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Public golf -- in all its forms -- the real star of diverse Virginia Beach, Virginia

Kevin DunleavyBy Kevin Dunleavy,
Stumpy Lake Golf Course
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Stumpy Lake Golf Course in Virginia Beach is a traditional Robert Trent Jones design set in a wildlife preserve. (Courtesy of Hampton Roads G.C.)

In the heavily populated Hampton Roads, Virginia area, it's often difficult to figure out who's who and what's what. Few regions have such a plentiful mix of vacationers and residents, civilians and military, worker bees and retirees, and transients and locals.

The diverse population adds up to a large demand for public golf in an array of forms. From spectacular and pricey Bay Creek Resort on the pristine Eastern Shore; to affordable muni Lake Wright Golf Course, nestled in an urban setting in Norfolk; to meticulously landscaped housing development gem the Signature at West Neck; to private, neighborhood course-turned-upscale-muni Cypress Point Country Club, Hampton Roads has -- as the saying goes -- many different courses for different horses.

An example of facilities with vastly different clientele despite their proximity and matching greens fees are Stumpy Lake Golf Course and Honey Bee Golf Club, two of the seven municipal courses under the umbrella of Hampton Roads Golf Clubs.

At Stumpy Lake, a secluded, tree-lined, traditional beauty set in a wildlife preserve and designed by Robert Trent Jones, the tee sheet is full of players who approximate the age of the course, which opened in 1953.

Less than two miles away, at Honey Bee, where homes line fairways instead of trees, the crowd is younger and more diverse, drawn by the modern design (1988) of Jones' son, Rees Jones, who added definition with shaped fairways, greens and bunkers.

Another factor that guides the decisions of Hampton Roads golfers is geography. With so much of the region defined by water and so many major arteries traversing bridges, tunnels and toll booths, players must be mindful of the choke points that have to be navigated to reach the course of their choice.

For example, as one of the few courses in the under-served south side, just three miles off I-64, Cahoon Plantation Golf Club in Chesapeake, would seem to have a locational advantage. But getting there can be dicey as Route 17 narrows to a two-lane drawbridge crossing the Elizabeth River. The trip will become even more problematic over the next four years with the construction of a four-lane toll bridge.

"The one way to get here is to cross that bridge," said Dan Shea, director of golf at Cahoon Plantation. "And that’s a big consideration for people who have blocked out a specific time to play."

Those who have made the trip can attest to the excellence of Cahoon Plantation, brilliantly crafted by Tom Clark. On a flat, tree-less, windswept canvas, Clark created a course with the feel of Scotland. Raised greens give many of the holes a majestic presence. Large mounds frame generous fairways and help hide surrounding homes on the back nine.

Because Cahoon Plantation offers something unique to the area, it belongs on any list of Hampton Roads' elite publics. Narrowing the roster to 10 is difficult when one considers the illustrious names associated with the following courses -- Bay Creek (Jack Nicklaus), Bay Creek (Arnold Palmer), Virginia Beach National (Pete Dye), Riverfront Golf Club (Tom Doak), Heron Ridge Golf Club (Fred Couples), Cypress Creek (Curtis Strange), Hell's Point Golf Club (Rees Jones), Nansemond River Golf Club (Tom Steele), Lambert's Point Golf Club (Lester George), Bide-A-Wee Golf Course (Strange), Cypress Point (Clark), and Signature at West Neck (Palmer).

Nearly all of these courses were built (or redesigned) in the last 15 years. Before then, golfers in the Hampton Roads area had to truck up I-64 to Williamsburg to find a selection of quality courses at developments such as Kingsmill, Golden Horseshoe, and Fords Colony.

The forerunner of upscale public golf in the Hampton Roads area was Hell's Point (1982), now showing its age but still a great example of the ambition of the times. With much movement of earth, the course was built in the low-lying swamps west of Sandbridge with no surrounding homes.

For nearly two decades, Hell's Point remained the lone upscale public in the area. Then a wave of courses opened including Virginia Beach gems Heron Ridge (1999) and Virginia Beach National (1999). To the east came Cypress Creek (1998) in Smithfield, then Nansemond River (1999) and Riverfront (1999) in Suffolk.

Also in 1999, Strange's collaboration with Ault, Clark & Associates on a redesign of Bide-A-Wee, in an unlikely middle-class neighborhood in Portsmouth, transformed the course from old and unremarkable to fresh and upscale.

Arnold Palmer's arrival upped the ante further with the opening of Bay Creek (2001), an ambitious marina and housing project in Cape Charles, and Signature at West Neck (2002), which incorporates woodlands, wetlands, 13 lakes, and the area's most meticulous golf course landscaping.

It requires an adventurous trek across the 23-mile engineering marvel known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to reach Bay Creek on Virginia's lightly populated Eastern Shore. But Palmer's course was so successful that Jack Nicklaus built another 18 holes there in 2006 and perhaps outdid the King with his longer, tougher layout, which has more variety and seaside holes.

After the wave of upscale public golf hit Hampton Roads like a hurricane, adding eight outstanding courses in a span of five years, new construction has slowed over the last decade. The exception is Lambert's Point, a nine-hole, par-34 municipal course, built on a landfill that juts into the Elizabeth River.

Including such a course in this discussion of stellar tracks might sound like a stretch. But with its outstanding conditions, water views, windswept character and implausible location in Norfolk, Lambert's Point is a worthy play and every bit as memorable as the grand designs of Palmer, Nicklaus, Strange, Doak and Dye.

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Cahoon Plantation Golf ClubNansemond River Golf Club - 17th holeLambert's Point Golf Course - 8th

Kevin Dunleavy is a longtime resident of northern Virginia, a graduate of George Mason University, an award-winning reporter covering golf, colleges, and other sports for the Washington Examiner, and a single-digit handicap still seeking his elusive first hole-in-one. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KDunleavy.

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