SEA ISLAND, Ga. - It was the best of times, it was . the absolute best of times.
This year - 2003 - marks Sea Island Resort's 75th year as the grande dame of the southeastern coast. You might think that after three-quarters of a century as the preferred sun and leisure destination for Atlantans - not to mention a who's who list of politicians, artists, and socialites from the Northeast - the resort might relax and bask in its septuagenarian glory.
In January Bill Jones III, fourth generation chairman and CEO of Sea Island Company, announced plans for a $200 million overhaul of the resort's legendary Cloister Hotel, the classic 1928 Addison Mizner design. The structure will be torn down later this year and rebuilt closer to the island 's western front. The second phase of the renovation/expansion plan begins in 2005 and includes the addition of 23 Cloister Ocean Cottages, a variety of guest rooms, and new fitness and recreation buildings.
As if that weren't enough to keep Sea Island buzzing in July, President Bush announced that the resort will host the 30th Annual G-8 Summit from June 8-10, 2004.
Located approximately one hour from both Jacksonville and Savannah, Sea Island is a narrow islet located northeast of St. Simons Island (off the coast from Brunswick) separated by a broad marshy plain and the Black Banks River. A single two-lane road called the Sea Island Causeway connects the two landforms making the narrow islet, for security reasons, an optimum location to gather world leaders.
Once the Causeway reaches dry land it veers left past The Cloister compound and runs as Sea Island Drive toward the exclusive Rees Jones-designed Ocean Forest Golf Club and the island's extreme northern point. Along this secluded stretch of road is the Sea Island colony, a residential community of numbered cottages, many of which were built in the 1920s along with The Cloister Hotel (and here the word "cottage" is used the way the word "boat" might describe an aircraft carrier).
The demolition of The Cloister may sadden some but much of its interior charm will be preserved by salvaging woods, fixtures, stained glass, and fireplace mantles for integration into the new structure. None of the construction will affect the G-8 Summit.
"By concentrating efforts on the west side of Sea Island Drive, it is our goal to minimize disruption and ensure the entire operation is up and running as quickly as possible," Jones says.
"It's a great time (at Sea Island)," says Media Director Kyle Jones. "We're moving forward with all our plans."
Wide ranging improvements actually began at Sea Island Resort in the mid-1990s with the combination of the resort's four nine-hole golf courses i nto two "new" refurbished 18-hole courses.
The courses are located at the Sea Island Golf Club on the southwestern end of St. Simons Island, along with the recently acquired and renovated St. Simons Island Club across the street. To cap off the golf assemblage, The Lodge at Sea Island opened in 2001, an ultra-luxurious facility embodying the essence and expressions of old club sentimentality. In addition to housing the Club's golf headquarters, The Lodge features 42 guest rooms and suites, a fine-dining restaurant called Colt & Alison's, a spacious lounge for cocktails and cigars, the Trophy Room for private dining, and a stately and grand (read: huge) locker room on par with the country's finest private clubs.
In 2002 The Lodge received the rare AAA Five Diamond Award to go along with its Mobile Travel Guide Five Star rating.
After completing work at the nearby Jekyll Island Club in 1926, noted amateur player and golf course architect Walter Travis was hired to build the first nine holes on the former Retreat Plantation. The Plantation Course opened in 1927, preceding The Cloister's opening by over a year.
The club's tradition of alteration and expansion was in practice from the beginning.
When Travis passed away in 1928, Henry Colt and Charles Alison were hired to build the second nine. In the process of creating what would become known as the Seaside nine (opened in 1929) on what is still one of the great coastal golf sites in America, Colt and Alison modified the bold Travis design to better harmonize with their own brand of architecture.
The resort grew when Dick Wilson built the Retreat course on the other side of Retreat Avenue (a canopied, oak-lined drive to rival Magnolia Lane) in 1959, and again in1973 as Joe Lee, former assistant to Wilson, installed the Marshside nine to the north of Seaside on previously inaccessible marsh land. (Lee actually used Plantation's eighth and ninth holes for Marshside's new first and ninth, then built two new holes on Plantation's northern edge to replace the appropriated holes.)
Jones ushered in Sea Island's modern era in 1998 by combining the Plantation and Retreat nines into one course, The Plantation. The conditions that Jones inherited, particularly at the Retreat nine, were in rough shape by resort standards. Rather than go backwards to a restoration Jones put his own stamp on the courses, adding and expanding water hazards, redirecting certain holes and altering others (particularly on the Retreat nine, now the homeward half), installing new turf and irrigation, and generally dressing it all up into a more playable shape.
Plantation runs through the same groves of mature oak but it is now more uniform, particularly in the increased array of sunken curvaceous bunkering, the mounding surrounding the lifted greens and fairways, and the decidedly broad-shouldered character that allows for plenty of new fairway and off-fairway undulation.
The course is most exhilarating when it plays near The Lodge at 10, 12, and 18. This confluence of holes, anchored by the spectacular Lodge and views of St. Simon's Sound beyond, is an irresistible sight for most golfers.
