Some of state’s best courses near the coast
Great layouts from Golden Isles up to Savannah
By Mike Blum
Georgia’s coastline covers a relatively short distance from Savannah to just south of Jekyll and St. Simons Island, but some of the state’s best courses accessible to public play are found in that stretch.
The courses range from some of Georgia’s most renowned upscale resort layouts, to very affordable options that offer wonderful coastal golf experiences.
As part of FORE Georgia’s series on daily fee and resort courses in various parts of the state, here is our look at courses in the Golden Isles and Savannah areas.
Jekyll Island Golf Club: Long one of the state’s favorite destinations for golfers looking for a quality coastal experience at very reasonable rates, Jekyll Island offers three excellent 18-hole layouts, along with a quaint 9-holer that offers a trip back in time to golf of a different age.
The three 18-hole courses are Pine Lakes, Indian Mound and Oleander, with Pine Lakes and Indian Mound side-by-side across the street from the clubhouse, and Oleander a Bubba Watson drive from the ocean and the oldest and most respected of the trio.
Pine Lakes is the most modern of the trio, with its Dick Wilson/Joe Lee design from the late 1960s renovated by Clyde Johnston a decade ago. Johnston updated the bunkering and re-worked some of the green contours, with the course the longest of the three, but still a comfortable fit, with the tips a modest 6,700 yards.
Like the adjoining Indian Mound layout, Pine Lakes offers mostly ample landing areas, with the greenside bunkering retaining Lee’s classic touch and strategic variety. There is a decent amount of water in play, including two scenic and stout par 4s that conclude both nines and a pair of inviting but potentially perilous par 5s. Pine Lakes is also a family favorite with its collection of “Kid Friendly” tees.
Indian Mound is the shortest of the trio at under 6,500 from the back tees, but is of comparable length from the shorter tees and features slightly more challenging greens complexes than Pine Lakes. Despite the absence of serious length, the course is not appreciably easier than Pine Lakes, with a group of par 5s that require some precision to avoid sand or water and three par 3s that aren’t overly long but are no soft touches. The par 4s are a mostly friendly group, but like Pine Lakes, includes a tough, watery 9th. Indian Mound is a Joe Lee design that opened in 1975, and is a typically thoughtful Lee layout that nicely meshes challenge with playability.
Oleander will celebrate its 50th anniversary in a little over a year, with the classic Dick Wilson design placing a little more of a premium on driving accuracy, with tree lines and overhangs a constant presence. Keep it between the tree lines and the layout is not especially demanding, but finding the fairways off the tee is a serious test. The long and hazardous par-4 12th is a staple of lists featuring the state’s toughest holes, but is one of just a handful of holes where length is a real concern.
Great Dunes is venerable 9-holer that has been around for more than a century, and includes a few holes that are unlike anything designed in modern times. There are some incredibly tiny greens, a dogleg par 5 that perfectly fits the description of quirky and a timeless feel you rarely encounter.
King and Prince: Another Joe Lee gem from the late 1980s, a recent renovation has greatly upgraded the course without significant change to Lee’s classic design. Located on the northern tip of St. Simons Island, the course is best known for its four marsh holes, there of which are separated from the island.
The par-5 14th is one of the state’s true treasures, and is part of a moderately challenging layout that rates high marks for conditioning, aesthetic appeal and playability. Most of the corridors are sufficiently ample, with the greens complexes mostly gentle apart from Lee’s well-crafted bunkering.
Sea Island Golf Club: One of the country’s most respected upscale golf resorts, featuring 54 holes and a learning center that has helped attract so many tour pros to the island.
Seaside is the most renowned of the three, serving as host of the PGA Tour McGladrey Classic. The combination of sand dunes, marshes and the nearby ocean make it one of the most visually striking courses you’ll play, but the challenge Seaside presents is more than enough to retain your attention. There is plenty of room to drive the ball, with the fast, undulating greens, deep greenside bunkers and testy chipping areas accounting for much of the challenge, along with the natural elements that come into play on almost every hole.
Plantation, located adjacent to Seaside and also bordering along the coastline, plays to a par 72 (Seaside is a par 70) and features a terrific mix of holes, including some gorgeous par 3s over water, and several holes where the greens are perched perilously close to hazards. Among them is a classic risk/reward par-5 18th, which is preceded by a short and intriguing par 4, with those two part of a memorable group of finishing holes.
