SEA ISLAND, Ga. — “Now to tell you more about the course he and his brother Mark have been working on for 40 years, here’s Davis Love…”
That is how Scott Steilen, President and CEO of Sea Island Company, introduced Davis Love III, the 21-time PGA Tour winner, World Golf Hall of Famer, and longtime resident of Sea Island, Ga., to a small group of PGA Tour players and golf media. Not that Love needed any introduction.
The setting was the Lodge at Sea Island’s new pool house, the reason for the gathering was to promote the opening of the new golf performance center, and the course Steilen was referring to is the Plantation Course at Sea Island, which opened for play in 1928 as a nine-hole course designed by Walter Travis.
Travis died in 1927 before seeing it as a finished product, and in 1929, Harry Colt and Charles Alison built the Seaside nine to complete Sea Island’s original 18-hole routing.
And to complete the history of golf development at Sea Island, Dick Wilson built another nine in the late-60s, and Joe Lee built nine more in the mid-70s.
Then came Rees Jones in 1992, and back again in 1998 to complete the renovation of the front and back nines of what had become the Plantation Course.
Tom Fazio was hired in 1999 to renovate what is still called the Seaside Course, both of which have been used to host a PGA Tour event, the RSM Classic, since 2009.
To recap and simplify, 36 holes of Travis, Colt & Alison, Wilson and Lee became Jones and Fazio designs. And now the Jones 18 is going to be the Love brother’s 25th project in 25 years of working as a design team.
America’s great mulligan of architecture rolls on. Which is to say, rolls back.
“It will be a classic course with traditional architecture,” said Davis, 54, who admitted he has been on the bulldozer so much it physically sidelined him from playing golf. But while walking and driving through the dirt that will be the revamped Plantation routing, one gets the sense that this is Love’s passion and priority project. The same could be said about Mark, who’s two years younger.
“Scott wasn’t wrong when he said we’ve been working on this course for 40 years,” said Davis, whose father, Davis Love Jr., moved the family to the area in 1977. The Love brothers were 14 and 12-years-old at the time, and their father had been hired as the resort’s teaching pro.
“Our dad was our introduction into architecture,” said Davis. “He consulted on various course projects throughout his career, and he’d often show us drawings of holes and routings that he preferred.” In 2001, Love Golf Design renovated Sea Island’s Retreat course, which is down the road from the resort and is considered the most popular amongst the Sea Island members.
And last year, when resort management commissioned the Loves to build a one-acre putting course between the back deck of the Lodge and the water, it meant they would need to move Plantation’s 10th tee, which quickly became the catalyst for the conversation and pitch to redesign all 18 while they were at it.
And they got it. What they’ve been waiting for since they were teenagers, putting and chipping until dark at the spot that’s now used as the headquarters for their charity foundation. They got the support and budget to build what will be their home course.
“I’ve been out here almost every day,” said Mark, who was an accomplished amateur golfer and who was on his brother’s bag in 1997, when Davis won the PGA Championship at Winged Foot, a course which they both say has served as a small bit of inspiration in their latest design.
Other influences includes a heavy dose of Seth Raynor and C.B. Macdonald designs, such as Old White at the Greenbrier, Mountain Lake in Central Florida and Yeamans Hall in South Carolina.
“It took us awhile to get to a point where we started building what we like to play, but we’re there now, and it will be a big part of what we’ve done here,” said Mark.
What they like and have designed into the new Plantation are some squared off edges to several greens, some of Macdonald’s template-hole characteristics, which includes Biarritz (first hole), Redan (third hole), Thumbprint (11th green) and a Punchbowl (13th green). They reference Pete Dye when they point out the railroad ties used as bulkheads fronting several greens. There are flat, grass-faced greenside bunkers throughout. And in the spirit of the Old Course, installed Principal’s Nose bunkering 40-yards from the 10th green.
Although the routing and corridors have basically stayed the same, they’ve lowered what were elevated tees and greens, removed almost half of the sand and bunkering on or around the course, removed about 40 trees and updated the turf and irrigation. There will be TifEagle Bermudagrass on the greens, TifGrand Bermuda from the front of the greens and 60 yards into the Paspalum fairways and tees.
And as they walk, they both talk general design philosophy using the magic words: “Playability, sustainability, and fun.” The guiding lights of golf’s future.
“Believe it or not, I’m more inclined to suggest aspects of design that test the best,” said Mark. “And Davis is the one who will come in and suggest removing a bunker, softening a slope, or widen the front of a green. And that has a lot to do with spending so much time for so many years of pro-ams watching the amateurs struggle.”
Still two weeks from starting to lay down the sod and grass the greens, they’ll have to wait on whether or not they get love for their effort. But they both know what’s at stake, they acknowledge the pressure involved and it’s clear they believe they’ve accomplished their mission of improving the optics, playability and fun factor of Seaside’s companion course.
“We’ve definitely made it more playable,” said Mark. “And we’ve both been surprised and are excited about the views we’ve opened up by removing so much dirt and trees.”
The course is scheduled to reopen October 15, but until then, the Driftwood putting course has been deemed a huge success. So are the six new cottages, oceanfront pool, and the 17,000 sq. ft. golf performance center, which has six instruction and club-fitting bays, hi-tech putting studio, full-service golf club workshop, gym with locker rooms, retail area and outdoor meeting spaces overlooking the driving range.
All in, it’s a $30 million investment into what’s already widely considered one of the elite golf destinations in the world.
Sea Island, the community, is home to 12 current PGA Tour players, which includes Davis Love, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Michael Thompson, Chris Kirk, Brain Harman, Keith Mitchell, J.T. Poston, Patton Kizzire, Hudson Swafford, Josh Teater and Joey Garber.
And on a perfect Monday morning in March, most of that list was competing with and against members of the media in what Sea Island called The Ultimate Performance Challenge. Each pro was assigned a member of the media as a partner, and the competition consisted of a modified scoring system tabulating a closest-to-the-pin contest in one of the new simulators, skeet shooting on the driving range, and a nine-hole tournament on the putting course.
Davis hit it to three feet at the simulator, which was the closest of the 22 competitors, and using his own gun, scored eight of 10 possible skeet points, good enough for second. And in the putting portion of the day, his partner, this scribe, finally contributed to the team by beating the field with a score of 18 (two aces, two three-putts).
In addition to my ongoing case of simulator yips, the buzz throughout the event was Rory McIlroy’s tee shot on the 72nd hole of The Players Championship, Jim Furyk’s inspiring second-place finish, and playing to the small gallery outside the ropes around the range, Kuchar gave it the, “nice shot Kevin” not Keith Mitchell, for exploding some skeet.
As for my wand dominance on the Driftwood course, I won a customized fitting and a personalized Toulon putter. As team champions, Love and I both won bottles of 12-year Pappy Van Winkle fine bourbon. And as the overall individual winner, Davis won a one-year lease of a souped-up BMW 330i.
Which brings it all back to the award ceremony and Steilen’s introduction of Love.
“Thanks, Scott,” said Davis, who now had the mic. “But before we get to the details of the course, I’d like to go a little deeper on my win here today. I haven’t had one in awhile.”
I’ll say the new Plantation Course will be another. Pass that Pappy’s.