KESWICK, Va. -- Every once in a while you find a golf course in a setting you wouldn't mind playing over and over again. Such was the case at the Full Cry Course at Keswick Hall & Golf Club just outside of Charlottesville in central Virginia, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
At a resort area steeped with American history, this Pete Dye-designed golf course, despite its youth, fits right in with its environment. Mature well beyond its second season, Full Cry, named for the running of the hounds so popular in this region, is a course almost any player can enjoy. And better yet, it can play differently every day, from every tee, yet there's nothing laborious about it.
Then there's the setting. Keswick Hall, which dates back to 1912 when it was the Villa Crawford, is like stepping back through time. Though its history isn't all grand, the restoration of this old manor into the Forbes five-star resort it is today was. The 48-room hotel, the golf course, a visit to a nearby winery and nearby Jefferson's Monticello would be the centerpiece of my recent visit to Virginia.
Slow down for Keswick Hall
From Charlottesville's small commercial airport, it's about a 30-minute drive to Keswick Hall. On the way, there's a one-lane bridge, where you have to slow down or yield for oncoming traffic and take your turn before crossing it. It's a pace I soon got used to at Keswick Hall, where they don't have electronic key cards, but still provide internet and a place to charge your iPhone.
I was fortunate enough to get the master bedroom (Room 9) from the old Villa Crawford, built 104 years ago as an 8,000-square-foot, two-story, Italianate-style estate for Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Crawford. Updated and expanded, of course, the old house (which became a country club in 1948 and a resort in 1990) still has all of its charm from back then with its ornate tapestry, paintings, flooring, and antique furnishings and fixtures. Outside the window is the view I came for -- one of Dye's most playable golf courses ever, laid out over what used to be an Arnold Palmer design but sharing virtually none of the old course's characteristics.
The first golf course at the country club came in 1949, a nine-hole layout by prominent golf course architect Fred Findlay. An additional nine holes were added in the mid-1950s, and by the late 1960s, the club reached its heyday with a steel pool overlooking the course, tennis courts and more than 700 members. But the club fell on hard times, and it closed. In 1980, scenes from the movie "The Four Seasons," starring Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, was filmed in the abandoned clubhouse, but the house eventually fell in disrepair until 1990, when Sir Bernard Ashley, who purchased the 600-acre property for $5.5 million, spent $25 million restoring and transforming it into a luxury resort.
The redesigned Palmer course replaced the old layout in 1992, an infinity pool was added in 2003, Fossett's Restaurant (named for the one of the cooks at Monticello) opened in 2004 and Treble -- a private dining wine cellar where we had an outstanding wine-pairing dining experience on our second night -- opened in 2011.
Keswick Hall was purchased in January 2012 by Historic Hotels of Albemarle, part of the Riverstone Group based in Richmond. Today guests can enjoy everything from an extensive spa offering a variety of treatments to archery, croquet, hiking and even ballooning in the area. And there are, of course, the historical tours in the area, where three U.S. presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe) made their homes. Of course, the main draw for me was the new Full Cry Golf Course.
Dye does it right at Full Cry
Full Cry at Keswick Hall & Golf Club is one of those courses where from several vantage points you can see most of the holes, including, of course, from the clubhouse or the hotel. It's also a course, built on the rolling hills of the Virginia hunt country, which appears more difficult than it really is.
Dye has plenty of his intimidating bunkers throughout, but they're not difficult to avoid if you play the right tees and hit the right clubs off those tees. And unless you're spraying it, it's very difficult to lose golf balls out there.
Make no mistake, from the back tees at nearly 7,500 yards, this course is all you want, no matter what your handicap is. But play it from a reasonable length, and you have lots of options off the tee with plenty of room. I played the course twice, recording a 78 from around 6,300 yards and 87 from around 6,900 yards.
There are elevated tees, some interesting doglegs, a great variety of par 5s and par 3s and some really good risk-reward holes, including a couple of par 4s that are drivable for long hitters.
Full Cry is basically a second-shot course, where playing the percentages can pay off. For the less-skilled player, bump and runs are good options and they're available with every green. You just have to avoid the greenside bunkers, and even if you find one of those, getting up and down isn't next to impossible like it can be with so many Dye designs.
