Wintergreen– More Than Just Two Golf Courses

By MIKE KERN
I first visited Wintergreen Resort — located adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway in central Virginia,
some 45 minutes from Charlottesville — nearly a quarter-century ago. A relatively new golf writer
at the time, I happened to answer an ad from the person who was then doing the public relations for
the place. It turned out he was from Allentown, not to mention another Temple alum, and it was the
start of a terrific relationship that would also take me to facilities he later worked at in Mazatlan and
the big island of Hawaii. Sometimes, life does have its perks. But I digress.
I immediately fell in deep like with Wintergreen. It’s pretty hard not to. And I’m not a mountain
person. I’m more into seaside stuff. But Wintergreen must be something different, because I’ve only
been back there on about a half-dozen occasions. Maybe more. And it hasn’t really changed much.
At first the attraction was mostly golf-related, as you’d obviously suspect. And in this instance for
all the proper reasons, since it has 45 wonderful holes separated by roughly 3,500 feet in elevation.
So if nothing else it’s certainly unique. Yet on every return excursion, I’ve taken my family along.
Because Wintergreen is much more than just two golf courses. And like some other destinations
I’ve fortunately come to know over the years, it’s always a great idea. So recently we made the scenic
6-hour drive once again, for the first time in what I’ve got to admit was too long. And once more,
it didn’t disappoint. In fact, all it seems to ever do is get better. Like reaquainting yourself with an
old friend.
You can spend a week there, or a long weekend. We’ve done both. I know this much: your blood
pressure will definitely go down a few notches, just because it’s that relaxing. Unless of course you
start sweating out too many of those 5-foot par putts. But who really does that? Anyway, let’s start
with the golf, since that’s the primary attraction for our purposes, even though it’s actually just as
much if not more of a winter hangout for skiers. But I’ve only been on skis once in my life. And I
can tell you I’m much better hanging by the fireplace with a Grey Goose and tonic in my hands.
They have two layouts, and they’re about as polar opposite as you can get. But that’s a good thing.
I’m a big fan of Devil’s Knob, which sits atop the mountain. Mainly because I don’t play many, if
any, courses like it. And they wouldn’t build a track like this today. Simple as that. The land would
have homes on it. But some four decades ago, they didn’t necessarily proceed the same way. So Ellis
Maples was able to give us a genuine taste treat. I never get tired of it. And it’s not every course I’ll
say that about. It’s the highest course in the state, and offers some absolutely majestic views into
Shenandoah and Rockfish Valleys below. You don’t get this kind of atmosphere just anywhere. I’m
not the biggest nature person going, but I have to admit that what they’ve got there is enough to even
get me stopping and staring and savoring. I’ve been to the Poconos, but with all due apologies this
has to be considered a noticable upgrade. Sorry. Have to call them as I observe them.
Maybe the neatest nuance about Devil’s Knob is the fact that your ball will carry longer. Perhaps
not John Daly long, but at least a club or two if you’re lucky. Of course the downside of that is you’re
probably going to lose a few balls, since the fairways are narrow and the land slopes off rather sharply
in a bunch of spots. I’ll take the tradeoff any day. Because it’s a lot of fun, the entire way around. Even
though there’s sloped fairways, sharp doglegs seriously undulating greens to contend with. The good
news is, it’s always 10 to 15 degrees cooler than it is down in the valley at Stoney Creek. So the season
is shorter. Actually, people have skied in the mountain and also played golf at Stoney Creek in the
same day. Not a bad double, if that’s your style. Me, I’ll stick to cursing out that dimpled white ball,
thank you. Built largely on rock formations, Devil’s Knob has a whole lot of what you call character.
There’s only one hole where I might ask Ellis to take a mulligan. The par-5 seventh is a double
dogleg that bends left off the tee and then right back to the green. I think it’s a little much, even if I
did somehow par it this time. Don’t ask. But other than that, I wouldn’t change much. One of the
cherished memories I have — and really, those are what it’s all about — is of me and my son, who
was about 15, going out to play a late nine. Because he insisted, even though I knew we were never
going to finish since the sun was going down. Anyway, we tried. And we kept forging on. We skipped
seven, mostly due to the degree of difficulty, and when we got to the eighth tee (a par 3) it was too
dark to play. But we didn’t let that stop us. Fortunatley we both hit onto the green, where we could
find our shots and two-putt. On nine, a short uphill par 4, we again managed to find the fairway
and green, where my wife was waiting, wondering what the heck we were doing. All we could do
was laugh. And none of us have ever forgotten that afternoon/evening. I’m so glad he talked me into
it. Who knew?
The finish on the back nine is particularly compelling as well. The 17th is a downhill par 3 that
demands a fairly accurate shot from between 185 yards and 150, depending on how much you want
to chew off. Actually, all the par 3s here are pretty solid. The closer is a par 4 that goes left-to-right
around the trees, as most shots have to do up there. And that leaves you an uphill approach to a green
that slopes back toward the fairway and you can’t entirely see. And of course everyone on the veranda
can watch you while they’re eating their lunch. As I always say, I try my best to provide the comic
relief/entertainment. It’s the least I can do.
