ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- The first 11 holes on the course at King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort lull you into a sense that you're just playing another coastal layout. But once you drive from the 11th green, past the signs that warn you about possible alligators and over the bridge to the 12th tee, you immediately see why you're in a special place.
That's because the King and Prince has four holes that are built on its own Marsh Island. For four holes, you're aware of the isolation of being surrounded by a sea of reeds and wetlands all around. Although there are other outstanding holes on the course, these four holes are the ones that set this course apart from any other on the Golden Isles.
"You could never build something like this again because of the EPA regulations," said General Manager and PGA Director of Golf Rick Mattox, who joined the club a month after it opened in 1989. "It's what sets us apart."
The four-hole stretch includes a pair of par 3s, a tricky par 5 and a difficult par 4.
"I think these are the best four holes on the course," said Dale Williams, who was visiting from Knoxville, Tenn. "There's a little bit of something for everyone over there."
King and Prince: The golf course
The stretch opens with the 115-yard, par-3 12th that requires a slight uphill shot to a smallish green that's guarded on the right front by a bunker.
Then it gets interesting. The 13th hole plays 386 from the blue tees and requires a drive over the salt marsh to reach the fairway. Playing from white tees cuts nearly 70 yards off the hole and eliminates the difficult drive and much of the intimidation.
The 14th is a 443-yard par 5 that doglegs to the left before it straightens back out. The green is reachable in two, but there's a pond that guards the right side for the second half of the hole and protects the green. It's definitely a target hole, and anything that strays much off the fairway is likely to get lost in the marshes.
King and Prince's 15th hole is another short par 3 (132 from the blues) that plays slightly uphill and has bunkers on the left, middle and right of the green.
Once you've toured those four holes, you'll likely want to stay on Marsh Island and play them all again. Course knowledge is definitely an asset, especially on the 14th and 15th.
There isn't a bad hole on the course, and two of the best holes close each nine.
The ninth is a short par 5 (386 yards from the back) that requires a drive over water and around a tree. (The hole plays only 325 from the white markers.) The pond guards the left side of the fairway and must be dealt with on the approach shot. This is a fun hole to play -- and re-play.
The 18th hole isn't as much fun, but it is a challenging finish. The 18th is an uphill par 5 that plays 486 yards from the blue tees. A couple of fairway bunkers on the left side, and the slight elevation change adds to the difficulty.
Overall the King and Prince golf course is fun to play, one of the trademarks of architect Joe Lee, whose work is prominent in the Southeast, particularly Georgia and Florida. Lee developed a well earned reputation for building golf courses that were enjoyable to play. He had a soft spot for the King and Prince (then known as the Hampton Club) and visited Mattox each year on his own dime to check up on things.
In 2009, the club underwent a multi-million-dollar makeover and restoration under the direction of architect Billy Fuller. Bunkers were re-shaped and all the sand was replaced. Three new fairway bunkers were added.
The course plays to par 72 and has six sets of tees, ranging from 6,462 to 4,929 yards. The slope from the back tees is 140 and from the front is 121.
King and Prince: The extras
There is a driving range and large putting and chipping green. The facility includes a sand trap and target greens for wedge practice. The range is plenty big enough to accommodate a group or tournament.
The pro shop has a nice assortment of clothing, hats and towels. Don't forget to invest a few bucks on bug spray or you risk getting eaten up by the mosquitos and gnats when the wind isn't active enough to keep them away.
King and Prince also offers the option of using a one-person motorized scooter instead of a golf cart. These contraptions can help speed up play, keep golfers more active and gives them a chance to experience a more natural round. They aren't difficult to learn to maneuver, but you'll want about 10 minutes to get accustomed to them.
The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort
If there is vacancy, try to get a reservation at The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, the only facility at St. Simons to offer beachfront rooms. The hotel opened in 1935 and has been updated and expanded through the years to ensure it stays fresh and relevant.
The hotel features the ECHO restaurant and a three-pool complex that's popular for adults and children. You should be aware, however, that the King and Prince golf course is on the other end of the island, so allow for a 20-30 minute drive, depending on traffic.
ECHO is the King and Prince restaurant that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It features classic coastal offerings (shrimp and grits) and executive chef James Flack brings world-class credentials. There are many other places to dine in the Sea Island village, less than two miles away. You'll certainly want to have breakfast one day at the Sandcastle Café and Grill at the Pier, a casual place that will fill you up with fresh pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon and grits for a full day of activities.
In the evening you might want to try the Georgia Sea Grill, a sophisticated restaurant that features such specialties as crab stuffed hush puppies and low country crab rice or enjoy a laid-back meal at Gnat's Landing, a couple miles away in Redfern Village, with a menu that includes traditional favorites such as fried shrimp and oysters, Vidalia onion pie and their signature fried pickles.
King and Prince: The verdict
The King and Prince golf course is a visual feast. The course is lined throughout by mature live oak trees, all complete with Spanish moss hanging from the limbs. (Hurricane Matthew, which skirted the area in October 2016, took down some pines and created some debris, but the sturdy live oaks were unscathed.)
The fairways and tees are planted with Bermuda grass and kept in excellent conditions. The greens are mini-verde, ultra-dwarf Bermuda and roll at a moderate speed you'd expect from a coastal course with heavy resort play.
If you visit St. Simons, you should definitely make an effort to play the King and Prince. The beauty of the course and the hospitality of the staff are at the top the scale. If you've got a buddy trip planned, this course will be a welcome addition to your rota.