For better and for worse, Augusta National Golf Club casts a long shadow. Lost in the membership ruckus is the course's profound design influence, nowhere more apparent, naturally, than in its home state. How can a modern architect look at a pine-packed parcel of rolling Georgian terrain and not consciously or otherwise conjure Augusta?How can the golfer not see homage both where it is and where it isn't?So much the better, really, since few of us, male or female, are likely to pull a Fuzzy Zelig and find ourselves on the other side of the television at Amen Corner.
Variations on the theme of Augusta make "Georgia golf" nearly as much a brand as "Florida golf," and a fine brand it is. The Peach State's composite course is muscular and handsome. The breadth and convenience of its offerings are astounding, too. Both the businessman and the family man have great options within an hour in every direction from Atlanta, from romantic Southern inns to top-notch country-clubs-for-a-day. A little farther on the road to Augusta, the sterling new Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation has transformed a preeminent golf-real-estate development into just such a vacation destination: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better eighty-one holes under one roof anywhere. To the east, halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville on the Atlantic Ocean, the famed five-mile-long private resort of Sea Island now has two sensational stays to support the many fine layouts on property and off, with the instant-classic Lodge at Sea Island joining the old-classic Cloister. In sum, unlike the annual battle for the green jacket, your own Masters needn't be site specific.
THE GOLF CLUB AT CUSCOWILLA
126 Cuscowilla Drive, Eatonton; 800-458-5351, cuscowilla.com. Yardage: 6,847. Par: 70. Slope: 130. Architects: Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, 1998. Greens Fees: $100 (resort); $150 (nonresort). T&L Golf Rating: *****
A minor-key masterpiece and a pure joy: Things plain happen here. A finger of one of the amazingly organic, jagged-edged red-clay bunkers bounces the ball into an impossible spot. Or it sits on another finger—the middle one—half in sand, half out. The wicked but never wacky green complexes are justifiably renowned—I scribbled "Great two-putt!" on my card five times, when I can't recall ever being moved to write that phrase before. In fairness to neighboring Reynolds Plantation, Cuscowilla benefits from being apples and oranges with that strong foursome: It's much more contained and subtle and built on a smaller scale and, in this context, exceedingly exotic. Like Augusta, the danger is mostly from the approach in—the contour lines on the greens in the yardage book are so plentiful, you half expect to find Pig-Pen tending the flags—but the strongest echoes are of the Country Club, Harbour Town and Shinnecock. There's an intense thoughtfulness, attention to detail and variety of holes that make this one of the most handcrafted courses you'll ever encounter. The 14,000-square-foot clubhouse, opened in December, brought the amenities up to snuff.
SEA ISLAND GOLF CLUB, SEASIDE
100 Retreat Avenue, St. Simons Island; 800-732-4752, seaisland.com. Yardage: 6,550. Par: 70. Slope: 126. Architects: H. S. Colt and C. H. Alison, 1929; Tom Fazio, 1999. Greens Fees: $185-$225 (includes forecaddie). T&L Golf Rating: *****
In its new Tom Fazio incarnation, comprising the original Seaside nine and the later Marshside, Seaside is eighteen consecutive postcard holes—if ever you wanted pictures on the scorecard, it's here. (The Golf Channel did no justice to the course's awesome beauty at November's UBS Warburg Cup.) You are dropped directly into the fryer, with the first four holes concluding with the links' toughest, a 421-yard par four into the wind. By this point, you'll be well acclimated to the gauzy Low Country light and the swaying golden reeds of its marshlands; the nervous-breakdown-inducing, Pinehurst No. 2-like crowned greens and tightly mown chipping areas; the white-sand-edged fairways with flowers and ferns springing forth; and more white sand still in the wide catcher's-mitt bunkers. The personable caddies only add to the throwback atmosphere, one providing a line alone worth the greens fee. Player: "This putt looks pretty straight to me." Caddie: "There are no straight putts at Seaside, sir."
REYNOLDS PLANTATION, GREAT WATERS
100 Plantation Drive, Eatonton; 800-322-1665, reynoldsplantation.com. Yardage: 7,048. Par: 72. Slope: 135. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 1992. Greens Fees: $90-$158. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
The peninsula back nine, with six holes along gilded Lake Oconee, is justly regarded as one of the prettiest waterfront stretches in golf. Nicklaus was clearly in a good mood when he conceived Great Waters (or, more likely, these great waters put him in a good mood); it's not just surpassingly attractive but also one of the most playable of his designs from the period. The woodland opening nine has more subdued charms—in particular a man-made creek that peeks its nose in around four greens—and for its languid nature feels older than the inward half. Both sides share a narrower frame than the Oconee or the National, making the straight ball more of a requisite.