It's also excellently conditioned, especially considering its age. With perfectly manicured bentgrass greens, putts stay on line and you're going to draw terrific lies in the fairways. And because the course was sand-capped, it drains extremely well. In fact, we were able to drive carts on the fairways despite a week of rain that left most other courses in the area with a cart path-only policy.
Visiting Monticello, Barboursville Wineries a must
While the golf is special enough in its own right, no trip to Keswick Hall would be complete with a visit to nearby Barboursville Wineries and the famous Monticello. Fortunately, we did both on this short stay at Keswick Hall, despite getting in two rounds of golf to boot.
Before this visit, I didn't realize the magnitude of Virginia's wine business, which may not rival California yet but has certainly grown to be more than respectable over the last 30 years. At the award-winning Barboursville Vineyards, which does a private label for Keswick Hall, after morning golf we were treated to wine tasting that included its signature Octagon red wine, named in honor of the octagon-shaped drawing room at Monticello next door. Hosted by master winemaker Luca Paschina, we were treated to a selection of cheeses, house-made charcuterie and other vintages created from the property's 900 acres of rolling vineyards.
Day 2 would include a trip to the famed Monticello, but first we stopped off at the nearly 300-year-old Michie Tavern, where they serve comfort food such as fried chicken and iced tea on pewter plates and in metal cups. While the food is unremarkable, the experience of seeing the wait staff, workers and hostesses in period costumes while dining in the little tavern where legislators stopped on their way to sign the Declaration of Independence is well worth the $17.95 buffet price tag.
Monticello is simply a must-see if you're in the area. The former estate of the third president took 40 years to build and was designed by Jefferson himself. To do it right, you might want to spend the whole day there, but we spent just a couple of hours or so there, most of it on a guided tour through the home and the grounds, where we learned about the architecture, his innovations and collections, including the fact that the Library of Congress was derived from the sale of Jefferson's vast collection of books while he was still alive.
Other great golf options in Richmond area
No doubt, Keswick Hall and my experiences at Full Cry rate as one of the best golf experiences I've had in recent memory. But I spent a couple of extra days in Virginia to sample some other nearby golf courses, including a couple in the Richmond area less than hour away.
The first was Magnolia Green Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus design in association with Tom Clark, just west of Richmond in Mosely. The centerpiece of a resort-style community, Magnolia Green (which originally opened in 2010 as Westham Golf Club) is a big, championship layout over rolling terrain with tree-lined fairways and large greens complexes.
My group started on the original nine, which is now the back nine, so our opening hole was the 10th, the longest hole on the course at 634 yards. It also had the most severe greens complex, which is a candidate for softening down the road. The front nine, which opened last year, is the more subtle and perhaps the more enjoyable of the two sides. Together, they represent a terrific test.
My next stop was on the other side of Richmond on the way to Williamsburg. If you're a fan of Mike Strantz-designed golf courses (and who isn't), you'll love the Tradition Club at Royal New Kent. Opened in 1996, this links-style course -- which was built at the same time as the Strantz-designed sister course, Stonehouse Golf Club -- provides twists and turns at every corner.
There are blind shots, unusual angles, dramatic greens and a rolling landscape that provides a different challenge from every set of tees and every time you play it. It can play as long as 7,500 yards, but there's no reason to torture yourself, especially if you're a first-timer. It also helps to have some guidance, which I had, playing with the club's Director of Golf Lester Poole, his first assistant Nate Begley and cart attendant Parker Wallace, the top-ranked high school player in his district. I couldn't have asked for better a tour of the course as Poole was close to par, and Begley and Wallace shot 69 and 68 respectively.
And, finally, on my way back to Charlottesville on departure day, I stopped off for a morning round at Spring Creek Golf Club, winner of Golf Digest's 2007 award for America's Best New Public Course Under $75. Designed by Ed Carton, who learned his craft working for Tom Fazio, this championship-level course has that Fazio look, with large strategic bunkers, wide tree-lined bentgrass fairways and contoured greens.
Perfectly conditioned, Spring Creek was also ranked no. 55 on Golf Digest's 100 Greatest Public Course list (2015-16), but how long it remains open to the public is uncertain. When it gets enough members, plans call for Spring Creek to turn fully private, so if you're in the area, check it out. I highly recommend it.