VIRGINIA BEACH, VA - Let’s face it, the eighties gets a bad rap. And I’m not referring to politics or techno-pop, either. I’ll be more than happy to debate the relative merits of Ronald Reagan, Culture Club or Duran Duran in some other forum—here, I’m talking about golf course design.
The eighties’ rap stems from the proliferation of punishing golf course architecture—without naming names, courses built during the decade garnered reputations for being entirely too penal. Bunkers grew too large and deep; forced carries stretched too far; water became too abundant and the general philosophy was--in order to challenge the game’s best players, every possible miss must be punished, and in most cases, severely.
Despite this, there were some great tracks built during the decade—layouts based on classic design theories that time and again offered terrific challenge without being gimmicky or tricky. Those time-honored theories just couldn’t be disproved, because they work. One such notion is: golf should be fun. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
And one architect who’s always incorporated this basic concept into his designs is Rees Jones. His Virginia Beach creation, Hell’s Point, is an excellent example of an eighties designed golf course (opened in 1982) that would compete with any of the newest genre of ‘throw-back’ courses for its natural, yet straight forward test of golf. It also fulfills the promise of what golf was meant to be—enjoyable.
Jones elaborates: “Golf’s an escape. It’s getting away from the travails of life, and if you concentrate hard enough on the game—you’ll mentally get away from all your worries. But if you’re out on the golf course, and you’re too busy thinking about where a target might be as opposed to having it clearly defined—or one that’s much too difficult for almost all amateur golfers to hit—then some of that quality is taken away.”
“One of the most important things I always try to remember, is--I want my designs to withstand the test of time. I want players to remember the golf holes, but I also want them to want to play the course again. Only through testing the course repeatedly—getting to know its strategic qualities—can you really get the most out of the experience. And if you make a course too hard to begin with, then no one will want to come back.”
I think Jones just summed up the arguments for traditional layouts—the kind that you’ll see from his father and many of the other classic course architects, such as Donald Ross. You’ll grasp what shot you must execute, and usually there’s a less difficult alternative—an easier shot that will test another part of your game on the ensuing stroke. Some might call it risk-reward.
Jones also says the new golf equipment technologies are changing the game. For example, he says he’s often used mounding to border fairways—in order to help stop wayward balls from reaching the extremes. “But with these new drivers, not even the mounds can stop those shots now.”
I doubt even extraordinary advances in technology will change his design style, or his philosophy. Jones’ traditional work is stapled to every pamphlet that intelligently discusses Virginia golf—his Golden Horseshoe Green Course is one of the state’s finest, and you should also include his remake of his father’s Gold Course (at the Golden Horseshoe), 27 holes at Wintergreen (Stoney Creek), Hell’s Point and the Old Course at the Homestead (remake) amongst his Old Dominion work. All traditional, all challenging, all memorable.
Hell’s Point certainly deserves all the adjectives. It’s not tremendously long at 6,766 yards from the back tees, but its somewhat tight nature will often squeeze the driver out of your hands unless you’d care to tempt fate. For that reason, it seems to play a fair amount longer than the yardage indicates.
And in classic Rees Jones style, it’s a fun course. There’s plenty of water, sand and trees to make you think about what you’re doing—true to Jones’ word, it’ll take you away from your life’s troubles! Most of the holes are bordered by tall Virginia pines, giving the course very much of a ‘Pinehurst’ feel to it.
Russ Dodson, Hell’s Point’s Head Golf Professional, says it’s the distinctive Rees Jones signature design, along with its setting that sets Hell’s Point apart. “Golfers greatly enjoy the quality of the course design and the beautiful, natural scenery the course affords (no houses). There just aren’t many distractions out there to take away from the golf, and that’s nice.”
The course is also under new ownership, which is committed to bringing its condition back to the early years—with a completely rebuilt maintenance facility and the purchase of new course grooming equipment. By the looks of it, they’ve already made great strides and the layout will one day soon be what it once was.
Jones starts off the round with a great par five. 511 yards from the back tees, it’s a slight dogleg right bordered closely by trees on both sides—seems like you’re firing down a chute. The hole opens up for the second shot, and if you managed a well executed fade on your tee ball, may be reachable in two—the green is well bunkered, however, so accuracy’s a premium.
Five is an interesting short par four, risk-reward all the way (steep dogleg left). From the tee, you’ll certainly notice the lake that guards the entire left side, and what looks like a narrow sliver of fairway in the distance across it. Consult the cart’s GPS for accurate yardage, but you’ll probably need to fly it 260+ yards to cut off much water.
Eight is an outstanding short par three, 155 yards and a full carry over a variety of trouble. There’s a Sahara bunker that runs the length of the hole, wetlands on the right of the putting surface and deep rough in back. Any wind at all, and this seemingly short hole becomes quite scary.
Nine is another great par five at 493 yards. It’s a narrow tee shot, so pull out the driver at your own risk—trees all down the left, and out-of bounds to the right. The fairway narrows considerably at about driver length, so consider taking an iron off the tee and make it a true three shotter. Choices abound.
Highlights on the backside include number fourteen, a 475 yard par five with water down the entire left side—that certainly comes very much in play on all three potential shots. There’s plenty of room to the right, and if you bail out that way it’ll certainly require three to get to the green--but it’s still a relatively easy par if you play it safe. Hard birdie, easy par—A Jones family tradition (or, hard par, easy bogey on most holes!).
The round concludes with another couple outstanding par fours. The seventeenth measures only 341 yards, but it’s practically a ninety-degree dogleg right with water all down the right side, waiting to gobble up even the slightest slice. I hit an easy four-iron off the tee and had a sand wedge into the green (missed the birdie putt though!).
Eighteen is a muscular 440 yard par four, dogleg left. Woods and wetlands all down the left side, and a bunker guards against tee shots bailing too far right. Either way, you’ll certainly have a long-iron or fairway wood into the green. Jones doesn’t make it easy, even on the last hole—but always fair and enjoyable.
Practice Fac.: B
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: B+
Pace of Play: B
Resort Hotel: N/A
Overall Rating: B+
Gathering your thoughts at the end means coming back to reality. Your golf escape is over, temporarily. But Jones has made it easy for you to want to come back, in the tradition that he learned from his father. And it just goes to show, that perhaps even eighties golf design isn’t given its proper respect—it’s traditional after all.
Hell’s Point Golf Club
2700 Atwoodtown Road
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
Phone: (757) 721-3400
Course Designer: Rees Jones
Head Golf Professional: Russ Dodson
Black 6,766 130
Orange 6,030 122
Yellow 5,624 118
Blue 5,003 116
M-F: $54; Sat., Sun, Holidays: $65;
M-F: $44; Sat., Sun, Holidays: $54;
Twilight, after 2 p.m, $34
All rates include carts.