When it comes to golf tradition in Georgia, there is nothing greater than The Masters at Augusta National. For courses accessible to the general public, however, the quality of golf at Sea Island’s three courses are tough to surpass.
Being a geography buff, I recently learned a bemusing fact that had me eager to locate a map of the United States. Apparently, when Mother Nature was carving the eastern border along the Atlantic Ocean, she took a huge chunk from a southern portion of the coast where the state of Georgia now lies.
That section eventually came to be known as the ‘Georgia bite’ and is physically the westernmost point on the east coast. But more importantly, it is home to the one of the grande dames of American resorts, Sea Island.
Situated halfway between Jacksonville, FL and Savannah, GA on the peaceful Golden Isles of Sea Island and St Simons Island, this is a Georgian peach of a retreat. The Cloister opened as a ‘friendly little inn’ in 1928, and with 8km of private beach it has been benefitting from its location and a feast of nature and recreational activities ever since.
With its sister resort, The Lodge, having joined the landscape in 2001, Sea Island showcases a boatload of southern hospitality that has helped crown the luxury resort as the only one in the world to have earned four Forbes 5-Star ratings (The Cloister, The Lodge, the Georgian Room restaurant and The Spa at Sea Island) seven years in a row. With those starry accolades, it’s absolutely no surprise this rich nugget continues to glow.
ENGLISH STYLE. Even my coast-to-coast, red-eye flight could not prevent my eyes from lighting up the instant I entered The Lodge. An English-style manor with 40 guest rooms, I was warmly received and escorted by an around-the-clock butler to my large room, accentuated by ocean and fairway views. Not to mention every conceivable comfort; ranging from overstuffed chairs and hand-crafted Oriental rugs to spacious marble baths with deep-soaking tubs to a guest request card for me to indicate whether I’d prefer nighttime cookies and milk – or just the cookies – delivered to the room.
Day and night, the treats keep coming at Sea Island but it’s up to the guests to decide on the pace of things. Akin to the laid-back style of the Adirondack chairs adorning the manicured lawn at The Lodge, Sea Island provides more than enough casual ambience to restrain any guest from rushing into action. Unless, one takes a peak at the overflowing slate of recreational activities listed in the 10-page, double-sided Planning Guide in the guest rooms.
SO MUCH TO DO. At first glance, even with the marathon agenda arranged during my three-day visit, there was no question I’d merely be scratching the surface of the full experience here. Boating and fishing? Unfortunately, no time. Tennis at the centre run by French Open doubles winner Murphy Jensen? Not on my racket. Shooting school? Probably best I skip that maneuver! Sea Turtle Dawn Patrol? Seems I just missed the nesting season. Camp Cloister? Sadly, I’m beyond the age limit.
The remaining menu of pursuits I didn’t sample was exhausting to think about but what I did manage to accomplish – golf, kayaking, horseback riding plus golf instruction – kept my adrenaline flowing up to the moment I departed.
EXPANSIVE RESORT. Considering the setting of Sea Island, where the 175-room, Mediterranean-style Cloister sits surrounded by five miles of private beach on the Atlantic Ocean, is separated from St Simons Island to the west by the largest salt marsh on the eastern seaboard, the size of the resort is expansive.
Shuttles are available throughout the day to transport guests on the 10-minute ride between properties or hop on a complimentary cruiser bicycles for a 30-45 minute leisurely ride along the wide-open bike paths to Sea Island’s gated entrance. Here guests are welcomed with a line-up of flags representing all the nations that participated in the 2004 G8 Summit, plus a row of commemorative oaks, initiated with a seedling planted by President Calvin Coolidge when he visited the property in 1928.
THE SPA. Following my pedal exercise, I switched gears to more heart-pumping activity with state-of-the-art training equipment in the Cloister Spa. I was afforded just enough time to justify my dinner at Tavola, a rustic Italian eatery inside The Cloister, with Mike Kennedy, director of activities at Sea Island.
“When you add up all the golf, shooting, water sports, the spa, kids’ camps, nature programs and everything else, I would be hard pressed to find another resort that offers the amount of activities as here,” says Kennedy.
“We leverage what we have, that other resorts don’t have, like the marsh and our natural setting. Plus, there are so many southern family traditions carried over from past generations that we hold onto and won’t be found elsewhere.”
THE BEGINNING. When it comes to golf in Georgia, there is nothing greater than The Masters but for courses accessible to the general public (at least for guests at Sea Island), the quality of golf at the resort’s three courses is exceptional. Which is somewhat ironic given the game’s origin at Sea Island.
When Howard Coffin, founder of Hudson Motor Company in 1908, and his cousin, A W Jones, began developing the seaside nirvana, both considered golf a complete waste of time. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that golf is what guests wanted to play.
