Around the turn of the millennium, Bill Jones III, the fourth-generation owner of Georgia’s venerable Sea Island resort, surveyed the competitive landscape and pushed all of his chips, so to speak, to the middle of the table. Traditionally, Sea Island had been a family resort, its clientele returning year after year for the beach club, the bingo, and the occasional round of golf. In an effort to attract the ultrawealthy, Sea Island took on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to finance a colossal property renovation that included rebuilding Addison Mizner’s Cloister hotel from the ground up. The resort company even developed a pair of “clubs within a club,” Ocean Forest and Frederica, placing golf at the heart of gated residential communities.
The results were (and remain) impressive, but when the bubble burst, Sea Island’s crash was spectacular. Fortunately, in short order it turned out that the resort was too beloved to fail, emerging from bankruptcy proceedings in late 2010 in the hands of a four-party ownership group that includes the reclusive oil billionaire Philip Anschutz and hedge fund manager Marc Lasry. This recession wasn’t the first economic storm Sea Island had weathered—during the Depression, Bill Jones’s grandfather printed scrip to keep the employees going—and despite the memories of layoffs and the hard years of the late aughts, the staff ’s spirit today is strong.
With so many rewarding off-course diversions at hand—a beach club, tennis, squash, horseback riding, boating, to name a few—Sea Island is more of an all-around resort compared with golf meccas of recent vintage, which showcase multiple great courses to keep golfers swinging from dawn to dusk. For all the top-flight amenities, service is what makes the resort stand out, and the staff ’s sociable good vibes rub off on many of the guests as well. After a day or two, it’s not unusual to find oneself happily chatting away with complete strangers, like a southern version of a Downton Abbey garden party.
Sea Island has shuffled the furniture around with its golf offerings over the years. Its first course was the Plantation nine, a 1928 Walter Travis design; two years later came the Seaside nine, by the legendary team of Harry Colt and C. H. Alison. While the names of Colt and Alison have been borrowed for the Lodge’s excellent steak house, these old-time architects don’t matter much now, as the resort’s crown jewel, the Seaside course, was thoroughly overhauled by Tom Fazio in 1999. Fazio mostly worked within Colt and Alison’s existing hole corridors, but his revisions were extensive—moving greens, adding native waste areas, and changing the bunkering arrangements. Crucially, where Colt and Alison left a few yards of short grass between greenside bunkers and the putting surface in order to allow aerial shots to hold the green in firm conditions, Fazio united the two elements—a recognition of the shorter clubs and higher spin rates with which the best modern players attack flagsticks.
The Seaside nine, in other words, looks similar to the course Bobby Jones knew, but plays differently. For example, at the famous par-four 13th hole, where a thrilling marsh-crossing tee shot is followed by a hard left turn on the approach, Fazio enlarged the green dramatically, making it an easier target and lessening the player’s temptation to flirt with the water on the drive. Guests in the old days relished the challenge: “If someone hit that green in two,” one longtime visitor said, “you’d hear about it at dinner.” It’s still a very good hole, but perhaps not what it once was. Fazio also deleted a much-loved drivable par four at the 14th, replacing it with a hole closer to the water’s edge that’s more scenery than substance. That said, using Google Earth’s time slider to study course aerials pre- and postrenovation, it’s clear that Fazio simultaneously improved the Seaside course’s front nine by an order of magnitude. While Seaside may have lost some of its Golden Age quirk, it’s still very much worthy of the resort—full of exciting driving holes and visually striking ovoid bunkers that contrast with the native spartina and wiregrass surroundings. It’s also exposed to the coastal breeze, which adds another dimension of interest. As the host of a PGA Tour fall series event since 2010, Seaside is beginning to build a solid tournament résumé, too.
The second course is the Plantation, a Rees Jones redesign, also from the 1990s. Though it’s far from a bad golf course, it lacks the strategic character of the Seaside, and its wall-to-wall green grass makes the visuals somewhat monochromatic—more Florida than coastal Georgia. Consider playing the Seaside twice, or take a crack at the resort’s most player-friendly course, the Retreat. Building on the site of the island’s original private club, Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and his brother, Mark, took great care in fashioning a compelling set of greens, some of which feature short-grass surrounds that invite enjoyable options for recovery. Trust the locals: More than one staff member said this was their favorite “day in, day out” design on the property.
Sea Island is the rare resort where the lure of the practice complex almost matches that of the golf courses. The driving range is set on prime waterfront real estate, so visitors don’t lose sight of the beauty of the place when they’d rather work on a new swing key than play. The range also describes almost a full circle, so golfers can practice with the wind hitting them from any direction they desire, or seek out areas that are more social or more secluded.
The location is just a small part of its appeal, though. Sea Island’s Golf Performance Center is driven by star power. Davis Love III tops the list of PGA Tour players who make their home on or near the island. One can find boldface names like Zach Johnson or Matt Kuchar wandering around in gym clothes—they’re at ease here. These touring pros are drawn to Sea Island’s equally star-studded roster of teaching talent. Led by director of instruction Todd Anderson, 3 of Golf Digest’s top 50 pros are on the property, along with elite specialists in areas ranging from sports psychology to club fitting. “We’re like a NASCAR team,” said fitness director Randy Myers, referring to the host of technical experts who stand behind every stock car driver.
This holistic approach is seen in the center’s new Player Performance Index, a 21⁄2-hour high-tech test of every golf skill. Driving, putting, short game, and even one’s fitness level are measured and assigned a score. This can provide players with a road map for improvement— and perhaps an incentive to return next season. Stretching or working out with the ebullient Myers is particularly eye-opening, as he can explain how swing characteristics are related to one’s physical capabilities. He’ll also send visitors home with a customized workout plan.
Finally, after an exhausting day of getting dialed-in with the GPC team, some golfers will begin their recovery not at the bar but at the Lodge’s Performance Therapy Center. This little warren tucked away adjacent to the locker rooms will never be confused with the spa (which is 65,000 square feet of sheer opulence), but it’s the place for a deep-tissue massage and a bout of cryotherapy. Situated squarely within the gray area of science, the treatment involves stepping into a black cylinder and getting blasted for one to three minutes by liquid nitrogen chilled to minus 110 degrees Celsius. Advocates say its benefits include reducing inflammation and increasing oxygen flow to the muscles. Does it work? Who knows, but at least you’ll have something else to talk about with your new Sea Island friends the next day.
Sea Island guests can fly in to the Jacksonville, Florida, or Savannah airports, which are each an hour and a half ’s drive from the resort. 100 Cloister Dr., Sea Island; 855-714-9201; seaisland.com.
Photo Credit: Sea Island Golf