WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Kingsmill Resort has a storied history. Developed more than 45 years ago by the Anheuser-Busch Company on what was formerly known as the Kingsmill Plantation, the resort was the home of the PGA Tour's Michelob Championship from 1981 to 2002 The LPGA's Pure Silk Championship on (formerly the Kingsmill Championship) has been contested on the property since 2003.
Another change besides the tours that stop each year at the AAA Four Diamond resort? The owners. In 2010, the resort was purchased by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, owned by Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz. In 2017, Ft. Worth, Texas-based Escalante Golf bought the property.
Xanterra was known more for its operations at national parks than it was for running golf resorts. Escalante Golf, which actually lost out to Xanterra in a previous bid, bought the 2,900-acre property located along the James River for around $30 million. For Escalante, this is new territory as well. It's the first venture into the hotel business for Escalante, a boutique owner and operator of luxury golf properties across nine states.
What Escalante brings to the table, though, is its golf expertise. The company knows how to operate professional golf events – it owns the Golf Club of Houston, host of the Houston Open – and has staged a number of high-profile tournaments over the years, including the Charles Schwab Cup (Sonoma Golf Club), the WGC Match Play (The Golf Club at Dove Mountain) and the WinCo Foods Portland Open (Pumpkin Ridge).
Golf courses a priorty at Kingsmill
So it's no surprise that the golf courses at Kingsmill Resort, which include the championship River Course designed by Pete Dye, are the first priorities for Escalante. One of the biggest changes is that they are no longer overseeding the River Course, which should pay dividends in a number of ways.
First of all, there will be no transition from cool-season to warm-season grasses. In years past, because of heavy overseeding, the Bermuda had a hard time establishing in the summer months, which is prime season for resort guests. That meant poor conditions, especially in July and August. Now that will no longer be the case.
It also means the River Course, which plays just under 6,500 yards for the LPGA Tour competitors, should play faster.
"The Escalante people know how to grow grass," said Matthew Schulze, director of golf and tournament operations at Kingsmill Resort. "It'll be interesting to see how the course plays and what the scoring will be like."
Last year, top-ranked Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand won the rain-shortened event in a playoff after shooting 14-under-par for 54 holes. Two years ago, Lexi Thompson won with a score of 20-under par. Both Thompson and Jutanugarn are two of the longest hitters on tour, and while the River Course isn't particularly long, their length gave them an advantage in softer conditions. A faster course might bring more players into the mix, but more importantly it should mean better conditions for most of the year, which figures to attract more golfers to the resort.
With that said, Escalante is focused on improving all the golf courses at Kingsmill. The River Course is the main draw. And though it also hosted a PGA Tour event, it's a lot more resort friendly than most PGA Tour courses. Fairways are generally wide, it's not that long (just over 6,800 yards from the tips), and the greens are not severe. There's not water on every hole either, though it does come into play on the closing stretch. The last three holes, which bump up against the massive and historic James River, give the course its signature look.
The other course open to the public, the Plantation Course, is an Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design that opened in 1985. Featuring plenty of doglegs (a lot of left-to-right shots off the tee), it's is a nice complement to the River Course. It plays just under 6,400 yards and has some pretty views off the tees. With improved conditions, the two courses could be a real draw for golfers who want to take a vacation in the Williamsburg area, where they could play some other outstanding courses (like the Gold Course at Golden Horseshoe) and take in the attractions like Busch Gardens next door and Historic Williamsburg.
Kingsmill's third course, the Woods Course, designed by Tom Clark and Virginia's own Curtis Strange, is highly regarded, but only open to members.
Escalante upgrading accommodations
Just because Escalante is new to the hotel business, it doesn't mean the company is standing pat with the resort accommodations and amenities at Kingsmill. Updates to the luxury condominiums available to resort guests are ongoing and include new flat-screen televisions, furniture and updated bathrooms. A new neighborhood will be developed between the second and ninth holes on the River Course. And most recently, Escalante has spent $3 million renovating the resort's 7,000-square-foot luxury estate that overlooks the James River.
Formerly known as the Pettus House, The Estate was originally built as the private mansion for the Busch family, of Budweiser Beer and Busch Gardens fame. Now it's available as a super-luxurious rental for vacationers, corporate retreats and to those celebrating a milestone or special occasion.
"With inspiring design and the finest materials, we have created a premier living, gathering and entertaining space that modernizes and elevates the guest experience," says David McDonald, president of Escalante Golf. "The estate offers stunning views through expansive walls of retractable glass and unparalleled service that includes an estate manager and chef."
The Estate comes with four large suites that include spacious luxury baths, two large SUVs, private jet skis, personal shoppers, laundry service and guests' very own manager and chef on site. With its large covered deck and infinity pool out back (there are TV screens galore throughout the house, indoors and outdoors), guests can also experience both the sunrise and sunset from the same location, as they gaze over the river and across the historic landscape first seen by British settlers in 1607. Cost per night is $5,000 a night and up, but the house can accommodate up to eight overnight guests.
As for the rest of the resort, there's plenty to do. Kingsmill includes 422 rooms, six restaurants, a 17,000-square-foot conference center, a full-service spa and fitness center, a marina, lazy river and a top notch 15-court tennis center (with Har-tru courts) as well as the golf courses.
Dining is exceptional, starting with the Eagles Restaurant overlooking the River and Plantation Courses. The James Landing Grille offers fresh seafood, craft beers and unique desserts, overlooking the James River. Elements 1010, located in the main lodge, offers a casual environment for breakfast, then transforms for more elegant setting for dinner with panoramic views of the James River. And finally, a favorite hangout for guests and residents alike is the Mill, a full-service bakery and coffee shop located next to the tennis complex. Besides coffee, pastries and sandwiches made on homemade bread, there's also homemade gelato, a perfect way to punctuate a workout, tennis match or round of golf.