For anyone who’s never played mountain golf, Devil’s Knob is a must. Heck, even if you have it’s
worth the effort. I have to say that on this trip the greens were rolling as true as I’ve ever seen them.
And after all these years they even have merchandise with their own logo on it. I think I suggested
that 15 years ago. I’m still working on a separate Stoney Creek logo, too.
Speaking of which, Stoney Creek — which is about a 15-minute drive straight downwind (actually,
the road winds) into the quaint hamlet of Nellyford (that’s Nelson County, if you’re keeping tabs),
is a complete 180 or 360, whichever you deem appropriate. But no less appealing. It’s just more like
the golf most of us are used used to. The setting is about as peaceful as you can imagine, looking back
up at the mountain. Which means it’s warmer. When it opened it was quickly ranked as one of the
best in the state. The reputation is well deserved.
What you have here are three nines designed by Rees Jones. So what else do you really need
to say? I’ll go in the order we played them, beginning with the Monocan. Each part of the trio is
contemporarily classic in its flow. They all incorporate streams, forests and wetlands into play. The
putting surfaces are contoured, and you will find the occasional sidehill lie. But the fairways are
generous, as are for the most part the greens. It’s a fair yet challenging test, for players of all skill
levels. Even though it doesn’t feel like it’s beating you up, if you fall asleep at the wheel even briefly

it can up and take a bite out of your game.
Monocan gets you into the swing with a par 5 that demands a third shot over some water. But the
fourth and fifth hole are where it truly shines. First you have a medium-length to long straightaway
par 4 with water on the right near the green and no bailout area except short. You make a par there
and you’ve earned it. That’s followed by a par 3 of about 150-160 totally over a lake. It’s visually
intimidating. Again, a par is more than acceptable. The eighth is another good par 3 in the 165-175
range to a well-protected green. And you end with a par 5 that moves left-to-right off the tee. If you
hit a decent drive you should be able to do some damage, but the sucker pin placement they had for
us made it a much tougher par than it should have been.
Shamokin starts you off a bit tougher, with a par 4 that requires two good strikes. Watch out on
No. 3, a medium par 3. If you miss left your ball could end up in the stones. And that’s where the
copperheads like to hang out. And they were there first. On No. 6 you need to carry a creek that
meanders in front of the green. Only I could line up through the creek and onto the fringe. I never
said I played conventional. The seventh is a good par 3, from a big-time elevated tee to a green that
can play about 200 from the back. The eighth is a par 5 that doglegs left off the tee. A really good
drive could give you a chance to get home in two, unless you hit it like me. I was just happy to be
within a gap wedge. And I still had to get up and down from the back collar. It happens. The ninth
is a bona fide keeper. It plays some 400, with a 90-degree left turn about halfway out. You can try
to cut the dogleg, but you’re almost better off hitting it straight and leaving yourelf a longer shot in.
I’m still trying to figure out why it’s not the No. 1 handicap hole. But then again, what do I know?
The Tuckahoe, which is the newest of the nines (the other two comprised the “original” 18),
might indeed be the best. At least that was the opinion of several members of our foursome. It starts
off with a very picturesque yet treacherous hole with water down the right side. There’s a real nice
mix of long and short throughout, and some serious elevation changes come into the equation on
many of them. A good example is 2 and 3, where you go down then up on a short 350-yarder, then
steeply down (and left) off the tee on a hole that plays significantly longer. For whatever reason the
bunkering seems to be a factor more so on this nine. The sixth is tremendous, a dogleg right where
even two good shots might not get you exactly where you want to be. The eighth is a par 3 of about
150 over the wet stuff, and nine is a long par 5 where you’d better hit two solid ones to start or you’ll
still be pulling out a metal wood or rescue or long iron for your third.
Overall, the experience is hard to beat. And I get around some. And while you’re there, you
should check out their instructional programs. They have group clinics and junior camps. I have
the privilege of spending a half-hour or so with Philip Licata, the head pro at Devil’s Knob and in
another life a former jockey for some of the leading trainers in America. You can’t make that up. I’m
not going to tell you he’s a miracle worker, but I know he gave me a few pointers that had me hitting
it much better. And they were subtle changes. He didn’t even try to mess with my Jim Furyk/Nancy
Lopez hitch at the top, which I’ve had forever. I thank him for that. And some of his stories from his
riding days were almost as priceless.
Again, there’s so much more to Wintergreen than pars, birdies and dreaded others. The
accomodations are impeccible. I’ve stayed in all types of condos, and this time even shared a fourbedroom
house. Never had a complaint. And almost all of them had views that can only be described
as stunning. And like I said, I’m the kind of guy who’s more inclined to be saying that from a beach.
As for the dining, there are options to fit all tastes and budgets. For a place that caters to families
and children, this is the most user-friendly choice. They refer to it as their “neighborhood” restaurant.
And there is often some live entertainment as well. The menu, which also includes late-night grub,
has just about everything from wings and chili to sandwiches (even a scallop Po Boy), burgers
and entrees (chicken and waffles, blackened cast-iron catfish, to name but two). It’s casual and
comfortable, and there’s seven kids’ selections. So it’s a safe bet that everyone will leave smiling. And
full.
