A magical bridge from the past to the present with family-friendliness and TOUR-quality golf.
The 19th-century poet Sidney Lanier was something of a patron saint in my South Georgia childhood. More than every now and then, my father would load us into the station wagon in Waycross, skirt the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and pilot us through the pines until the forest gave way to a vast expanse of golden marshes and shimmering water. And there, the majestic Sidney Lanier Bridge rose above the wide river and estuary, and the crossroads—make a right to Jekyll Island or head over the bridge into Brunswick before turning toward Saint Simons—distilled the day’s destination.
To signal our arrival on the coast, my father would then raise his voice above the family din to recite a line or two of The Marshes of Glynn, Lanier’s ode to the magical scape:
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
Long before I first teed up a golf ball on the seemingly ancient first tee of the Walter Travis-designed nine-hole Grand Dunes course on Jekyll Island, I had learned that the storied history of these islands was a part of my own. Bobby Jones had played the courses here and across the Sound at Sea Island. Walter Hagen. Tommy Armour. My father’s favorite, Slammin’ Sammy Snead. They had all come here, to our little corner of the world. Barely able to hit the ball 100 yards, we were already connected to the greats by a bridge to the past.
We walked the same beaches that had borne the steps of Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Mellons, Cranes and DuPonts. These islands had hosted roaring parties for visiting dignitaries before the Great Depression turned out the lights on the 1920s. Just a few years later, the islands literally turned out their lights when the Navy reported that German U-boats lurked in the waters just offshore. Jekyll Island, once the private reserve of the rich and famous, became a ward of the state (so it is even now). Saint Simons and the magnificent Sea Island Resort went dark but emerged stronger than ever after the war.
The Golden Isles were an exotic and mysterious world and yet so close to home. It is that mystique that has made South Georgia’s barrier islands one of America’s most beloved vacationlands. Whatever your sense of style— from camping at Cumberland Island National Seashore to eco-tourism lodges on small private islands (hammocks, we call them) to the five-star luxury of Sea Island and its revered Cloister Hotel (Beach Club pictured below) and breathtaking Sea Island Golf Club to perhaps the country’s finest budget golf and beach destination, Jekyll Island—the Golden Isles region is ready to become part of your own and your family’s history.
My love of traveling for golf was born of those short trips to the Golden Isles. First came those nine-hole loops with my father on Jekyll’s hidden gem. Then came 45-hole days with my brother in the sweltering summers, when we were such a common sight that some took us for the head pro’s kids. A few years later, while caddying for an older friend during 1977 US Amateur qualifying at Sea Island, I heard the news: Elvis was dead.
So forgive me if I take this destination a bit personally.
In a world of glitz and glamour, Jekyll Island is an anomaly. Owned and operated by the State of Georgia since 1947, Jekyll boasts the same unspoiled beaches that soothed stressed-out Yankee tycoons all those years ago.
Recall those days when you check into the beautifully restored Jekyll Island Club Hotel in the heart of “Millionaires Village” (pictured below). Spring for the suite in the hotel’s turret, or just soak in the old-school charm of the woodpaneled bar and the oak-studded grounds. Or see how much you can save—and create possibly the leastexpensive high-quality golf vacation in America—by taking up at any of several quality hotels on the island.
This spring, a new era of Jekyll Island will commence with the opening of a spectacular oceanfront resort, features 200 rooms and suites, many with ocean and dune views, along with full resort amenities.
Wherever you stay while on the island, you’ll no doubt be talking about golf at the end of the day. Jekyll Island sports 63 holes, and 54 of them begin and end at the nondescript brick clubhouse off Captain Wylie Road.
Test your mettle at Oleander, long regarded as the toughest of Jekyll’s three 18-hole tracks. Dick Wilson, the hard-drinking and curmudgeonly disciple of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., took Oleander from the piney woods toward the sea, where the winds play havoc with misjudged or mishit shots. There, Oleander abuts the earlier work of Walter Travis at Great Dunes before turning back inland. Notice the trademark “runway tees” of the penal school of design in this rare example of 1960s architecture unsullied by residential development. Oleander hosted PGA TOUR qualifying as late as the early 1980s, earning its reputation for toughness.
Wilson’s protégé Joe Lee authored the island’s other two championships layouts. Pine Lakes weaves through stands of tall longleaf pines, demanding accuracy both off the tee and on approach shots to often-tiny greens. A recent Clyde Johnston spruced up the bunkers and reclaimed some areas that had grown in over time. Lee also designed the complex’s third course, Indian Mound, which features interesting elevation changes and generous landing areas. But take note—proper placement of tee shots is essential in order to leave yourself birdie chances on the huge, rollicking greens.
