Their motto says it all: “Golf Ireland in Virginia.” After emerging from the mile-long entrance way of tall Virginia pines, the mid-Atlantic fades into undulated Irish terrain. A Mike Strantz design, Royal New Kent Golf Club transforms 280 acres of Virginia into a links golf getaway.
When building the course, architect Mike Strantz modeled the course after Royal County Downs, loyalty. He was hired by Myrtle Beach’s Legends Group, and his team completed the course in 1997 and opened it up to the public. The course received local praise upon opening, but there was little recognition at the national level.
Strantz began his career working on the grounds crew at Inverness Club under Tom Fazio. When he realized becoming an artist was not financially feasible, Strantz decided to continue working with Fazio. Many admirers of Stranz’s work believe his background in art enhanced his creativity with course design. According to General Manager Tim McArthur, Strantz “made what he had on canvas turn into reality.”
While designing the course, Strantz could often be found on horseback overseeing the construction. Hanging among images of the course design in the clubhouse is a large portrait of Strantz atop a horse while directing his men.
When designing the course, Strantz strove for a links feel.
“The terrain and the wispy grasses are unlike anything else around here. You have to go to another country to see that,” McArthur said. “It feels more European. Strantz embraced the idea that ‘brown is good,’ not necessarily lush green, because people are attracted to that.”
Strantz designed nine courses throughout his career, including Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm in North Carolina. In 1998, Golf World named him Golf Architect of the Year. All of his courses have been listed on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Best Modern Courses in America, as well. Following a three-year battle with tongue cancer, Strantz passed away in 2005 at the age of 50.
Over the first decade and a half, the original owners in the course let the course slip into poor condition.
“The previous investors did not put a lot of investment in the course, so over the decade the quality of the course went down,” Investor Willie Downs said. “In the end, it was in really rough shape.”
According to Downs, the course closed down and ownership of the property went to a local bank. Downs played the course before it shut down and enjoyed learning about its history. Downs and several other partners bought the 280 acre land for roughly $1.1 million in 2017 and spent several million more on renovations.
“I think the most enjoyable part of the redesign project was meeting all these new people,” Downs said. “There are a lot of Strantz enthusiasts.”
To ensure a smooth renovation process, Downs brought in members from Strantz’s original design team.
“We had some ditches like the grand canyon in the middle of the fairways and many pipes that needed to be replaced,” Downs said. “We were fortunate to have two guys from the initial design there who knew how to put it back together.”
Much of the redesign focused on drainage, which proved important after a rainy season last year. According to Downs, the crew put capillary concrete in bunkers to prevent flooding.
“Last year was the biggest rain season in over 10 years, but the course handled the rain better than most area courses,” he added.
During the redesign, Downs made it a goal to honor Strantz.
“We play up Mike Strantz and the Irish feel,” Downs said.
Through small details, the staff at Royal New Kent has preserved the links feel. Atop of the first tee is a large American flag, Irish flag and the Virginia state flag, and the flags on all of the pins are small Irish flags with the Royal New Kent logo.
The course reopened in 2019 with a $95 greens fee on weekends, up from $35 throughout the previous decade.
“We got a lot of pushback from locals for increasing the price, but we held our ground throughout 2019 and the pandemic,” Downs said.
Like most businesses, the course lost significant revenue from destination golf during the pandemic. However, at no point did the course shut down. According to McArthur, Royal New Kent’s revenues increased roughly 50-60% in 2020, compared to a 20% jump in most of the golf industry.
Since completing the redesign, the course has already received recognition for its impressive design and condition. It won Golfing Magazine’s 2020 Course Renovation of the Year and is ranked seventh in the state of Virginia. Golf Advisor placed the course at #19 on their list of top layouts in the country.
“I put myself in the customer’s shoes,” McArthur said. “If I spent this much money, what would my expectation be? It is all of the subtleties that add up to the experience.”
However, located in a rural part of Virginia, Royal New Kent needs more than just awards to attract players.With an eye to the future, Royal New Kent hired McArthur as the General Manager in January. McArthur previously spent eight years at Kiawah Island as the first assistant at the Ocean Course then worked as the Head Professional at the Kingsmill Resort.
“I came here with a lot of bright ideas and hope to build a structure that gets us to a ‘Kiawah-esque’ level,” McArthur said. “I think we have the product to do it, we just need to build the structure around it.”
His coworkers have nothing but praise for McArthur as well.
“Tim’s biggest achievement is bringing attention to details and treating the customer how they expect to be treated,” Downs said.
McArthur has worked to grow the course’s social media presence. On Instagram, Royal New Kent’s page (@royalnewkentgc) has nearly quadrupled its follower count from 500 to 1,850 in the last year.
As people start to travel coming out of the pandemic, McArthur hopes to focus his resources on attracting players from all over the country.
“Destination golf is the key for us,” McArthur said. “We are trying to create the image of being a destination course that people are attracted to. We want people to stop at Royal New Kent on the way to Williamsburg, Kiawah or Myrtle Beach.”
“What sets Mike Strantz apart is that there is not necessarily one thing on courses that you can particularly attribute to his style,” said Downs. “He is so artistic with his design, that he made no course exactly like another.”