Tom Fazio connected the Marshside and Seaside nines in 1999. The par-70 Seaside Course was virtually stripped to the bone and then re-built from the ground up using fill to create ragged "dunes" that separate holes. The original architecture, or what was left of Travis and Colt and Alison, was replaced and polished; in this way Fazio, like Jones at Plantation, made Seaside his own.
The routing remains largely in tact but atmosphere is significantly different. Fazio's design is rugged and voluptuous - it puts the swerve back in Seaside. His crew shaped everything from the bunkers to tees to the newly enlarged greens, to the re-contoured fairways, and to the dunes and their vegetation.
The most immediate difference is the removal of the majority trees that previously made the Marshside nine feel more low country than shoreline. Today it's a boundless, wind-swept nine with six of the nine holes lacing along and through the vast tidal marshes.
In addition to being lengthened - it has the ability to play at 6,945 yards for tournaments vs. 6,557 for the men - the ground was made more firm (a vast improvement over the perennially soggy Marshside holes) and the greens were radically expanded.
The crowned, tilting green complexes are now Seaside's dominant theme. All but two (the seventh and 14th) are convex with precipitous drop-offs on one or several sides flowing into low chipping areas. This feature creates endless fascination in the short game but can be especially daunting when the wind is up and golf balls are rolling hither thither.
In 2000 Sea Island turned over its latest acquisition, the St. Simons Island Club, to longtime Sea Island touring pro Davis Love III and his brother Mark for a redesign.
The old Joe Lee course was a typical, flat, low-country layout. Those ingredients weren't changed altogether but the Love's added an entirely new flavor by re-clothing the course in new turf, lengthening and primping it, and jazzing up the green complexes.
The Retreat Course opened in 2001 and now plays at 6,715 yards with far more sex appeal than before. The routing moves through the wooded development as it always has, in two circular nines working in opposite directions, flecked by water on nine holes. The sixth is one of the most entertaining on the island, a gambler's par-4 of 369 yards (Love's tees, not ours) that can be shortened by drives smashed toward the green over a lake and field of bunkers.
The Plantation, Retreat, and Seaside Courses are available to Sea Island Resort guests. Green fees range from $125 to $145 for the Retreat Course, $145 to $185 for the Plantation Course, and $185 to $225 for Seaside. Fees include mandatory forecaddie (tips not included).
Sea Island Golf Club offers an interesting chance to study the redesign work of two of the industry's most popular architects side-by-side, particularly considering how active both have been in renovating "classic" courses over the last several years.
Fazio and Jones had vastly different material to work with. Seaside is now a dazzling display of ruggedness and velvet contour, and the views of St. Simon's Sound abutting the marshes are priceless. Fazio presumably exercised wide artistic latitude, evidenced by such decisions as clean-cutting the edges of fairway bunkers that flow into his free-form dunes, perhaps missing an opportunity to give Seaside a truly raw, linksy feel, and again in changing the well-liked 14th (old Seaside 5th) from a short, strategic par-4 on the remotest corner of the property into a long par-4 with two semi-blind shots.
It could be said that Jones holds true to reputation with Plantation. Whereas Seaside appears as more a freehand creation, Jones interprets design here - and elsewhere - as geometrically driven. The smooth and squiggly-edged bunkers and platform greens with contours consisting of tiers and distinct sections seem to indicate a predilection for symmetry, balance, and linearity.
Another notable difference is the skill-demands. Seaside is a tournament ready course and when the wind blows it can become an extreme test. A majority of holes set up to reward aggressive, accurate driving as one side of the fairway typically affords the preferable angle to the green.
Plantation is more laid back. Less demand it placed on the drive - anywhere in the fairway is usually good - and slightly more on the approach where it 's important to get the ball on the same quadrant with the pin.
One of the America's best golf academies makes its home at Sea Island Golf Club. The Sea Island School, located at the state-of-the-art Sea Island Golf Learning Center boasts a full computer/video indoor hitting area, computer/video breakout rooms, a custom club-fitting center, multiple short-game areas, and arguably the most scenic double-ended driving range in the South on the banks of St. Simon's sound.
Renowned instructor Jack Lumpkin - swing coach to Davis Love III - oversees the Learning Center with the assistance of Jim Goergen, Gale Peterson, Mike Cook, and full support staff. The School offers various multi-day all-inclusive clinics as well as half-day and full-day sessions with Lumpkin and other professionals.
The highlight of 2003 was a three-day seminar in late May with Lumpkin and friend Butch Harmon (Lumpkin worked for Harmon's father, Claude, at Winged Foot). The 12 attendees were treated to extensive swing analysis under the tutelage Harmon and Lumpkin, accommodations at The Cloister and Lodge, and plenty food, laughs, and storytelling. For more information on The Sea Island School call (912) 638-5119.
Sea Island Resort
PO Box 30351
Sea Island, GA 31516
Sea Island Golf Club
100 Retreat Ave
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
August 29, 2003