Rock Harbor - Winchester, VA
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
You remember those fantasy courses in the old Tiger Woods video games? Remember the one called ‘The Predator’? Ever wonder what it would be like to play it? Guess what, now you can! Best part is, it’s not in some far away jungle, it’s located on an active rock quarry in Winchester, Virginia. Welcome to 36 holes of straight up crazy ass golf at Rock Harbor!
I have driven up and down I-81 so many times in the last two decades, I would pick up even the most subtle changes along the route. Stands to reason that when I saw a new golf course go up on 'attractions' sign near the exits for Winchester - the northernmost town in Virginia along the 323 miles of Interstate 81 in the Commonwealth - that I'd look into it, but probably never play it.
I'm glad that wasn't the case.
Turns out, some of the boys from back home and I have put together a sort-of-annual buddies golf weekend about halfway between Upstate New York and East Tennessee.
Turns out, Winchester is just about exactly halfway and I had heard enough stories over the years that piqued my interest to investigate Rock Harbor as the potential centerpiece of a future trip.
Turns out, it was a good move.
The club is aptly named. As are its two courses (Rock and Boulder). Webster tells us...
Rock (noun): 1. The solid mineral material forming part of the surface of the earth and other similar planets, exposed on the surface or underlying the soil or oceans. 2. A large piece of rock that has become detached from a cliff or mountain (OR UNEARTHED FROM A FREAKING QUARRY!!); a boulder.
Harbor (noun): a place on the coast where vessels may find shelter, especially one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures.
Like I said, its in a rock quarry - and a hilly one at that. The lakes are large enough to be navigable with a small motor craft. Don't know about the fishing, but you can probably earn a competitive wage diving for golf balls. The property sits right off the bypass around town. What you see from the highway are the tame, opening holes to each loop. It does not represent what you get over the hill.
I dont know what the going rate for granite is by the ton, but my guess is they have hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of dollars in granite littered throughout this unique property. Some mark boundaries, some play as hazard and some are just plain aesthetic. Either way you shank it, it'll hurt your ball if you hit one. If you are in granite sales and have played this course, please contact us and give us your best estimate!
Lastly, the courses were built at different times - basically as land became available from the quarry after it was mined/excavated. The Boulder is the newer and more difficult of the two (like you're getting an easy round in on either though).
I should add one more thing to this category... the people! Man, were they awesome to us. The pro shop attendant felt so bad he comped our first 9 (didn't get to the back 9 on The Rock) and they let us back out as soon as it let up for our PM round. The kitchen and wait staff were fantastic. I even met a ranger late in the day who after chatting us up turned out to be the father of a guy with whom I went to college. 5-star staff all the way.
The breakfast sandwich was a legit partial remedy for what happens on the first night of a buddy trip (i.e. you think you're 21 again, but you are sorely mistaken the next morning).
The only bad thing about the day we played was that it poured on us. I mean angry rain. We planned to get all 36 in, but rain/cold forced us inside after 9 on the Rock.
The rain did give us time - along with a lot of other out-of-towners - to get warm, dry out and eat a full-service lunch. Seriously, these people do it right. Even if you didn't play golf, it's the type of restaurant you'd go to once a week for lunch or breakfast. Don't know if a big lunch helped or hurt the round to come, but it tasted great!
There was a range and a large practice area. A nice touch was the giant net that skirted the 9th fairway of the Rock course to collect errant shots. All in all, this was pretty good for a public track. They certainly expect some of their customers to drive long distances to play here given all of warm-up amenities. That's nice to see these days.
All that said, let's play some golf...
Get a yardage book! You'll need it. Each hole has at least SIX sets of tees and NINE pin placements. Some holes have alternate East and West tee groupings. The options in setup are as diverse as in routes you choose to play. More on that in a sec.
Do yourself the favor we didn't and use the practice facilities before stepping on the first tee box. You're going to need to be good and warmed up, if not on the first tee, then by the third hole.
The course has two distinctive looks; farmland (opening holes) and cracked out quarry (everything else).
I mean that as a compliment too. This is an alternative golf course, without question. If you like a traditional layout, then Shenandoah Valley is a pretty good public track not far from here, with 27 holes as play. Right next door to that (literally - it's across the street) is Bowling Green CC that boasts 36 holes. Now that we've warned you, let's continue.
This review won't really be able to walk you thru a traditional round since we didn't play the whole thing, may have snapped pics of holes we didn't get to play due to rain or just had too many beers the night before and can't remember the order. Instead, we'll focus on the individual holes themselves, because they are fascinating!