Finally, step into golf ’s Golden remaining half of what was once a complete 18-hole oceanfront course built by the “Old Man,” Walter Travis just after the turn of the 20th century. Savor the classic par-5 fifth, with its “Mae West” approach between two rolling sand dunes. The par-3 sixth is short but mighty, playing along the dune line with the beach to the left and an ever-present wind.
There may be no better value than Jekyll Island Golf Club, where 18- hole rates (with cart) clock in at $49 and same-day replays are available for $25.
SEA ISLAND RESORT
Every summer, my parents would steal away to celebrate their wedding anniversary in grand fashion in one of the lavish rooms at the historic Mediterranean-themed Cloister hotel, part of the inimitable Sea Island Resort. To venture onto Sea Island is to enter a bygone era, one of tradition and grace, where guests still dress for dinner and where quiet leisure time is still en vogue.
Anchored by The Cloister, Sea Island Resort opened in 1928 and has been a perennial winner of the very highest travel honors, including the prestigious Forbes Five-Star award. Guests can take part in eco-tours, relax at the Sea Island Beach Club or even go horseback riding on five miles of private shoreline. But some of the golf guests never get that far— as they opt for the immersion of the opulent 40-room Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club.
Located on Saint Simons Island, not far from the village, with its stately lighthouse and charming shops, Sea Island Golf Club is home to the McGladrey Classic on the PGA TOUR, which serves as a hometown stop for island residents Davis Love III, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd, among others.
Rub elbows with them and other TOUR pros at the extensive Performance Center (pictured above), home to some the game’s leading instructors. And when you feel your game is in shape, check out the two courses—Plantation and Seaside—that begin and end at the Lodge.
In 1998 Rees Jones completely renovated the original Walter Travis design when he routed the Plantation Course (hole #7 pictured below) along tidal creeks and through stands of rare Georgia longleaf pines. You might catch a glimpse of porpoises in the adjacent sound. And while the course doesn’t play particularly long—tipping the scales at 6,687 yards from the back tees—its sea-level location and numerous water hazards demand a disciplined approach and the throwback virtue of patience.
For the purist, the Seaside Course is Sea Island Golf Club’s main attraction. In 1929 the designing duo of Harry Colt and Charles Alison ranked alongside Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross as the world’s most famed course architects. The nine-hole layout they created utilized timeless angles and deceptions. Tantalizing lines often led to disaster, and the par-4 seventh hole—a favorite of native Georgian and frequent Sea Island visitor Bobby Jones—became a mainstay on any list of best holes in golf.
Updating classics is indeed an enterprise fraught with peril. And though Tom Fazio may have some critics among fans of Golden Age architecture, his work at Seaside, completed is impressive. Incorporating the Colt and Alison nine with a less-acclaimed nine built by Joe Lee in 1974, Fazio in 1999 reinforced natural dunes to challenge the golfer with small but impactful elevation changes. Borrowing from Golden Age master Chandler Egan’s work at Pebble Beach, he created artificial dunes and waste areas to add to the coastal feel. The result is a 6,883-yard, par-70 layout that plays along tidal marshes and the St. Simons Sound and annually hosts the McGladrey.
More recently, Sea Island acquired another property not far from the Sea Island Golf Club. Originally wrought by Joe Lee, Davis and Mark Love transformed the Retreat Course into a sporty layout that takes it easy on resort guests while still packing a punch from the back tees. And should you have the right private-club pedigree, by all means arrange to get on the Rees Jones-designed Ocean Forest Golf Club, a Walker Cup venue that memorably traverses wetlands, tidal marshes, woods, dunes and the Hampton River before finishing along the Atlantic shoreline.
Visitors to the Golden Isles have access to countless outdoor activities. The unique and fascinating Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge is just an hour away. Even closer is the picturesque river town of Saint Mary’s, where you can catch the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore, an undeveloped barrier island where horses run wild on 120-foot high dunes. And if you still haven’t gotten your fill of golf, make a call to the private Brunswick Country Club, a fabulous Donald Ross design recently restored by the Love brothers.
Resorts and vacations spots didn’t always rely on the spectacular for their appeal. Sometimes they simply offered a place where family and friends could escape the every day, slow down and enjoy each other. That’s what the Golden Isles have meant to me throughout my life. I will always be looking forward to another return to that special place where the forest ends and the coast world begins, to recall the rhapsodies of Sidney Lanier and the timeless beauty of the Marshes of Glynn.
FOR INFO TO GO
Jekyll Island Club Hotel – jekyllclub.com
Jekyll Island Golf Club – golf.jekyllisland.com
Sea Island Resort – seaisland.com
Tom Ferrell is Colorado AvidGolfer’s editor at large.