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Piankatank River Charts Two Courses in One
Secluded, Tranquil Layout Lets Golfers Blow Off Some Steam
When brothers E.G. and Johnny Fleet scanned the landscape of their farmland in Middlesex County, VA, they saw the perfect terrain for two golf courses. So that’s what they decided to build. Actually, Piankatank River Golf Club is just a single, 18-hole layout. But by the time players finish their round, they will have encountered two distinctively different nines.
Designed by course architect Algie Pulley and opened in July 1996, Piankatank River’s front side rambles through tightly wooded areas, crosses seven springs and streams, and has over 100 feet of elevation changes. Make the turn and the property gives way to a back nine that is flatter, more “links style” and features three holes that play along the course’s namesake with water views that constantly change with the passing tide. It is this mountain/coastal combination that makes playing Piankatank River a truly unique experience.
It’s been said many of the best golf courses are the ones somewhat off the beaten path. Piankatank River certainly qualifies. The layout is located in Hartfield, a small agricultural community in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula about an hour’s drive from Richmond. And while you’ll need to check your GPS coordinates often when visiting there, what awaits on the historic property (285 of the acres have been owned by the Fleet family for 11 generations; the other 130 acres are owned by the daughter of now deceased Margaret Beckwith, the widow of Abraham Lincoln’s great grandson and last blood heir)is well worth the drive.
There’s nothing hoity-toity or pretentious about the club. Instead, what you will find is a very friendly staff, a cozy fully-stocked pro shop, and one of the area’s best restaurants, the Steamboat. The practice facility is top-notch, and it’s not unusual to see experienced, low-handicappers hitting range balls next to newcomers and rookies. This really is a place that prides itself in providing a relaxing, no worries day to enjoy a round with friends.
What you won’t find once you tee off are parallel fairways. Each hole is positioned in its own secluded corridor, so much so that at times you will feel like you have the entire course to yourself. It’s a welcomed contrast to the many cookie-cutter residential layouts that sprung up in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It doesn’t take long to get the mountain course “feel.” The first hole, a 371-yard par 4, plays slightly downhill to a catch-all fairway that bends to the left. Thick trees on the inside corner guard against the big hitter who might want to show off by cutting the angle and going for the green. The approach shot is played decidedly uphill to a narrow green.
The 510-yard, par-5 No. 2 presents a wonderful risk/reward opportunity, and gives players their first look at the brooks, marshes and protected wetlands that often dictate the shot-making decisions required on the front nine. Number 4, at 342 yards from the back tees (just 308 from the whites), again brings water into play. This short but very difficult par 4 plays downhill to a narrow landing strip pinched on both sides by thick woods. Wetlands guard the right side, as well. Don’t let your ego take over — put the driver back in the bag and go with a fairway metal or long iron off the tee, setting up a wedge or short iron into the well-protected green.
It is followed by another downhill hole, the first par 3 on the course. The 167-yard No. 5 plays significantly shorter than the yardage indicates, but it’s still better to err on the longer side since a marshy area protects the front of the green.
The opening nine ends with a one-two punch in the gut that can make or break your round. The par-4 No. 8 plays a PGA TOUR length 461 yards from the back tees. Wetlands run the entire left side of the hole, as well as cutting diagonally across the fairway as you approach the green. Number 9, a 489-yard par 5 and arguably the toughest hole at Piankatank River, begins with an uphill tee shot over the muck. Find the landing zone and you’ll be staring dead straight at a large tree situated in the middle of the fairway. A muscular 3-wood played over the top-left of the tree may yield an eagle putt, but the safer option is out to the right setting up a reasonable-length approach.
The 11th, a 541-yard par 5, opens up the back side for the flatter part of the course. Players face a stiff challenge right off the tee, with wetlands encroaching on the right. Once clear of the hazard, the fairway opens up quite a bit with grassy mounds lining the right side and rough down the left leading to a waste area.
Holes 13-15 provide tranquil views of the river, where the steamboat “Piankatank” once made its regular journey back and forth to Baltimore, MD. Number 13 is the shortest par 4 on the course at just 313 yards, and ranks handicap wise as the easiest hole. The dogleg left banks to the left with a large pond there to catch errant shots, with the green positioned just in front of the river. The 14th also serves up a birdie opportunity. This short, 126-yard par 3 plays across the same pond with the river forming a backdrop. The 15th, a 345-yard par 4, works its way back away from the river as it curls to the right around wetlands back towards the clubhouse.
The layout ends with a par 5-3-4 trio that again brings protected areas into play on nearly every shot. The finishing hole, in particular, can be a scorecard crusher with wetlands and trees framing the straight-away, 416-yard par 4 from tee to green.
Piankatank River’s location and Pulley’s imaginative layout combine to create a secluded retreat for golfers wanting to get away from it all and let off a little steam. It also provides an excellent value, with greens and cart fees much lower than what comparable courses demand in the big cities. TeeTime Golf Pass members can enjoy even bigger savings, and the course has become a favorite day trip destination for pass holders who hail from the Tidewater, Peninsula, and Richmond areas.