ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Sea Island is a household name among American golf resorts. Long a family-oriented beach retreat for Southerners – particularly Atlantans – it also enjoys a level of nationwide notoriety thanks to its annual hosting of the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic.
In 2015, the event expanded its field, which required the addition of a second course to the tournament’s main venue, the Harry Colt/Charles Alison-authored, then Tom Fazio-refined Seaside Course. No problem; right next to Seaside was the Plantation, which comprised the other two of the Sea Island Golf Club’s original four nines.
The Plantation had something of a convoluted history: it was originally built by Walter Travis, then renovated by Dick Wilson and, in 1998, redesigned by Rees Jones. In truth, it paled in comparison to the Seaside, not just in terrain but in design. The two nines were disjointed, the greens were fairly uniform and the tee-to-green aspects of the course were straightforward. It was nothing particularly offensive, but not very memorable, either. The resort's third course, Retreat, was the better option.
In an effort to bring the Plantation up in stature alongside Seaside, the resort turned to Davis Love III, don of the affectionately-named “Sea Island mafia,” a group of PGA Tour players who call the island home. Love, along with brother Mark and architect Scot Sherman, have quietly done some solid golf course architecture throughout the southeastern United States over the last quarter-century.
Their sensitivity and classical sensibilities have resulted in courses that tend to be playable but relatively unfussy, like the semi-private Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Ga., which hosted a tournament on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour and more recently played host to the prestigious Southeastern Cup Matches, which pit the best amateurs from Florida, Georgia and Alabama against one another in three-way team competition. The Love Course at Barefoot Resort is one of the Myrtle Beach area’s best in no small part because the amount of short grass and relative lack of external mounding make the course particularly playable.
At Sea Island, the task was to reimagine the course more in accordance with its Golden-Age heritage. That meant removing the artificial mounding that was in fashion in the 1990s and moving the excitement toward the middles of holes, with some strategic recalibration.
The course is a smashing success, and now gives the Seaside a run for its money. Love preserved the prior routing but every hole is new, especially the par-4 10th, which was shortened by more than 100 yards to accommodate some new amenities.
Where the previous iteration's features were round, the new Plantation is crisp and angular, almost geometric in places. Several greens feature squared-off edges, paying homage to the likes of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, who continue to influence modern-day design from more than a century in the past. Railroad ties create interesting terraces and border a few bunkers, evoking Pete Dye. Fairways are generous but fairway bunkering often protects the best angle of attack. The greens have interesting tiers and slopes, meaning that the PGA Tour could set the course up to be a stiff challenge if it wanted to, while the club can make it plenty friendly for everyday play. To the hungry eye of a professional player, the course probably looks easier than it used to, but I suspect a couple days of tournament play will bring some unforeseen slip-ups, especially when reckless long shots turn into short-side greenside nightmares.
The revitalized Plantation Course is not the only new thing at Sea Island. A clutch of multi-bedroom cottages now sit around the main putting green beside the lush, swank Lodge and a brand-new Performance Center seeks to set a new standard in both on-site instruction and clubfitting. The cheery interior, plus the new technology is a fine compliment to a practice facility that was already one of golf’s most scenic.
More value-oriented St. Simons Island golf improvements underway
As famous as Sea Island is, it is not the only game in town on St. Simons. Two other golf courses offer solid public-access play at a lower price point. Tucked away at the very northern end of the island is King and Prince Golf Course ($115), a semi-private Joe Lee original that winds through a nice housing development before a stirring four-hole back-nine interlude in the middle of gorgeous marshland with long vistas in three directions. General Manager Rick Mattox has been at the course since it opened and his friendly demeanor is reflected in the pleasant overall vibe of the place. Though it’s not a brand-new development, architect Billy Fuller did touch up the course in 2009.
Midway between Sea Island and King and Prince is Sea Palms Resort, where some exciting developments are ongoing. This more budget-friendly resort came under new ownership in early 2019, which kicked off a spate of improvements, including the imminent renovation of the resort’s guest accommodations.
First, though, came the golf course ($95), a fairly straightforward George Cobb design that received some much-needed love. All surfaces were regrassed, bunkers rebuilt and trees removed, allowing the tight routing to breathe some more. In addition, sandy waste areas, rather than large swaths of Bermuda rough, now sit off most fairways, providing more sporting recovery-shot possibilities throughout the low-key course.
The changes toward the end of the course are a little more significant. In order to accommodate the expansion of the clubhouse parking lot, the par-4 18th was shortened and its entire green complex was moved and rebuilt by King Collins Golf Design, whose striking work at Sweetens Cove in Tennessee has helped make them one of the most intriguing current golf design concerns.
In addition to their touch-up work at Sea Palms’ main course, they built The Miracle, a 4-acre short game wonderland hidden behind a solid green fence behind the driving range that stands at the club’s now-gone nine-hole West course. Currently open only to Sea Palms club members, it is one of the coolest examples of free-form practice possibilities I have seen anywhere. The signature King-Collins features are all there: wildly contoured greens, rugged bunkers and a general sense of mischievous fun. I could spend all day hitting different shots around a space like that, and when I wandered by, several members were doing just that. Many clubs have good practice areas, but the character and care put into The Miracle feels like a key that will unlock golfers’ desires to put in some real practice time, or to just go out there and have some fun.