EVANS, Ga. -- Like most golfers, it's been an unrealized dream of mine to play Augusta National. I've been to the Masters a few times, but that's the closest I've come to the third member of my golf trifecta (I've played the other two -- Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St. Andrews).
And while a recent trip to Augusta didn't yield golf's ultimate nirvana perhaps, it did deliver something pretty special -- a three-day weekend at Champions Retreat, where there are three nines designed by three of golf's biggest legends in a tranquil atmosphere that almost any avid golfer would relish.
Perfect weather, golf, cuisine and service
As a golfer, I'd describe the perfect fall weekend this way: Play golf all three days in ideal weather on a challenging, yet playable course in outstanding condition, especially the greens. Have a few great meals, beers, maybe even some wine pairings. Throw in a spa treatment, a little relaxing entertainment, great accommodations, and for good measure, get to watch football after golf on Sunday.
Champions Retreat checked all of these categories emphatically. It was certainly one of the best golf weekends I've ever experienced.
Of course, this doesn't come cheap, and Champions Retreat, the pride of San Diego-based Heritage Golf Group, is technically a private club. (Champions Retreat, which currently has about 300 members, offers a no-initiation introductory tiered range of memberships based on residency.) But you can play it without being a member. And that opportunity comes during Masters week, ranging from $2,200 to $2,500 per foursome (with nominal replay rates; the course is also available the Monday after the Masters for private outings). So what might be better than my recent weekend at Champions Retreat would be a few days there during the Masters. Imagine playing a great golf course the same week you got to see the Masters, all with VIP treatment.
Champions Retreat: The setting and the course
Augusta-like is perhaps a term that's thrown about a little too loosely, so I don't want to go that far, but Champions Retreat, which is about 20 minutes from Augusta, is built on a topography that's somewhat similar to Augusta. And while the course features Bermuda fairways and rough, its perfect undulating bentgrass greens, which were running about 11 or so on the Stimpmeter when I was there, certainly made putting an Augusta-like challenge at times.
In other words, there were putts where being above the hole meant two-putts were almost impossible and putting off the green, perhaps even into a hazard was a possibility. That meant hitting the greens wasn't enough. You had to find the right sections on those greens.
There are 27 holes at Champions Retreat, and their names reflect the unique topography of each. In 1999, Gary Player, winner of three Masters titles, recruited two other legends to take part in this project. He wrote the words "Island," "Creek" and "Bluff" on the back of index cards. The senior member of the group, Arnold Palmer (four Masters wins) drew first and got the Island Course, which is surrounded by the Savannah and Little rivers and features plenty of water views. Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus chose next and wound up doing the Bluff Course, which features more elevated tees and twists and turns. And Player took the Creek Course, which was actually closed for renovations when I was there. It's the only golf facility in the world with three courses designed by Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.
Each course is unique, and best of all, each hole is unique. Not only was there not a hole I didn't like, but also there wasn't one that I did not find interesting.
With the help of excellent forecaddies, I got to play the Bluff-Island combination three times, twice from the member tees at around 6,300 yards and the final time, Sunday morning, from the signature tees at just over 6,600 yards with Director of Golf Mike Rymer, an excellent player who racked up birdies in bunches. Those 300 yards make a difference, by the way, not because I didn't have the length to play from 6,600 yards, but coming in with short irons instead of mid to long irons on these tough greens was much easier.
On the Bluff, there were several elevated tees, but one of my favorite holes was the short par-4 sixth, which is bordered by a tranquil creek to the right that cuts in front of the green.
"It's one of my favorite parts of the golf course," Rymer said. "Not only is it a great short hole, but the sound of the water is so peaceful."
Another serene spot can be found on the par-4 fourth on the Island Course. From the tee, the aiming point is a large oak they call the "Broccoli Tree." But once you get to that tree, a panoramic view of the Savannah River opens up left of the green, making the hole one the most picturesque on the property.
There are four sets of tees at Champions Retreat. If you play any of these nines from the back tees, it's all the golf course you want (any combination of two nines comes to close to 7,300 yards). But play the course from the proper tees and the courses are very playable. For the most part, there's plenty of room off the tee, but with plenty of large and deep bunkers, fast and well-protected greens, you have to bring precision on the approaches and short game.
The whole package -- accommodations, dining, etc.
While staying at Champions Retreat I got to stay at the Sweetwater cottage, one of many large homes available for rental or purchase at this exclusive community. The home has eight bedrooms, eight-and-a-half baths, large dining room, super well-appointed large open kitchen and a back deck lined with rocking chairs, perfect for sipping a nightcap and reviewing the day's round.
That home, by the way, goes for $55,000 during the week of the Masters. There are others that are less expensive, but consider that you could actually sleep 16 at Sweetwater (in incredibly comfortable beds) and if you divided up the cost, it might be doable. Of course, corporations book many of these places for themselves and their customers, but the point is if you can get a group together, the home and the golf are accessible during the Masters.
And if you get in, the rest of the package is also available, including the new Party Barn, a 10,000-square foot luxurious hospitality facility perfect for weddings or corporate events. There are also men's and women's locker rooms, a well-stocked golf shop, and the Bluff Overlook, where I took in some NFL action after my third round Sunday morning. And while Champions Retreat doesn't have a spa, it's no problem to book a massage treatment in the privacy of your own room, which only further contributes to the notion of relaxation.
As for the dining, it was magnificent. Led by renowned executive chef Doug Seaver and his team of culinary experts, it ranged from a Southern gourmet breakfast of poached egg and pork belly at the Grille House to wine pairings during a spectacular meal at The Barn to an oyster roast with pit-smoked ribs and lamb chops. On our second night at Champions Retreat, our group retreated to the river bank near the fifth of the island course, where we were entertained around a campfire with live music, s'mores, drinks and a cigar or two. Indeed, there was no box left unchecked at Champions Retreat.