Trip dispatch: Sea Island keeps improving

The coastal Georgia resort is making itself even more attractive to avid traveling golfers.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Change can be scary.

Faced with both the opportunity and the desire to improve, big institutions sometimes compromise the features that have made – and kept – them successful. Expansion can mean more revenue, but might it not come at the cost of the vibe of a place?

Over its 90 years, Sea Island has grown sensibly from a quiet oceanfront retreat into one of America’s great resorts. It even has considerable international acclaim, having hosted the G8 Summit in 2004.

Originally a 36-hole golf facility, Sea Island acquired what is now the Retreat Course in the 1970s. Area resident and major champion Davis Love III redesigned it in 2001, bringing it up to the standard of the main Seaside and Plantation layouts. What it lacks in its siblings’ advantageous location, it recoups in strategic interest. It has more of a country club feel, with a particularly good set of greens.

The closing hole at the Retreat Course plays along a lake to an undulating green.

More recently, Sea Island opened the Inn, the third distinct main lodging option at the resort. Compared to the rich comforts of the Lodge and the Forbes Five Star-rated flagship, the Addison Mizner-designed Cloister, the Inn is decidedly down-market, which might have made critics fear the resort was preparing to compromise its high standard of service. But the Inn has been a smart addition, simply opening up the resort to a broader audience and turning several occasional visitors into regulars. The property is pristine, the rooms are pleasant and the service is as friendly as it is anywhere else at the resort. Now four years old, the Inn fits well at the resort.

Sea Island is currently in the midst of some of its most ambitious changes yet. Opening imminently are six cottages at the Lodge. Following the trend of golf properties offering multi-bedroom lodgings for golf groups, Sea Island’s new cottages are as convenient to the golf facility as any I have seen anywhere. Golfers will literally be able to step out the back door and onto the practice putting green, chipping green and range. Ad hoc contests will continue long into the night, adding another layer of conviviality to an already social scene.

That’s not all, though. A couple weeks after this year’s RSM Classic concludes, the resort’s Plantation Course is set to go under the knife for about ten months. Davis Love III’s design group will be taking the 1998 Rees Jones redesign, which has always been pleasant but a bit uneven, “back in time,” according to Scot Sherman, the architect leading the project.

“[W]e are greatly influenced by the work of Messrs. [Seth] Raynor and [Pete] Dye, Sherman said. “This will lead us to grass faced bunkers of various shapes and sizes (pot bunkers included); the injection of wood onto the property in the form of railroad ties here and there; contrasting native grasses; and fairly bold green shapes and contours. The strategy of all the holes will often be dictated by the hole location on the green that day. This will lead to holes with dual strategic interest and keep the frequent player's attention in focus.”

This conceptual plan for the Plantation Course renovation gives a good indication of the changes to come.

This renovation brings a new philosophy to the Plantation. Whereas Rees Jones directs play down the centers of fairways in pursuit of small, elevated greens, Love and Sherman’s vision should make the course fundamentally more interesting not just for the PGA Tour, but for resort guests and club members as well. When it reopens in October of 2019, golfers should expect a much-improved experience.

In the meantime, resort visitors can enjoy the first fruits of Sherman’s labors: the Driftwood Putting Course, which sits between the back porch of the Lodge and the edge of the St. Simons Sound. The undulating green is inspired by St. Andrews’ Himalayas, but is a bit mellower and more relaxed, true to the Sea Island way.

The Driftwood Putting Course has been a welcome addition to Sea Island's golf facilities.

Less than a hundred yards away, more improvements are finishing up. Already one of the best practice facilities in resort golf, Sea Island’s Golf Performance Center is receiving a new building about 90 degrees counterclockwise from the current one, which will become another cottage for overnight guests. An expanded hub of instruction and clubfitting, plus a social component in the form of dedicated hitting bays that visiting groups can rent, it will open sometime next year.

Suffice it to say there’s a great deal going on at Sea Island, but it’s being done in a way that will only enhance what already makes it a special place.

Speaking of which...3 great things that will never change at Sea Island

A recent loop around the venerable Harry Colt/Charles Alison classic (with Fazio updates in 1999) proved corrective. I had played it once before, on a cold February day a few years ago, and liked it but came away wondering if it was a bit overrated. Whether it was because of the weather, the firmness of the fairways and greens or the company – expert caddie Brade “Scotty” Scott – I was able to “get” the course in a new way this time around. The routing is fantastic: all four par threes play in different directions and the rest of the holes wander out, back and around in a way that feels like a natural exploration of a splendid piece of old Georgia ground. The clamshell-shaped bunkers are striking, often blending into the dunes and guarding the best routes to the elevated greens. It’s a course any golfer would be thrilled to play every day.

2. The Men’s Locker Room

Sea Island's Men's Locker Room is one of the world's best.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get rained on with a warm fire hose, just step under one of the almost comically wide, circular shower heads.

I know not everyone feels this way, but to me, the course is 99.9% of any golf experience. Still, I admit to being fascinated by locker rooms. I’ve been fortunate to linger in a fair few of them, and Sea Island’s is my favorite for two reasons.

The first is the bar, which serves lunch daily, as well as the best sweet tea I have ever had. The vaulted ceilings, dark wood, comfy chairs and general camaraderie – it’s one of many places at the resort where PGA Tour winners like Matt Kuchar, Patton Kizzire, Jonathan Byrd and plenty of others are part of the regular cast – help make it special beyond its creature comforts.

Then there are the showers. Good lord, the showers. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get rained on with a warm fire hose, just step under one of the almost comically wide, circular shower heads. The water pressure is one of a golfing life’s great indulgences.

Have you played the courses at Sea Island? Review them here
St Simons Island, Georgia
St Simons Island, Georgia
St Simons Island, Georgia

3. The harmony

Southern Soul is a St. Simons institution, beloved of Sea Island guests, members and other visitors.

Some great resorts sit apart – almost lording over – the towns where they reside. Sea Island is inextricably intertwined with both St. Simons Island and its eponymous geographical landform. As a result, a stay at the resort practically requires some off-campus time, especially when you’re hungry. You’ll never go wrong eating at the resort, of course, but you’d be foolish to pass up a stop at Southern Soul BBQ, a local shrine to smoked meat. You’ll notice Sea Island’s distinctive curlicued script on the clothes of many fellow diners. Davis Love III might also duck in to pick up some ribs. Early in the morning, pre-golf, stop in at Sweet Mama’s for their famous “pork popper” biscuits. It’s right on the way from the Inn to the golf courses, after all.

Sanctuary Golf Club: an off-island add-on

Sea Island’s three courses make for a nice golf trip rota. But considering that the resort will be down 18 holes while the Plantation Course gets its makeover in 2019, visitors who enjoy classic-style golf course design would do well to check out Sanctuary Golf Club, located about 30 minutes south and west of the resort.

Originally called Sanctuary Cove, the course opened right before the recession of the late-2000s as part of a real estate development. To date, only a fraction of the homesites have been built upon, but the general economic warming of the last year or so has prompted some new construction within the community. Still, the Fred Couples/Love Golf Design course is open to the public and with maximum rates in the $50-$60 range, it is an excellent value. The course has just 39 bunkers, but each one serves a strategic purpose, turning a round into a game of chess on grass. It is a hidden gem.

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
Commented on

Great blog..

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Trip dispatch: Sea Island keeps improving