s design genius, from its routing through the rugged Virginia terrain to its runway tee boxes and four par-three holes, which might be the best set of par-three holes in the country.
The shortest of the par-3 holes – the 16th – plays only 169 yards from the back tees, but with its elevated tee box and kidney- shaped island green, it’s the hole most associated with the course that has been referred to as Jones Sr.’s “masterpiece.”
“I think that he probably routed those par threes first. I think he found them first,” said Jones, who was in Colonial Williamsburg earlier this month as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Gold Course. “He would put X’s all over the map and marked where the green locations should be, the tee locations, and then I bet you he found – I’m sure he found – the 16th hole first. That wasn’t the first island green (in the world), but it certainly catapulted the idea of the island green, not just on par threes, into the forefront in years to come.
“The runway tee was his thing because he really could give the golf course much more flexibility. When he started putting sand on the tee tops, you could actually put in a hole, and have a practice green at the back of the tee, which really gave the back tee some usage, because most players and resorts and clubs don’t play the back tees. I’m not sure if that was his innovation or if it was something that was just a trend.”
The Gold Course is one a several courses Robert Trent Jones, Sr., designed for the Rockefeller family, who along with the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, in 1926 began re-recreation and reconstruction on what is now the 301-acre Williamsburg Historic District.
The Gold Course, however, stands above them in most peoples’ minds in terms of classic Jones, Sr., design, largely because of what he accomplished on a routing that is slightly more than 6,800 yards long.
“I think what most people who play golf courses and analyze them don’t understand, as my father did, that a piece of property like this can create a spectacular result,” Jones said. “On a rugged piece of ground, somebody has to lay out the holes, actually find 18 holes that work. The reason that you have a lot of funny holes in New England is that they have rugged land but there are a couple of throwaway holes.
“This golf course fits the terrain on every hole. This is the type of golf course that we’re going to have in the future, not overly long, a golf course that fits the terrain, because we’re not going to have as much money to build a golf course as we did in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the business was booming.”
Because of its high routing, tree-lined fairways, smallish greens and 634-yard, par-five 15th hole, the Gold Course seems to play longer than on the scorecard, particularly for average players. The course can play less than 5,500 yards from the front tees, so it’s a layout that can be navigated by players of all skill levels.
“This is a finesse golf course,” said Jones, who has designed more than 170 courses worldwide, including the Green Course at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. “It has smaller greens than my father usually built in that era. He was lengthening golf courses and he was building bigger targets for the longer shots. When he re-did the 11th hole at Augusta, he added the tee and added the pond. Ben Hogan was hitting a two iron in there, and recently Tiger Woods was hitting a wedge. But Ben Hogan said ‘If I hit the green then I want you to know I miss-hit the shot,’ meaning he wasn’t even going to try for the green. So that’s why dad was building bigger greens at that time.
“Here he built the smaller greens because of the shorter golf course, more of a finesse golf course. I think that’s why it has stood the test of time. And for 50 years this is still regarded as one of the best golf courses in the whole of Virginia and Mid-Atlantic area. “
But it all started, Rees Jones said, with the land.
The Rockefellers, “gave dad a wonderful piece of property,” to work with, Jones said. “It took a knowledgeable architect to know how to route the golf holes on a pretty rugged piece of ground. But my father used to say, ‘The more rugged the land, the more spectacular the result,’ and I think that’s what he achieved at Golden Horseshoe.”