Originally constructed at the end of the 1990s by Brian Ault and Thomas Clark, the River Course was completely remodeled by Pete Dye midway through the following decade when he moved around 40,000 cubic yards of earth whilst rebuilding all eighteen greens, reshaping many of the fairways and rerouting a couple of holes.
A new clubhouse, inaugurated in 2010, now overlooks the holes from a cliff top position high above the course, and now that most of the old trees have been removed from the property, golfers are afforded wonderful views out across the New River as its fast flowing waters skirt the course.
The signature hole is the 159-yard 7th, where the green is protected by sand to the front and right of the green. With the river and a railway line above the riverside in view from the tee, it’s one of the architect’s favourite holes – no surprise for a man who loves trains and rivers.
Toughest hole on the card is kept until last at the long par four 18th, which often plays a full stroke over par in competition. A tight fairway – bounded to the left by tall fescue-covered mounding and water to the right – leads to a narrow, slightly offset green that’s well protected by small pot bunkers.
One of the leading golf magazines compiles a Top 30 chart of leading campus courses in the country and the Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech, after entering the rankings at number 18 in 2010, jumped ten places to position 8 when the listing was updated two years later.It has also been selected to host one of the state’s top events, the Virginia State Amateur, in 2016.
Virginia Tech’s Pete Dye River Course is a fascinating place. It’s strange for a university-owned course not to be immediately adjacent to campus, but the River Course is basically in the next town, a good 12 miles from Virginia Tech’s campus. It’s actually much closer to Radford University, another NCAA Division I institution whose golf team also calls the course home. But despite its distance from campus in Blacksburg, the University took it over in the early 2000’s thanks to a wealthy donor who just happened to be friends with Pete Dye, leading to the redesign to its current state.
The course sits completely enclosed within a long bend of the New River, the famed watercourse known for cutting a winding path through the Appalachian Mountains from the Carolinas north to West Virginia. Quite a few holes take advantage of the (thankfully flood-controlled) river as a hazard immediately adjacent to the greens. The outward and inward nines are separated by a tall bluff on which the clubhouse sits – because of this bluff, despite the flatness of the rest of the terrain, it’s a pain to walk the course. Oddly enough, I felt the front nine had some better individual holes, but the back nine felt more cohesive overall since it is truly wedged into a narrow strip of land between the bluff and the river, whereas the front was spread out over a larger piece of flat flood plain.
Holes I enjoyed included: #3, a par five featuring the river down its entire right side; #5, an extremely long par three set against the natural bluffs behind the green; #7, another brilliant par three to a green falling off on all sides, the only hole on the course playing perpendicular to the river; #8, a tricky mid-length par four with an intimidating approach; #12, a great risk-reward par five along the river, with a very strategic fairway bunker placed 50-60 yards shy of the green; #14, another riverside par three at the farthest point from the clubhouse; and #18, an extremely narrow long par four threaded between the tenth hole and the river.
All in all, the River is a solid university golf course in a particularly pretty spot, but not much more than that and certainly far from the best university course in the country. I’d recommend it if you happen to be in the area, but it’s probably not worth the trip from anywhere else by itself.
The Pete Dye River Course lies along a beautiful stretch of the New River, outside of the town of Radford. Nearby is Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech whose foundation owns the golf course. It is an out and back links-style course that is excellent for walking, though few do (except members) as a cart is included in the greens fee. Five sets of tees allow the course to play from a gentle 5100 yards to over 7600 yards- the longest tees wisely being reserved for tournament play. I would suggest the white tees as your maximum unless you are a very low handicapper or a serious golfing masochist!
Almost all of the greens are well protected by strategic contouring and bunkering. The green at the 6th whole is particularly difficult to hit as it is elevated and turns its side to the player, so there is only a narrow spot to hit and stop the ball before it roles down a long bank. None of the greens are unfair, but there are many difficult pin positions to choose from. The most difficult holes (in my opinion) are the longer par fours: 2, 4, 11, 15 and 18. High grass on the left and the river on the right make #18 particularly difficult. To make matters worse, the fairway slopes to the river, so a drive along the right side of the fairway can end up easily in the hazard.
The 192 yard 17th is a particularly difficult par 3, with a long waste bunker on the right and the river beyond that. Both #7 and #14 are beautiful, fairly short (from white tees) par 3s that have particularly nice views of the river. The river comes into play on eight different holes and there are three ponds that influence shots on an additional four holes. When the rough is high, hitting the fairway is very important if you want to score.
Having made the course sound like a monster, I should balance the review by saying that almost all holes have reasonable bailout areas and most fairways are reasonably generous. There are really no forced carries and so shorter hitters can enjoy the course immensely, as long as they exercise reasonable judgment. In fact, the course as a whole really rewards good shot making and good course management skills. Played from the right tees, it asks golfers to use most clubs in their bags and presents continuing challenges for the mind and for your shot making skills. I consider this a good thing, as it keeps the course continually interesting.
Course conditioning has improved every year since the re-design, though rain and heat can make things a challenge for the greens keeping staff. Condition and depth in sand traps are sometimes inconsistent, though this has been improving recently. Receptiveness and speed of the greens are also inconsistent. A course as good as this one should have fairly firm fairways and quick greens as much of the year as possible. The stretch of land along the New River makes playing The River Course a delight all seasons of the year. The relatively new clubhouse sits on a cliff overlooking the river and the golf course and the outside tables are a wonderful place to enjoy an after round drink or sandwich. The staff (including lots of volunteers) is helpful and welcoming. So don’t forget to pack the sticks if you are headed in this direction!