The Gold Course at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in Williamsburg, Virginia, is a course I've wanted to play for more than 20 years. So it was a special treat a couple of months ago when I had an opportunity driving home from the beach to route our family through Williamsburg for a night and play a round on a beautiful morning.
The Gold Course -- designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and opened in 1963 (with renovations by Rees Jones in 1997 and 2016) is currently ranked No. 43 among Golf Digest's Top 100 Public Courses in America and No. 60 on Golfweek's Top 100 U.S. Public Courses list. When it debuted, RTJ called it his finest design, declaring it the equal of Augusta National. Now, that's a big boast, and the rankings don't quite bear that out. But I will say that the entire time I was playing at Golden Horseshoe, I couldn't help but feel like it had really serious Augusta vibes ... like the two course share some familial DNA.
Between the dramatic elevation changes, the corridors that open up as you move and look around the course, the pine straw, the use of water, and the shapes and undulation of the greens ... the course is obviously not Augusta, but the reminders were as strong as any course I've played. And that made for an awful lot of fun.
It doesn't hurt, either, that Golden Horseshow is in Williamsburg -- one of my favorite places. It was one of the few places we could afford to vacation when I was a kid, as my parents took advantage of a couple of nights free at a hotel if they'd just sit through a timeshare presentation in order to make it possible for us to stay and see the sites. And it's where, on the campus of William and Mary College, my wife and I got engaged back in 2011. So, Williamsburg is a special place to me -- to us -- and that made it very special to visit almost 10 years to the day after my proposal and play this special round.
I had one of the first tee times of the day, and the sky was absolutely gorgeous that morning. The course can stretch to nearly 6,900 yards from the tips, but my playing partner and I decided to play from the blue tees at 6,522 yards -- a bit longer than is ideal for me, but manageable. All hole yardages mentioned from here on out will be from the blues.
Hole 1 is a 369-yard par-4 that doglegs slightly to the right. The ideal line off the tee is to hug the right side of the fairway. Balls hit down the left side off the tee can run through into the pinestraw and, worse, may wind up being blocked out by the trees that encroach on the left side of the hole.
The second hole could be my favorite except that seven or eight other holes could also be my favorite. At 476 yards, it's a short par-5, but that does not make it especially reachable or easy.
Find the fairway off the tee, and the second shot plays dramatically downhill and must carry about 80 yards of water that fronts the green. A wood or long-iron that does carry the water may have a difficult time holding and could wind up shooting through to thick vegetation beyond the green.
A well-played layup (or even a very marginal one like mine!) will leave you with a short-iron or wedge into the green and may be your best chance on this hole to take away a birdie.
The third hole is an absolute beauty, playing 174 yards through a chute, downhill and over water to a green that is protected by bunkers front and back.
No. 4 -- a 403-yard par-4 -- is another hole that just felt like Augusta. Teeing off, a big hitter has the option to try to bomb the ball up out of the chute and over the fairway bunker on the right side, leaving themselves just a short-iron into the green.
From the fairway left and/or short of the fairway bunker, players have the option to try to hit a long, high iron into this slightly elevated green or to try to run a low ball up between the greenside bunkers and onto the putting surface.
The 5th hole, at 337 yards, looks narrower than it plays off the tee. Beyond about 220 yards, the trees on the left begin to thin, meaning a shot to that side remains very playable into the green.
The greenside bunker on the right can intimidate a player into backing off and playing a shorter club off the tee. Unfortunately for me, that mistake resulted in a chunked 4-iron that wound up right and way short of the fairway bunker, almost completely obscuring my view to the green.
No. 6 is the second par-5 on the course, and it plays even shorter than the first at just 471 yards. But the uphill tee shot and uphill approach to the green make it play somewhat longer than the scorecard would suggest.
I absolutely love the approach to the sixth green -- with its elevation change and the way the trees pinch in to frame the green and create a sense that the shot is more difficult than it really ought to be. There is more room on the green beyond those bunkers than it appears when you're standing in the fairway. A player who can hit a high shot to the middle depth of the green will be rewarded with a very makeable birdie putt.
