St. Simons Island has long been a popular getaway destination for Georgians and out-of-state visitors, with the island offering a small but distinct group of golf options for those whose golf clubs are as much a vacation necessity as swim trunks and sunscreen.
Two of the three resort golf facilities on the island are found on its southern and northern tips, with the third in the interior. In addition to being geographically separate, at least by the standards of a relatively small coastal island, the three also feature differing numbers of holes (18, 27 and 54), as well as significant disparities in pricing.
Sea Palms Golf Resort is the one in the middle both geographically and in number of holes, but when it comes to cost, has the St. Simons market cornered on affordability.
The resort changed ownership last year and its new Atlanta-based owners have already made significant improvements to the course and are about to embark on renovations to the clubhouse and accommodations.
Sea Palms’ original 18, which opened in the late 1960s, is in its best condition since its first major renovations some 15 years ago, with the most recent improvements being upgrades on the bunkers, repairs to the cart paths and the planting of some native grasses that have raised the aesthetic appeal of the course.
“We re-did all the bunkers on the 18-hole course last summer and last fall,” Sea Palms PGA head professional Rick Irwin said. With new bunker drainage and new sand in them, Sea Palms has regained the look, feel and integrity of the original George Cobb design.
The bunkers, which surround most of the greens, have significantly steeper faces, with the composition of the sand keeping balls from plugging in the banks.
“That’s made a big difference,” said Irwin, with the spread of the newly planted native grasses a big boost visually while not (as yet) impacting play. The new plantings are currently being played as ground under repair, but may eventually be considered environmentally protected areas and won’t be quite as friendly from a playing standpoint.
Cobb, a Savannah native and UGA graduate, did much of his design work in the Carolinas, but his Georgia resume includes prominent courses in Atlanta (Atlanta Country Club), Rome (Coosa), Columbus (Green Island), Albany (Doublegate) and Statesboro (Forest Heights), as well as Augusta National’s par 3 and renovation work on East Lake, Savannah GC and Athens CC.
Sea Palms is an enjoyable, straightforward resort layout, with its fairways lined by trees you expect to encounter in a coastal setting and a moderate amount of water in play. St. Simons’ marshes border the property but are not part of the golf course, which is on the short side by modern standards, due in part of the conversion of the ninth hole from a par 4 to a par 3 a number of years ago.
With the loss of approximately 225 yards, Sea Palms measures 6,475 yards from the back tees, and is rated at 71.2/132, playing to a par of 71. The white tees are just under 6,100 (69.4/128) with the green tees 5,714 (67.9/124). The forward tees are right at 5,100 yards (69.9/123).
The West nine, which was designed by another Carolinas-based architect (Tom Jackson), is across Frederica Rd., from the original 18, next to the driving range. It serves as more of a third nine, playing to a par of 34 with four par 3s, three par 4s and two par 5s, with the 4s and 5s all on the short side but replete with hazards, along with the par 3s.
The nine measures only 2,460 yards from the tips, but its narrow nature and abundance of hazards makes it more of a test than the minimal yardage. Irwin says the nine is a favorite of golfers who like to play a scramble format, with the lack of length compensating for the amount of trouble in play that is a greater factor when playing your own ball.
There is also a sizeable difference in the length of the original nines, with the back nine between 370 and 390 yards longer than the front. Stylistically, there is no disparity between the two nines, but the gap in yardage is a factor, with most of the more demanding holes found toward the end of the round.
The key element of Sea Palms is keeping the ball between the coastal tree lines that border almost every hole. A few of the holes begin with overhanging branches in close proximity to the tee, but there is sufficient fairway width on just about every hole.
However, it doesn’t take an especially off-target tee shot to find trouble, with the overhanging limbs and moss impacting play if you get too close to the edges of fairways on those holes. Because of its modest length and gentle greens complexes, Sea Palms offers plenty of scoring opportunities, especially on the front nine, if you hit it straight from the tee.
