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Georgia's barrier islands: Great golf amid dazzling coastal views

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Coastal Georgia offers excellent golf and even better views. Hampton Club and Sea Island on St. Simons Island are some of the best golf courses in the area, and there are many more fine rounds within easy distance.

The Hampton Club
The Hampton Club, one of the finest golf courses in the barrier islands, has four holes in the marsh, connected by bridges.
The Hampton ClubSeaside Course Sea Island Resort

BRUNSWICK, Ga. - When tourists think of Georgia, they most likely think of swamps to the south, mountains to the north and Scarlett O'Hara somewhere in between.

Many tourists, even golfers, bypass the state's huge coastal area, even those driving Interstate-95.

The Georgia coast might not sport the white, sandy beaches of Florida - they are mostly marsh, with some notable exceptions - but some of the barrier islands off the coast are raw and beautiful, at least those that the developers haven't gotten their hands on.

Some of the barrier islands sport golf courses.

Here are some of our favorites:

Must plays

The Hampton Club, St. Simons Island

Of all the marsh golf courses I've played, from Florida north through Myrtle Beach and the Carolinas, the Hampton Club may be the best, in terms of the views.

That's because at the Hampton Club the views are from the marsh. Yes, you are literally in the marsh surrounding St. Simons Island, out there with the ospreys, bald eagles, woodpeckers and other critters.

How did they do that? Well, they carved four holes on the islands off the mainland. You get to them via a series of elevated bridges. You are the marsh and the marsh is you.

Situated on the relatively isolated northernmost reaches of the barrier island, the Hampton Club pulses with the kind of raw beauty usually found on these southeastern coastal islands. It's simply one terrific, camera-ready view after another.

The star of the course, built on the site of an 18th century cotton plantation, is definitely the back nine, where the four island holes are. You'll be dealing with either the marsh or Butler Lake on seven of the holes, including some water carries off the tee, like on Nos. 10, 13 and 14, before the course turns back inland at No. 16.

Sea Island, St. Simons Island

Sea Island is also on St. Simons, despite the name. It's like stepping back in time, but with a whirlpool and fancy fixtures.

Davis Love III lives here, and the island has eight distinct neighborhoods tucked away discreetly off the main roads.

Most residents have available to them the 54-hole Sea Island Club as well as the superb and private Ocean Forest Golf Club, ranked third in the state by Golf Digest.

Sea Island Club has three courses, including the excellent Seaside course. Originally designed by Harry S. Colt and Charles Alison in 1929, Seaside was given a thorough modernization by Tom Fazio in 1999.

Seaside is advertised as an ocean-side links course, and certain sections of the course do indeed have a wild, windswept feel to them, as the course climbs naturally over grassy dunes with their backsides up to the ocean breezes.

The course is located on the site of the old Retreat Plantation, with tabby ruins and an old slave cemetery clearly visible. The tees are slightly elevated, and give excellent views of the Intracoastal Waterway and St. Simons Sound.

The marsh is your steady date as you make your way around Seaside, providing both obstacle and aesthetics. The marsh changes colors with the season, and during spring and summer becomes a banquette of the palette.

The setting is about as good as it gets in this part of the world, with no homes to mar the surrounding beauty, and the course manages a perfect combination of wildness, conditioning and immaculate grooming. It is also very walker friendly, with shell pathways provided.

Solid seconds

Arrowhead Pointe Golf Course

I cheated a little here, but I had to sneak this one in. Arrowhead Pointe is not technically located on an island, though you might think you're on one.

It's about 50 miles east of Athens and is the most scenic of Georgia's state park golf courses, if not the most challenging. The park and the course are situated on a peninsula that juts out into 26,500- acre Lake Russell, and architect Bob Walker has made full use of the water: 10 of the 18 holes have lake views, and the back nine in particular is about as close as you can come to a naturally pristine experience and still be on a golf course.

"We started with probably one of the best pieces of ground that I have ever worked on, in 32 years of work," Walker said. "I just couldn't have found a better site, honestly. (The state) pretty much gave me free reign. They said, 'here's 400 acres, put the golf course wherever you need to.'"

There are no structures of any kind on the lake. Nor are there roads of any consequence nearby. The scenery is so peaceful and quiet you may be tempted to stop playing and just drink in the surroundings.

Oleander course, Jekyll Island

Jekyll Island is where the country's richest swells used to gather each winter. It is said that when the likes of William Vanderbilt, J.P Morgan, William Rockefeller and Joseph Pulitzer wintered here, a sixth of the world's wealth was in one place.

There was a time when Jekyll Island was a golf hotspot, when 140,000 golfers annually teed it up at one of the resort island's three and a half courses.

That number is now about half of what it used to be. The reasons have something to do with the courses themselves, while others are beyond their control.

The great state of Georgia hasn't exactly gone out of its way to keep the island courses in tip-top shape. The oldest and biggest star is the Oleander course, which has history and potential, but could use a cash infusion.

It's short, at 6,521 yards from the tips, but it does have potential. It's a Donald Ross design, though it isn't officially recognized by the Donald Ross Society. Dick Wilson, who came in and re-did Oleander in 1964, gets the architectural credit.

Right now, the best thing about the course is the setting. It's on lovely Jekyll Island, of course, and with development severely restricted, there is no development at all around the course, where alligators and deer roam freely, seemingly used to the presence of humans.

It's well laid-out, as are most Ross courses, and has a nice mix of loblolly pines, white and live oaks and oleander. You can hear the roar of the ocean from almost anywhere on the course.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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