KINGSLAND, GA - No longer is it as novel as it once was to boast that a golf course was "designed" by a PGA Tout player. How many clubs today can claim theirs is an Arnold Palmer course? Or Jack Nicklaus? Or even Hale Irwin? Hundreds.
But how many can say theirs is designed by Davis Love III?
At latest count, there are only eight, and one of them, Laurel Island Links, is in Kingsland, Georgia.
Kingsland seems an unlikely place to find the rare (for the moment) Love course. This small town a few miles over the Florida border on I-95 is primarily a support system for the Kings Bay Naval Base, and little things here still mean a lot. A new traffic light was recently installed at the entrance to the golf course, and as Marketing Director Angela Wigger notes, "This was exciting to us!"
In true small-town form, Laurel Island Links is owned by the city. Says Wigger, "Players who don't know that it's a city owned course before they play are really surprised to find that out. It offers playability for golfers of all skill levels. I can certainly attest to that as I am one of the country's worst players but I do thoroughly enjoy playing the front nine."
It may be municipal and hidden but this is a lovely golf venue. The property is quite remarkable, in fact, as it resides on the banks of the vast Crooked River marsh that provides a stunning backdrop for holes two, three, and six. The second nine roams inland working toward a secluded section of pine forest. Overall, the routing is tight and economical for this part of the country, giving a full tour of the site's qualities.
Love founded his architecture firm, Love Enterprises and Associates, along with his brother Mark in 1994. Until that point, Love had declined to "design" golf courses the way many active touring pros do, which is to basically accept money for the rights to associate their name with a project, show up on a handful of days for media and marketing events, and sometimes offer course suggestions in general ways.
Taking more of a cue from Ben Crenshaw, who works extensively on-site with architect Bill Coore on one or two courses at a time, Love and company (Mark Love, Bob Spence, Paul Cowley, and Scott Drader) chose jobs primarily in the South so they can visit regularly, work only three or four projects at a time, and walk the properties themselves to develop the routing plan.
Laurel Island, softly shaped and tinged in gentle southern atmosphere, opened in 1997 and is Love's second course. The light touch and quiet interaction with nature on display here has already become a Love trademark. As Mark Love explains, "We try to do very traditional courses. The No. 2 Course at Pinehurst was one of our dad's favorite courses and Davis and I always have it in our minds when we're designing a course."
"In all the courses we do, we try to find a blend of challenges. We want the good golfers to go to the back tees and have a challenge, but like No. 2, we like for them to be open so that you can always find your ball and have a shot." What drama there is at Laurel Island Links is primarily found in the scenery rather than the shotmaking.
The beginning hole, a 386-yard par four that curves slightly left around a bunker, depicts the fine, traditional elements of the design. The flowing fairway here is wide (as it is with most holes) and the right front opening to the green suggests an approach from the right. A bunker protects short and left and the green curves behind it, rising at the rear center. It's a guileless opening hole that offers clear guidance on how it should be played.
In an interview with Links Magazine, Davis Love (pictured) explained his thoughts on this: "I see the trend of trying to make a golf course more difficult, and I see [the players] getting excited when we go back to something old and traditional. It doesn't mean it has to be boring or plain. I just think that older style courses require more thought in the design, and they require a little more thought in playing them."
Thoughtful is an apt word for the Laurel Island Links defenses. The greens are generally protected on one side or the other with a bunker that usually quarters toward the opening. This simple recurrent bunker placement calls for basic yet intelligent shotmaking as it promotes the importance of drives to the appropriate side of the fairway in order to procure the open angle of attack. The 4th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 18th all clearly favor one angle of approach over others.
The wonderful greens share similar characteristics as well. Many are angled behind bunkers (as stated above) and feature a hogback swale of some degree in the center, essentially dividing the green into two sloping segments. While many are subtle, several, including the 1st, 4th, 8th, 9th, and 18th are severe challenges, both to the approach and the putt.
The majestic 15th hole, 450 yards from the back tees, resembles a composite of the best aspects of Laurel Island Links' green complexes. Because of a large bunker at the green's front right, the best approach is from the left. A deep, penal fairway bunker guards this side of the fairway and a water hazard follows up the left. The large green is raised at the center, fading toward the rear right behind the bunker, which makes it difficult to reach a center or back pin.
The placement in the round of the holes along Crooked River basin is an interesting and somewhat controversial choice. The marsh serves as a spectacular hazard guarding the entire left sides of the second and third holes and the rear of the par five sixth. These holes are used to pique interest early in the round, much like at Spyglass Hill where the dunes and dramatic ocean views are implemented on the first four holes before the course enters the forest for good.
One can't help but wonder about the overall effect had the two nines been flipped and the front been routed in the opposite direction. Certainly the possibility of climactic marsh holes at the sixteenth and seventeenth is an appealing thought.
Still, this is beautiful, meditative golf at Laurel Island Links, enough to make northerners who stop to play it on their way to Florida envious. Do the locals of small Kingsland realize what a wonderful golf course they have?
233 Marsh Harbour Parkway
Kingsland, GA 31548
Laurel Island is approximately 25 minutes north of Jacksonville, FL. From Jacksonville take I-95 north to Georgia exit 6 and head east for two miles. Laurel Island Parkway will be on the left.
Green fees in March and April and from September to November 25 are $55 weekdays, $60 weekends. April to September rates are $50 and $55 respectively. November 26 through December is $45 and $50. Special rates and values are available throughout the year for local and area residents, as well as local hotel guests. Annual memberships are available for $1,200 with no initiation fee.
An added bonus is this course's walkability, which is permitted after 2pm. Despite some obvious environmental constraint, the layout at Laurel Island Links strives to remain tight. While there are a handful of necessary hikes between holes, they are manageable for the fit and the course is flat. Take advantage of their hoofing policy in the afternoons.
Architect: Love Enterprises and Associates
Yardage: 7,011; 6,564; 6,191; 5,611; 5,498