Almost all the putting surfaces are surrounded by sand, but Cobb left the approach angles open at the front, with most of the greenside bunkers set slightly back from the edges. Short game shots from in front of the greens are relatively simple, with the absence of any serious mounding around the putting surfaces making the bunkers the only concern.
With a few exceptions, the greens are of moderate size, with a handful either wide and relatively shallow or long and narrow. The excellent Bermuda putting surfaces feature minimal undulation for the most part, providing realistic hopes of holing a fair share of birdie and par attempts if you can solve the subtleties of Bermuda greens.
Sea Palms opens with a short, narrow par 4 with the white and green tees nestled up against some thick vegetation that is in play down the right side, along with the ever-present trees with overhanging moss. There is ample room down the left, but the tee shot can be a little uncomfortable for those who tend to hit it right. The approach view, with flanking bunkers and an open angle to the center of the green, will be a familiar one throughout the round.
The other three par 4s on the opening nine average right at 400 yards from the tips and are your basic straightaway, tree-lined holes with a fairway bunker or two and well protected putting surfaces. Some tall native grasses just in front of the seventh tee require a little elevation on your drive, but is more an appealing visual presence than a serious concern.
Both par 5s on the opening nine are under 500 yards from the back tees, but are among the tighter holes on the course. The fourth includes ponds down the right side that are in play on both the tee shot and lay-up, as well as for those going for the green in two. Trees tight down the left are very much in play for those steering away from the hazards on the opposite side.
The dogleg right eighth requires a well positioned tee shot to avoid having to deal with the trees near the corner, with a wide, angled green with modest depth making for testy third shots to right side pins behind a front bunker.
None of the three par 3s on the nine have much length, with the ninth the only one of the three with water a serious concern. Water protects the ninth green short and right, with one of the larger and more sloping greens on the course also surrounded by sand. The green is one of the most exposed on the course, making it to vulnerable to the wind, but its absence of length (157 from the blue tees) reduces the danger.
The back nine begins with a hole atypical for Sea Palms, with the left side of the 10th fairway lacking a pronounced tree line. There are, however, a few trees down that side that will definitely impact your second shot if you stray a bit in that direction, with a front left bunker guarding a wide, shallow green that can produce some putts of length if you find the right side of the putting surface with the pin on the left.
Like the 10th, holes 11 and 12 are short-ish par 4s which place a high value on precise tee shots. Approach shots from the left side may have to negotiate some overhanging limbs on the 11th, with water just off the left side of a putting surface with a decent amount of slope.
Water down the right side on the 12th will swallow up any shot that drifts a bit in that direction, with a well-placed tee shot setting up a short second to a long, narrow green with a back-to-front tilt. Getting to back pins into the wind is a real challenge, as is getting putts to the hole from the front of the green.
Other than the par-3 15th, the finishing stretch at Sea Palms is the toughest part of the course, beginning with the 13th, one of two lengthy par 5s on the nine and also among the narrowest from tee to green.
The dogleg left 14th is a tough test, with trees and fairway bunkers in play off the tee and a shallow target making for a challenging approach shot.
The sweeping dogleg left 16th tops out at 566 yards from the tips, with hazards just off both sides of the fairway and a lake looming down the left side on the lay-up and extending to the putting surface. A long green with a decided back-to-front tilt makes things interesting once you’ve made it that far on one of Sea Palms’ many scenic holes.
The 17th is the longest and most difficult of the par 3s, with a tee shot that is typically into the wind having to carry water just short of another large, well-protected green.
Sea Palms closes with a picturesque but daunting hole, with the 18th the longest par 4 on the course, sporting water down both sides and finishing with another expansive green surrounded by sand. Like the 17th, the exposed hole plays into the wind and provides a worthy finish to a thoroughly entertaining round, providing you keep it out of the hazards and under the breezes.
Sea Palms offers a variety of accommodations and golf packages, with the Georgia-Florida weekend and the McGladrey Classic both approaching this fall. For information, call 1-800-841-6268 or 912-638-9041, or visit www.seapalms.com