The Copper Mine Bistro is fancier. And difficult to pass up. It does breakfast, which includes
such local things as cheese grits and sausage gravy over bisquits and of course country ham. Yum.
For dinner, you might want to start with the French onion soup, which could almost be a meal by
itself, or the fried green tomato Caprese salad. Outstanding. One of the tapas deals is an artichoke
dip to die for. And I don’t even like artichokes. Or at least I thought I didn’t. For entrees they have
a lobster mac and cheese, a pan-seared flounder that was about the size of a tuna, braised short ribs
that fell off the bone, and a grilled filet that was simply one of the best I’ve ever had. Accompanied by
a sweet pea risotto. After that I didn’t need dessert, but somebody talked me into trying the rasperrry
sorbet. I’m sure glad they did.
We also ate at Devil’s Knob and Stoney Creek. Both have clubhouse-type atmospheres. But Devil’s
Knob has undergone an extensive makeover, which has given it a more polished look. Both do lunch
and dinner. I had a great soup of the day, a creamed asparagus, at DK, followed by a big-time burger.
I swore I wasn’t going to go with red meat, but I broke down. It turned out to be a wise move on my
part. Someone else got the grilled portabella panini, another winner. And the pulled pork received
similar rave reviews. At Stoney Creek, where we were in a hurry and the service was first rate in
getting us served and headed back up the mountain in time for a late-afternoon obligation, I went
with the Chesapeake, a panko-crusted Haddock with malt-vinegar slaw, roasted tomato and Old Bay
tartar sauce. It was even better than the burger. A friend got the meatloaf sandwich, another tried the
Cuban (roast pork, smoked ham, swiss cheese, etc.) and our fourth picked out the California club,
which was made with a marinated chicken breast on a Ciabatta roll. None of us sent anything back,
or left much for the dishwashers to clean up.
For dinner at Devil’s Knob, I got the filet again. Hey, I’m not stupid. And if I go back I’ll probably
go for the trifecta. Never mess with a proven commodity. They brought us out some appetizers to
share, and the hits were the pecan wood-smoked quail, pan-seared scallops, salmon Carpacchio and
crab bites. I’m surprised I still had room for anything more. My wife had the mussels in white wine
broth over linguini, and pronounced both the portion size and the quality to be perfect. I’ll take her
word, since I don’t do mussels. But the broth was everything she said. So of course I had to sop some
of it up with the bread. Some of the other successes were a lavender-infused honey-glazed salmon
and crab-crusted grouper. I don’t think you could go wrong. All I know is I had a chocolate creme
brulee to top it all off, and I couldn’t even finish it off. Yet somehow it got eaten. I must have had
help.
And if you want to explore, there’s plenty of places to try down in the valley. There’s the Blue
Ridge Pig, which does some mean barbecue. Next door to that is Basic Necessities, a little French
restaurant that also has some great wines to pick up for the ride home. Speaking of which, there’s
no shortage of wineries in the area, if you’re so moved. Heck, Monticello isn’t that far away. You can
do the tour. It is a one of a kind way to spend a few hours. The valley now boasts a handful of brew
pubs, something you couldn’t say not that long ago. Times evolve. You can do a lot worse than try
out some of the local beers. But if you never want to leave Wintergreen, that’s more than OK too.
Oops, almost forgot. If you’re driving down or back on Interstate 81, you might need to stop at Mrs.
Rowe’s, a family restaurant/bakery in Staunton at the intersection with Route 664. Trust me on this.
It came highly recommended, and I’m passing it on. Go for the ham salad, if they’re making it that
day. Or the fried chicken. Or the meatloaf. Or … OK, you get the idea. I don’t lie about southern
grub at its best. And the prices hadn’t changed since our last visit. What a concept.
Getting back to Wintergreen, there’s also tennis. And no shortage of activities, from bike riding
to canoeing to miniature golf to hiking to the bungee trampoline to the climbing wall to the zip line
ride to tubing to Lake Monocan to the Adventure Center to archery to exercising. I apologize if I
left anything out? They have a wonderful kids program at the Treehouse. Mine didn’t want to come
home. But what they couldn’t wait for more than that was the indoor pool area (there’s also two
outdoor ones), which they closed every night. Honest. And my wife says the spa is one of the best
she’s ever been pampered in. And she should know. She’s been to enough. This time she was treated
to something called the Lavender Body Glow and Wrap. I don’t know exactly what that is, except it
involves lavender oil and hot stones. All I know is, she liked it. A lot. Next time, I might go for the
facial and pedicure, just to find out for myself.
So there you have it. Wintergreen can be many different things. It might depend on what you’re
looking for. But for me, the one thing it’s never been is uninteresting. Even when that can often
mean not doing a whole lot of anything. It never gets old. There’s plenty to be said for merely kicking
back, and kind of getting away from the real world for awhile. That’s what Wintergreen has always
meant to me. I’m already looking forward to the next time. Can you blame me?