The Palmer Course at Stonewall Resort
Roanoke, WV - I am sitting on the deck of a beautifully decorated saltbox-style cottage overlooking a mirror-smooth lake surrounded by mountains. I've just come back from touring the 26-mile-long lake, a 50-minute loop by jetski. And I still can't believe the scene that fills my eyes.
I have written articles about Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park almost from the beginning, when the Army Corps of Engineers flooded this mountain valley in the 1980s. The resulting 2,650-acre lake and state park were named for the native son and Civil War hero who was born a few miles from here. My story has always been much the same - great camping, fishing and boating in a pristine wilderness area.
This fall, as 2002 wanes, the story is dramatically different -- a classic Cinderella tale about the transformation of a great place to fish and drink beer into one of the region's classiest resorts. It is a story of a remarkable $50 million collaboration among state and federal agencies and the private sector. The wisdom of such a project here is irrefutable - the state park lies just two miles off Interstate 79, two hours from the vibrant Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area and its modern airport; four hours from the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area; and four hours from Columbus, Ohio.
The result of this unusual alliance is a stunning resort built in the style of a 1920's Adirondack lodge, but with all the modern amenities. The atmosphere is wonderful from the moment you step out of your car and enter the covered walkway to the main entrance. In the main hall, soaring ceilings are studded with massive wooden beams and decorated with chandeliers of twined deer antlers. There, and in the spacious common rooms, warmth emanates from natural stone fireplaces. The carpet is thick underfoot and the feeling is one of comfortable luxury.
That feeling of easy elegance pervades all - the 196 guestrooms and suites, the lakeside cottages, the dining room overlooking the lake, the full-service spa with adjoining indoor/outdoor swimming pool, the 15,000-square-foot conference center, even the four rental houseboats that do a stately promenade along the lake on their way to isolated fishing and swimming anchorages.
But I probably would not be sitting here if it were not for the golf course that is molded into the ridges, swales and twists of the land. A weathered gatepost, a depression that may once have been a farm lane, and a mysterious grove of pecan trees ( the northernmost of its kind) tell me that people once eked out a living here. This land was finally cast in the perfect role when it became a golf course.
Arnold Palmer apparently thought so, too, because he utilized every nuance of the topsy-turvy terrain in plotting the Palmer Course at Stonewall Resort. Contrivance was never necessary; nature put it all here.
The course is on a relatively small parcel of land - 120 acres - but good separation between holes was accomplished by Palmer's savvy use of the terrain, trees and vegetation. And it's just plain beautiful because of its natural features - the mix of hardwoods and evergreens, the vistas of knobby hills and mountains that characterize this part of West Virginia, and the lake itself, which frequently comes into play and can be seen from many holes. Adding to the natural feel are the tall grasses that line most fairways and rustle in the wind. If you can find your ball in there, it takes a heroic effort to get out.
Though some fairways are obviously sloped, even those that appear level may be canted enough to produce unfortunate bounces. Fortunately, mounding along the track often acts as an equalizer, channeling balls back into play.
Water hazards and bunkering (54 sand bunkers) are not overdone, but where they exist it is with purpose, not just for window-dressing. The bunkers are deep, usually with a heavy front lip that makes escape difficult. Several of the greens are elevated, often steeply, so there are few easy approaches. Run-up areas are few and narrow.
The greens, though generous in size, can be deceptive. In most cases nothing radical meets the eye - no obvious "potato chip" contours. But when you hunker down to line up a putt, you discover there are dips and ridges and swales, with no predictable pattern from hole to hole. Each is different.
For that matter, all the holes are different. Yeah, you hear that all the time, but believe it. Possible signature holes abound. The second green is a beauty, lying alongside a pond with a picturesque wooden bridge behind. Six is a pretty par three across a neck of the lake to a green fronted with four huge oblongs of sand. The green itself is contoured in quadrants; land in the wrong one and you've got trouble. Fifteen is a par four dropping to a green perched on a knob of land with views in all directions. Sixteen is also an eyeful, a par three dropping 150 feet to a green fronted by a lake with a big sycamore standing guard on the left.
But let's talk difficulty. The USGA rating is 74.6, the slope 142. However, from the most-frequented white tees, the slope is a more manageable 123. When Palmer christened the course in June 2002, he said "Not only is it visually appealing, but the fact that you've got six different tee boxes allows the golfer to choose his or her level of challenge. . . .folks are going to want to play it again and again."
From the Palmer tees, the distance is 7,149 yards. Most players will go for the 6,227-yard blues or the 5,821-yard whites. But whatever poison you choose as far as length, you'll find it's not really so much about distance as it is control and strategy. For instance, the seventh hole is a 580-yard (555,528,500,412) par five that is narrow and doglegs slightly left. There is a long, menacing bunker on the left of the landing area for your second shot, and a very tight opening between bunkers to the green. Head Golf Professional Randy Hernly says "The smart move is to hit a driver and a well-placed iron to set up a controlled shot to the green, but most men will bang away with two woods and end up in trouble."
There are many instances where strategy is superior to strength. The bottom line: the Palmer Course is a thinking player's route - and an immensely pleasant one at that. The experience of playing here is enhanced by the pride and hospitality shown by all of the club's employees, from Hernly to his assistant pros to the beverage cart attendants and greenskeepers. Their excitement is infectious.
October 7, 2002