Retreat, which was renovated by St. Simons resident Davis Love III in 2001, is significantly different from Joe Lee’s original Island Club design. The course was lengthened considerably and the corridors widened, although it remains a tree-lined layout, unlike its sister courses across the street. The greens were expanded and re-contoured, with plenty of undulation added and some areas around the putting surfaces softened. The re-design retained Lee’s routing, with most of the trouble found on the par 3s and par 5s, both of which are a generally friendly if hazardous group. The two par 4s with water in play are among the most interesting holes on the course, with both lacking serious length but featuring plenty of visual appeal and intimidating demeanor when the wind is up.
Sea Palms is St. Simons’ low-key club, featuring a traditional, enjoyable coastal resort-style layout by George Cobb. The course has been around for 45 years, with the one major change the transformation of the ninth hole from a dogleg right par 4 into a testy par 3 with a semi-island green. Sea Palms is on the short side by modern standards, but with fairways lined by pines, palms and palmettos and plenty of overhanging moss, hitting it straight off the tee is essential. Water hazards line a number of the fairways, but as long as you don’t stray too far, the hazards are avoidable.
There is a considerable difference in yardage between the two nines, with the incoming nine including two par 5s of decent length, with the sweeping dogleg 16th beginning a strong trio of finishing holes that include a water-lined par 4 18th that is a very stout finishing hole. The putting surfaces are on the gentle side, and if you are comfortable on Bermuda greens, you will have the chance to hole some putts.
Other Golden Isles area courses include Sanctuary Cove, which features a well-regarded layout that Fred Couples and Davis Love’s Design Group teamed up on; Heritage Oaks, an appealing Mike Young design that will host an NGA (formerly Hooters) Tour event next Spring; and Coastal Pines, a favorite of Brunswick’s locals.
A short drive away are Laurel Island Links, a quality Davis Love layout in Kingsland, and the Lakes at Laura S. Walker State Park, a wonderfully natural links-style layout with plenty of width, rolling fairways and some sizeable putting surfaces that provide much of the course’s deceptive challenge.
Located about halfway in between the Golden Isles and Savannah is Sapelo Hammock, located in the community of Darien. The facility is making a welcome comeback after some lean times, and is the rare course that truly fits the description of “undiscovered gem.” The natural elements provide Sapelo Hammock with considerable scenic appeal, as well as much if its significant challenge.
The course is reasonably generous off the tee, but live oaks and marshes are most definitely in play, particularly on a pair of perilous par 5s that conclude both nines, and two splendid but demanding par 3s that require carries over marshes that are both gorgeous and daunting. The 17th is part of a terrific trio of finishing holes that include a succession of shots that are easy on the eyes but not very forgiving to indifferent shots.
The premier daily fee course in the city is the Club at Savannah Harbor, the host of the Champions Tour Legends of Golf. The superb (and superbly conditioned) Bob Cupp design is located just across the Back River from downtown Savannah, and its marsh-side setting offers some striking views while providing much of its challenge. The marsh is in play along the edges of several holes, but the width of the course helps offset the relatively limited number of holes with serious trouble in play. Much of the trouble is found on an exceptional group of scenic but potentially penal par 5s, with a nice mix of par 4s, some of which have serious length from the tips, and a mostly inviting group of par 3s. The greens complexes are on the tame side, with Cupp leaving most of the approach angles open.
Among the city’s most historic courses is the Wilmington Island Club, which was known as the Savannah Inn & CC during its heyday. The semi-private club has undergone name changes and some major renovations to its original Donald Ross design. Willard Byrd did the first significant re-design in the late 1960s, and the most recent changes including the reversal of the nines new first and 18th holes and the expansion of a ditch that winds through the course, with the latter change enhancing the appearance and challenge of the layout. Driving accuracy is key, with plenty of trouble in play, including a trio of short-to-medium par 3s. The presence of water just off several greens can result in some very uncomfortable bunker shots
Southbridge is among the earliest solo designs by Rees Jones, and is a well-regarded layout that has a coastal feel despite its inland location. It’s a very solid test, joining Savannah Harbor and Wilmington Island as Savannah daily fee courses that have previously hosted the Georgia Open.
Crosswinds is more of an open, parkland style layout with a positive reputation for the quality and challenge of its greens. Henderson GC is an appealing Mike Young design with contrasting nines and a natural feel, and offers a reasonably stout test for a municipal course. Bacon Park features 27 holes, with the original 18 designed by Donald Ross, and is a long-time local favorite. Black Creek, located a bit west of the city off I-16, is a short-ish, friendly track, and Lost Plantation in Rincon (formerly Willow Peg) features a Joe Lee layout.