The visual intimidation is impressive. The course is wide open in places, so you can see multiple holes from different angles. The best example of this type of anxiety hazard is the island green (Hole #7/Rock course). Depending on what course you're playing and how much you know about the property, you may not know if you're even playing that hole in your round - but you think about the rest of the day after seeing it. Not sure if this was intentional by the designer, but kudos if it was.
Speaking of the designer/architect, there's a very interesting history piece on Rock Harbor's website that details how and why the course came to life. The designer, Dennis Perry, was the head of the company that owned the quarry and decided to build a course on the excess land. If that's not the dream of every armchair architect out there, then I haven't met many of them. That brings us to the most important question of the day...
If you had the chance to build an actual golf hole, what kind of crazy ass shit would you dream up?
P.B. Dye once said, "I’m a golfer’s worst nightmare– a bulldozer operator with a scratch handicap and an Irish sense of humor,” I don't know what Mr. Perry's handicap is, but Google tells me the name Perry is of English or Welsh origin. I also know dude had a ton of heavy equipment laying around to move some earth.
Take the 4th hole on the Boulder for example...
It looks fairly normal from the tee. It's a 534/480 yard par-5 from the back two tees. Not unreasonable at all, right? Looks like a standard up and around dogleg. Let's go deeper...
First, you have boulders lining the cart path the entire way up the hill. Next there was clearly some earth moving done to build the forward tees and make it less penal/flatter from tee to landing area. There is a pond down to the right you can make out that doesn't really come into play now, but serves as one of those anxiety hazards for a later hole. Now the video game stuff comes into play...
Look closer if you can to where the tees are pointing though - they don't point left to the fairway, they point at the gap in the trees and what look like boulders on the ground.
It's hard to see, so let's look at the reverse view of the same hole...
The 'shortcut' through the gap in the trees cuts 100 yards off the hole, but they're daring you to do it through a slag pit waste area littered with giant boulders. All of that occurs before you still have to make an approach to a very protected heart-shaped, multi-tiered green. In other words, if you shank a drive and have to play the shortcut, hit the power-up button and go for it. Otherwise, play normal golf and go the path of least resistance.
They all aren't crazy, but what fun is talking about the ones that aren't? Two holes later you are faced with another choice off the tee. Another par-5, but this time it comes in at cool 714/651 yards from the aptly named Black and Blue tees, respectively. Fear not, it's all down hill from there - literally, no figuratively, ah screw it - just hit it far.
The yardage is measured to the left. This time though, the shortcut plays through a little easier and wider gap, though still through the rough. The choice is yours depending on the strengths in your game. Another surprise lurks beyond the trees...
If you play left, you're greeted with giant boulders turned on end like you're approaching Stonehenge. Again, I said this place was unique.
Not only that, but there's two greens down there. Not a double green, two greens with bunker that resembles an octopus more than anything. Here's what your nine pin placements look like with deer antlers in between the two. Worse yet, looking at the approach shot above, you can hardly notice the hazard lying below grade to engulf what you may only assume was a shot hit fat or thin.
I know we weren't going in order, but it just worked out that way for a few holes. One more, then we'll skip around.
The 7th is a 371/352 yard, dogleg left par-4 with a great look off the tee (above). If you draw the ball, hook it just a little left of the rock pile in the middle. That'll leave you a nice wedge into guess what? Another DOUBLE GREEN!!! This one actually makes sense to me and provides one of the better vantage points on a course full of great ones.
All of that was written about three holes. Again, there are thirty six here. I'm already over 10K characters, so here's a little visual buffet of some of the other best views, shots, holes & hazards of Rock Harbor...
These courses aren't going to be for everyone. However, they weren't built for everyone, either. They were designed to be an alternative to the classic country club and a way to reuse land once scarred by mining. In all of those senses, Rock Harbor accomplishes exactly what it was designed to be. It's hard to be critical of conditions when it was as wet as it was, but there were only a few blemishes on an otherwise green and granite canvas. The best part, this will be the closest golf course to my folks' place when they retire to their new house in Winchester! I'd rarely play a course twice that is out of town, but I want to play the whole shebang next time and without the rain!
CRUSADER RATING: 4.25 STARS for The Boulder Course and 3.75 STARS for The Rock
Last played: May 2017
Tee Times: 866-273-1934 or https://rockharborgolf.com/book-a-tee-time/
GPS: 365 Rock Harbor Drive, Winchester, VA 22602