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.
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!