With that admission, well-known golf course architect, Walter Travis, was hired to lay the foundation for the Plantation course that opened in 1928 on St Simons Island, several months before The Cloister was ready for guests.
Some 70 years later, the Plantation, divided by the Avenue of Oaks leading up to The Lodge, underwent an extensive renovation by Rees Jones to transform it into a ‘true parkland-by-the-sea’ layout with Bermuda fairways, roughs and greens. The course provides a bit of challenge with lakes, ponds and tidal creeks at seven of the front-side, tree-lined holes while frequent vistas of the Atlantic Ocean, St Simons Sound and The Lodge highlight the back nine.
THE SEASIDE. On the opposite side of The Lodge lies the resort’s marquee golf course, Seaside. Originally designed in 1929 at the southern tip of St Simons Island, the ocean-side links course got a complete makeover by Tom Fazio in 1999 and earned a spot on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in the United States.
Since 2010, it has been home to the annual PGA Tour McGladrey Classic, hosted by Sea Island touring professional and 2016 US Ryder Cup Captain, Davis Love III.
“Seaside is clearly the most requested course to play at Sea Island and that has as much to do with the historical factor as anything else and the design is pretty special,” noted John Wade, head golf professional at Sea Island.
What Seaside lacks in length (6,405 metres) to the slightly longer Plantation (6,454 metres) is compensated by the higher difficulty factor. There are no homes on the links-style course, but with Seaside being surrounded by mesmerizing marsh and the exposing winds off the ocean, there is a major premium placed on shot selection, recovery and putting.
VISUAL HOLES. The first major test occurs at the 421-yard, par-4, 4th hole with marsh on the left and a pond on the right, forcing players to drive the ball down the centre of the fairway. The second shot allows plenty of bailout room but it’s more of a visual intimidation than a physical one. The par-4 5th hole is especially tough due to the angle and temptation to bite off more length than you can manage.
It’s hard to imagine the par-4, 407-yard 14th not rated the toughest on the card but with St Simons Sound and Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop, it is one of the premier visual holes. The tee shot sets up for a wide-open landing zone but the constant changing coastal winds make it challenging to land the ball on the correct side of the fairway for a clear shot to the red wicker basket (used at a handful of courses in the US) on the green.
While my playing partner, Daniel Wooten, a PGA golf management intern at Sea Island, asserted Seaside is a great place to experience at least once, he also said, “I wouldn’t want to be standing at the No. 18 tee box on Sunday afternoon of the McGladrey with a first-place cheque hanging in the balance.”
THE RETREAT. The trio of courses at Sea Island rounds out with the friendly Retreat Course (6,498 metres) that was originally designed by Joe Lee but had an extensive makeover by Love III and his brother Mark in 2001.
“It’s so much fun for golfers of any level to play,” says Wade. “The par 5s are reachable, the fairways are a bit wider, you can run shots up onto just about every green and it’s typically not as busy as the other courses. Plus, with our newly installed family tees, it’s an excellent place for families to go and not feel like they’re holding people up.”
Undeniably, Sea Island embraces its rich heritage and honours the traditions and spirit of golf but is also not adverse to keeping pace with the modern-day traveller, placing a high commodity on time. ‘Speed-slot’ golf has been introduced to encourage singles or twosomes to tee off weekdays between 7.30am–8.30am and complete their round in three hours or less.
PERFORMANCE CENTRE. For golfers open to stretching their golf time to enhance skills, Sea Island’s Golf Performance Centre offers one of the most advanced training grounds in the country, with an all-star staff of Golf Digest’s America’s Greatest Teachers.
From long or short game, putting, club fitting, golf fitness and sports psychology, you’ll get the same instructors that work with Love III and other Sea Island resident PGA Tour players like Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedecker and Jonathan Byrd.
It was only a two-minute walk from The Lodge to the practice facility so I really had no excuse not to take full advantage of the opportunity. I surrendered my game to one-on-one sessions with various golf experts. Yes, they all exposed a plethora of flaws in my ability to hit a golf ball, but the true test is whether I’m a good enough student to follow instruction on my next round of golf…
Good to know
Connecting flights from Atlanta to Savannah (GA) or Jacksonville (FL) International Airports, both equidistant (approx 90-minute drive) from Sea Island
Where To Stay
• The Cloister at Sea Island
• The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club
• The Inn at Sea Island
• Broadfield Sporting Club & Lodge
• Seaside Golf Club
• Plantation Golf Course
• Retreat Course
• Sea Island Golf Performance Center
Where To Dine
Colt & Alison
Sea Island’s Sport’s Pub