Royal New Kent
Royal New Kent, previously a mainstay on the country’s public top-100 lists, has been restored to the original vision of genius designer Mike Strantz and reimbued with its Irish character and ambiance.
By Jeff Thoreson
A mill pond seems a strange reason to meet your future golf business partner, but supply-and-demand economics is never picky. When Barton Tuck, CEO of Wingfield Golf, and his son Noel bought Viniterra Golf Club between Richmond and Williamsburg, they found themselves in need of a reliable water supply to return the course to its peak condition. Willie Downs just so happened to own nearby Crump’s Mill Pond, next to which he had built a house, long before Rees Jones built Viniterra just a few hundred yards away through the woods.
Downs, a fine and avid golfer, agreed to connect Crump’s Mill Pond to the water reserve at Viniterra, and during the two-year process to get a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to run a pipe 600 yards between the two ponds, Downs and the Tucks became friends.
Downs had spent 37 years in the financial printing business and had zero experience in golf course ownership and management. But the game has a way of creating and binding friendships, and they ended up joining forces and, along with a few other investors, bought a course in Ormond Beach, Florida, called Halifax Plantation. When that got off to a good start they came across a bank’s distress sale of Royal New Kent, the once-majestic Irish impersonation in the Virginia Tidewater region. The glorious Mike Strantz design of RNK had fallen on hard times and when Barton and Willie first visited, the playing corridors were overgrown with weeds and scrub brush.
“Barton would probably say he talked me into taking on Royal New Kent, and I would say I talked him into it,” Downs says. “We both recognized it as unique Mike Strantz course and a beautiful venue. Being local, I hated to see the course, which had such a unique story, go up in weeds.”
So the two dug in. They tracked down some of Strantz’ original drawings of how he envisioned the holes would look from his widow, Heidi. Then they found two of the shapers, Mike Jones and Mark White, who worked closely with Strantz building the course in the mid-1990s, and combined their knowledge with a talented local crew. They set about restoring RNK, returning fairways and greens to their original grandeur, rebuilding bunkers that had been removed to reduce maintenance costs, and restoring the clubhouse back to its Irish look and feel.
The work came out so well that Royal New Kent is probably the only course to be named the best new course in America (Golf Digest, 1997) and second-best golf course renovation (Golf, Inc., 2020) in just over two decades.
On opening day in 1997 and re-opening day in 2019, there was barely a speck of difference in the course. The layout was again big, bold, beautiful and so reminiscent of the Irish courses that inspired Strantz that the only things missing were the smell of sea air and malt wafting from a local fish and chips shop.
RNK fairways were, like those of its inspirational layouts Royal County Down and Ballybunion, once again heaved and rolled through towering dunes. Bunkers were again painfully penal and its greens as confounding as Strantz originally intended. The layout demanded precise shots and offered the vagrancies of links golf, occasionally turning even well-executed shots into impossible recoveries.
The surrounding Virginia timberland give the Irish look a surreal feel, and from a golf perspective perhaps the only difference between RNK and the real deal is that it affords much wider fairways and much larger greens than its Irish brethren. At RNK you can sometimes miss by 50 yards and still be okay; just don’t miss by 51 yards.
“The course was unbelievably beautiful and unique when it opened in 1997,” says Downs. “I could not believe that such a course was built right here in my backyard.”
Estimates of what it cost to build RNK range from $8 million to $15 million, and during the peak of the golf boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s course conditions were spectacular and greens fees approached $150. Still, RNK was sold in 2000 for less than it cost to build the course, and as the golf economy continued to deteriorate in the subsequent years, so did the course. By the time it was left to go fallow in the fall of 2017, greens fees had dropped to a fraction of what they once were.
For Tuck and Downs, two aficionados of Strantz’ work, the project took on a more personal touch. They didn’t want to restore what Royal New Kent had deteriorated to, they wanted to restore it to Strantz’ original vision. They knew that version of RNK was hard for the average golfer, but it was the experience of RNK that they were restoring.
Almost no other “links-style” course in America appears or plays as authentically as Royal New Kent. Before starting his design, Strantz traveled to Ireland and played Royal County Down and Ballybunion multiple times to get a feel for the shots required and the Irish look. At RNK there is no ocean and usually no three-club wind, and no Irish course ever experiences the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, but Strantz captured the look, feel and playability of Ireland like no other architect has managed to do.
That said, Strantz designed RNK to unimaginable proportions for an Irish course. No true links course has fairways wider than a lengthy NFL field goal, and no greens that could accommodate a traditional Cape Code home with plenty of yard for Rover.
But the end result of Strantz’ original design and Wingfield’s restoration shows that Strantz’ golf vision knew no bounds. From Virginia he went on to design Pine Valley-like Tobacco Road in the North Carolina Sandhills, then the equally expansive True Blue in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the wild ride that is Tot Hill Farm and then his swan song—the spectacular redesign of the Monterey Peninsula Country Club Shore Course, one of the three courses on that annually hosts the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Strantz died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 50, and his brief career included just seven original designs. But those won a slew of awards, including Strantz being named one of the “Top 10 Greatest Golf Architects of All Time” by Golfweek in 2000, and being described by Golf World as the “most in-demand course designer in the U.S.” Three of his courses were listed by Golf Digest among the 50 toughest golf courses in the U.S.
From the very beginning of the redesign, Tuck and Downs knew that the original Royal New Kent was difficult. But that not only didn’t deter them, they insisted on rebuilding the bunkers that had been removed over the years to soften the course, and rebuilding the greens with their original valleys, swales and tiers. On re-opening day in May, 2019, Tuck proudly re-introduced Royal New Kent as the spitting image of what was introduced on opening day in 1997.
“It’s still hard,” he said. “It’s supposed to be that way. It’s an Irish golf course.”
For Downs, being part of the ownership of a course he had watched being built and played since it opened was something he never expected but is truly enjoying.
“Around 12 years ago, we took a family trip to Ireland and we made a point of visiting Newcastle to play Royal County Down simply because it was the model that Mike Strantz used when he created Royal New Kent, never thinking we would one day get involved with RNK. I recall talking with the folks in the Royal County Down pro shop about Mike Strantz and how they had such fond memories of him and knew the story of Royal New Kent. They enthusiastically remembered him playing their course many times to get the feel. So, after closing down and growing up in weeds, it seemed like an opportunity to bring a local, distressed asset that was so beautiful and unique back to life.”
Downs says he and his partners are in the early stage of considering whether golf cottages at Royal New Kent might be feasible. They have a good team in place with general manager Tim McArthur and superintendent Ian Barczewski who continue to fine tune the golfer experience.
For now, Downs has another restoration project to get back to. He and his wife have been trying to restore the little grist mill on Crump’s Mill Pond, chipping away at it for 25 years to get it operational.
“But you never know what else might come along,” he says. [END]