Hole 7 is a 186-yard par-3 that plays over water to a green that is below you from the teeing ground but almost appears to still be uphill because of the way the hill on which the putting surface sits rises so signficantly up from the lake in front. Right is almost certainly unrecoverable; better to be long and/or left off the tee on this hole if you must miss the green.
No. 8 is a really fun short hole. At just 323 yards, on a hot summer's day, one could imagine a player ripping a draw around the trees down the left-hand side and running it into the green. There's more room left than it appears from the tee. Avoid the fairway bunkers on the right, and this is a very real birdie opportunity.
My drive on 8 just clipped a tree limb as it turned around the corner and wound up settling left among the pine needles. Still, it left me an easy short shot into the green.
No. 9 is a downhill par-4 that plays shorter than its 360 yards from the tee.
Avoid the bunkers on the right off the tee, and you will be left with a short-iron or wedge into this large green. The more loft you can bring to your approach, the better, as this green runs away from you and can be particularly difficult if you find yourself short-sided and playing from either of the two greenside traps.
The 10th hole is a real test -- a 450-yard par-4. Accuracy off the tee to the narrow fairway on this hole can be the difference between a par and a double or even a triple bogey.
From the tee on No. 11, it almost looks like there is nowhere safe to hit the ball. But the landing area opens up to the right at about 200 yards.
Find the fairway on this 386-yard par-4, and you'll have a legitimate birdie opportunity playing into a relatively flat green. The deep bunker short-right of the green can derail a good score, but find the putting surface with your approach, and 3 is a real possibility.
Hole 12 is a terrific 169-yard par-3 where nearly every pin location could be considered a sucker pin. The smart play is to the middle of the green no matter where the hole is cut. There is plenty of room to bail out left, but that will leave a delicate chip with water beyond.
At just 350 yards, the 13th is a gettable par-4 and another of my favorite holes on the course. I just love the aesthetic of the hole with those tall pines in the distance.
The 13th also features two of the horseshoe-shaped bunkers that are a signature feature of the course.
The 14th hole offers a generous landing area, so tee it high and let it fly. At 429 yards, this hole asks for all you've got off the tee.
And the green offers a player options about how to approach it. To fly the green or run it in, that is the question.
The only par-5 on the back nine, the 613-yard 15th is a monster of a golf hole!
A good drive off the tee will still almost certainly leave you with more than 300 yards to reach the holel
Hole 16 is the Gold Course's signature hole -- a gorgeous downhill par-3 to an island green. The putting surface is large, and at just 159 yards, it really shouldn't be difficult to find the dance floor.
Still, the green is surrounded by five bunkers that all have the potenital to ruin your day if you find yourself inside of one.
A bit of tree trouble following a recent storm caused the 17th hole to play a bit differently from usual the day I visited the course.
At 422 yards, though, this par-4 penultimate hole is a real challenge. The approach is uphill to an elevated green with a narrow opening. And the green itself slopes severely from back to front making for a very difficult two putt if you leave your approach shot long.
I have to say, I love the 18th hole, and my pictures don't do it justice. This 431-yard par-4 wraps hard around to the left and requires a long, straight or slightly drawing tee shot to set up a mid-iron downhill into a green protected by bunkers and a small pond.
An unfamiliar player might not even realize the danger that lurks to the left of the green on this hole. Any shot pulled left of the green will bound down toward and potentially into the pond.
This photo of the 18th green, courtesy of Golden Horseshoe Golf Club, does a much better job of showing the danger posed by the pond left and long of the green. I also appreciate this view of the clubhouse beyond.
This course is not Augusta. But boy did it feel the way I've long imagined it would feel to play Augusta. It was in fantastic condition throughout, save for the fallen tree on 17. The greens rolled true but were a bit slower than I expected -- not slow, just not lightning-quick. The beauty of the place and the fun I had trying to play all the shots the course challenged me to play made this a top-100 course I'll definitely aim to get back and play again. And at less than $100, it was an absolute bargain!
Have you played at Golden Horseshoe? What was your experience? Leave a comment below, and tell me all about it.