Wednesday, August 14, 2002
In its brochure, Virginia's Wintergreen Resort claims to offer "two distinctly different golf experiences." While this is true, it is so understated one wonders whether the operators are being coy. Or maybe they just realize that "two golf courses so different, each needs its own weather report" or "courses separated by at least six poppings of the inner ear" may sound funny in promotional copy.
One of the courses, Devils Knob, is installed snugly along the summit of a cool, 4,000-foot Blue Ridge mountain. The other layout, a set of three nines known as Stoney Creek, sprawls over the steamy central Virginia Piedmont.
Devils Knob is a short, tight course with narrow fairways crowded by the resort's renowned hardwood forests. Stoney Creek's nines play long, with wide, undulating fairways framing views of the mountains.
The upper course's thin air is said to "add a club" to a shot, meaning if you'd normally use an 8-iron you should use a 9-iron up there because the ball will fly farther. Down on the Piedmont, the punishing heat and humidity may add a few strokes to an afternoon round.
While the two courses occupy acreage of the same mountain resort, they're located about a half-hour apart via a winding road where low gear is your friend and, yes, your inner ear is likely to get a workout.
Each course has its partisans. "My wife and I played Stoney Creek one time and she says the heat nearly killed her," said my afternoon partner, a smooth-swinging grandfather named Tom. "She won't play it anymore."
"The mountain course is more of a novelty course," one of Stoney Creek's young golf pros said one gummy weekday morning, when I asked him to explain the differences. "This is more of a player's course."
But it appears course loyalties can shift like, well, the weather. When Wintergreen's opaque summer fogs envelop the mountain course, golfers hit the phones to bargain for tee times down at Stoney Creek. When the mercury breaks 90 in the valley and the air is thick as meringue, Stoney Creek players will haul up to the dewy lawns of Devils Knob, where it's usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
Fact is, both courses offer plenty of challenge to, oh let's say, a high-handicap public-course hack with an unstable swing who's looking to tuck a couple of refreshing rounds into a five-day family trip. I'm not (yet?) the sort of golfer who will transport three innocents -- among them a loyal and loving playing partner in the wider game of life -- to a locale chosen solely for the qualities of its bentgrass and the brand name of its course design. Wintergreen, with its first-rate hiking, clay-court tennis, indoor and outdoor pools, totally gnarly (I think that's how they put it) adventure sport complex, swim-fish-canoe lake and equestrian center, makes a great place to take a legit fun-for-all family trip that includes some interesting golf.
Maybe a bit too interesting, at least during my first round at Devils Knob. I don't know if it was the thin air or the seriously narrow fairways, but several of my drives took magnificently high right-hand turns and disappeared into postcard stands of Virginia hardwood. Despite its mountain locale, the front nine is surprisingly flat and short (3,019 yards from the white tees), so most of the challenge comes from keeping the ball on the well-trimmed fairways, and from controlling the ball on the fast and sinuous greens. The back nine's a lot steeper -- so steep nobody dares walk it, I was told.
The ninth green is particularly tricky. The pin was placed cruelly, along a low, barely visible terrace running perpendicular to the fairway. Approaching from the front fringe, I, along with several others I watched, underestimated the incline, the putts approaching the hole and then rolling right back, like miniature-golf strokes that fail to make it up the ramp and silently return to their starting place. Before I holed out, a woodchuck scurried across the green and disappeared into a rocky hazard protecting the final hole.
But the play was even wilder the next day when my 10-year-old and I took on Stoney Creek's Monocan nine. The fog had created whiteout conditions on the mountain, and it looked like it was going to be gridlock on the valley course. Happily it began to rain down there and most players stayed in their condos or stood in the clubhouse looking morose.