The North End’s country club: A century at the fore
The golf course at Princess Anne Country Club is best played on foot, so the rhythms of the game can match the pacing of the layout.
At just over 6,000 yards Princess Anne is cozy by today’s standards, but beautifully manicured and occasionally treacherous. Use a cart and you’ll likely rush into a whole bunch of trouble, or even worse, miss the subtle nods to the course’s origins more than 100 years ago.
On August 30, 1916, 92 men gathered in downtown Norfolk to start a club that many hoped would bring development to Virginia Beach, then a coastal backwater. They were sold 95 acres at a third of its market rate and signed paperwork stipulating that the club’s golf course would be built in a manner promoting home development on both sides of the fairways.
The deal was ahead of its time (course developments are common now), but it wasn’t easy. The land was mostly sea pines, sand dunes and mosquitoes, interrupted only by swamps and inlets that emptied into Linkhorn Bay.
The course has been redesigned since then. It has hosted tournaments and attracted golfing luminaries – and even a president. Maybe more important, it did what it promised and spurred development at the north end of the Beach. Today the area is one of the most beautiful spots in Tidewater, with homes tucked into a wooded environment that looks nothing like the T-shirt kitsch of most resort towns (or even the southern part of Virginia Beach itself).
The club has grown, too; now 1,130 members strong, it offers a beautiful new clubhouse, world-class tennis facilities and a gym that would be the envy of any community. But it is the golf course, with its lush, carpetlike Bermuda grass fairways and small, fast, bentgrass greens, that catches your eye as you make your way through the neighborhoods just off Holly Road.
“It’s just hard to ride by there and not play,” says Chris Fanney, 65, a 23-year member of the club. “Everybody thinks their club is the best, but ours really is.”
Princess Anne celebrated its 100th anniversary last year with the publication of a 264-page coffee table book that highlights its history. A series of black and white photos detail the early years and show some of the golfing heavyweights who have played there, including Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Curtis Strange. Sarazen, who won 38 times on the PGA tour, seven of them Majors, called the course “the most beautiful course I have ever played around this part of the country.”
President Warren G. Harding even played there, in September of 1921, soon after it opened.
Golf at that time was a sport reserved for the rich. Only people of certain means could afford to take the time, much less join an exclusive club on the edge of development. In the decades that followed, the sport has been adopted by the masses. Golf courses now dot the landscape, most of them public and affordable.
Princess Anne still maintains an exclusive quality. Those interested in joining must be sponsored by a member, and the price tag for entry is $17,000, though the club does offer less expensive membership options for people under 40.
And though it was originally something of a getaway for the well-to-do from Norfolk, the club has comfortably developed into a treasured neighborhood course, with 65 percent of its members coming from the 23451 ZIP code (and most of those from north of 31st Street).
Fanney grew up on 59th Street and now lives on 70th. His grandfather was a member in the 1950s. He joined as a kid to play tennis. Jay Standing, 48, tells a similar story. He grew up on 62nd Street and now lives on 72nd. His parents were members for 40 years. Standing joined in his 20s and is now the club president.
“Back in the day it was a place for men to get away from the family, but now the club is family-oriented. Swimming, tennis, golf, dining. The whole family can come out here, each one finding something they like to do.”
The club encourages that mindset too, dedicating resources and time to a variety of programs aimed at young people, in hopes of creating future members. Princess Anne offers programs for junior tennis players and young golfers, including the SPARK golf clinic, which allows young children to use oversized golf balls and Wiffle ball-styled clubs to learn the basics of the game. From there, they can attend the Junior Golf Academy, which offers weekly supervised practices and match play.
The club also offers a junior tennis program for kids as young as 4 and is set up to accommodate players of all skill levels. During the school year, professionals host clinics six days a week, and Princess Anne hosts a tennis camp in the summer.
But it is the golf course that remains the crown jewel of the club.
Tim Liddy, a disciple of iconic golf architect Pete Dye, oversaw the 2007 redesign. It received great reviews for keeping some treasured attributes, like its old-school walkability, while giving the fairways more contours and tweaking the bunkers so they would come into play more often.
Also, unlike most modern redesigns, the course at Princess Anne eschews yardage markers and informational signs (with hole numbers and such), giving the course an intimate feel – and providing a real advantage for members familiar with the layout.
“They didn’t want ropes or barriers or signs,” says William “Andy” Dickinson, a member since 1963. “They wanted to keep it looking natural. And we just love it.”
Dickinson, 86, joined the club specifically because he wanted to get on the course. He loved the game and played it in college. He can remember when the course forced golfers to hit across several roads.
Today the layout still crosses roads, but few require cars to brave a gantlet of golf balls from errant drives. And the holes, while not terribly long, offer plenty of challenges.
The first hole, for example, titled Sea Pines, is a 414-yard par 4 that has water just close enough to the tee to keep you from driving the ball close to the green. This leaves you a longish shot over the inlet, to a small green with almost no bailout.
Or there is No. 5, Cascade, a short 359-yard par 4 that should be easy. Only problem is, the green is protected by a series of tough bunkers set on hills around it. A slight pull on the approach shot could make for an ugly score.
And probably the hole loved best by members is No. 7, Linkhorn, a 146-yard par 3 that offers a beautiful bay backdrop and a sliver of a green on which to land your shot.
There are more difficult courses in the area. And there are even some that offer more picturesque holes or impressive designs. But there are few that offer as much charm as Princess Anne.
“The redesign they did really brought back a neighborhood feel to the course,” Chris Fanney says. “It’s more natural. All native plants. And there are no paved cart paths, so it almost begs you to walk it. We love it. It’s our Little Augusta.”