Published: April 2009
By Evan Rothman
With two new lodges, a surplus of great courses and a pretty interesting little tournament coming up, the state is much on our minds.
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.
REYNOLDS PLANTATION, THE OCONEE
Lake Oconee Trail, Greensboro; 800-322-1665, reynoldsplantation.com. Yardage: 7,029. Par: 72. Slope: 139. Architect: Rees Jones, 2002. Greens Fees: $115-$250 (includes forecaddie). T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
Talk about an entrance: Number one is a majestic 579-yard par five that seems to have added a shot to the eleventh at Augusta—as well as, at least in my go-round, a kingfisher presiding on a boulder bestride the greenside pond left. (It looked like a slump-shouldered, mirthless mob boss at the head of a table.) This is a tough act to follow, but for the next eleven holes the Oconee does just fine, providing very pretty, high-quality resort golf, with vast, saddled, pine-lined fairway corridors to slug away toward and big, pure, wiggle-free greens that are a pleasure to putt. Its straightforwardness renders the excellent forecaddies if not superfluous, then friendly companions mostly. On the par-three thirteenth, 260 yards from the tips over a one-acre bunker, the course changes into something different and, needless to say, harder: six gorgeous closers (especially the 192-yard fifteenth, one of the most natural cove par threes anywhere) about as friendly as a supermodel's bodyguard. Your scorecard at day's end thus may well recall your stock portfolio in its boom-to-bust nature.
WHITE COLUMNS COUNTRY CLUB
300 Clubhouse Drive, Alpharetta; 770-343-9025, whitecolumnscountryclub.com. Yardage: 7,053. Par: 72. Slope: 135. Architect: Tom Fazio, 1994. Greens Fees: $65-$140. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
There's the ineffable sense here that you're in the hands of someone in full control of his art. Each hole flows to the next as if preordained, and all are well proportioned both individually and relative to one another—courses as aesthetically pleasing as this only underscore Fazio's reputation as a master shaper of landscapes. Whenever a dash of spice is called for, it appears, whether in the form of a bunker in the middle of the fairway on the downhill 347-yard par-four seventh or water, most brilliantly at the 358-yard par-four fifteenth. Here the front of the green recedes with the menacing grace of an alligator into the pond that runs all along the left side of the hole. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the abundance of great golf around Atlanta is that White Columns still hasn't sold out its reasonably priced memberships and gone private, as has been the plan for several years now.
THE FROG GOLF CLUB
1900 Georgian Parkway, Villa Rica; 770-459-4400, thegeorgian.com. Yardage: 7,018. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Architect: Tom Fazio, 1998. Greens Fees: $45-$75. T&L Golf Rating: ****
The course with the best tag line in golf—"Grip it and ribbit"—is a criminally underutilized treat about forty-five minutes west of Atlanta. Chalk it up to the unfashionable backwater location. Four years after completing White Columns, Tom Fazio built another big-scale, upscale, prototypically Georgian course. In some ways, the Frog even leapfrogs its predecessor. There's no housing here (although fourteen homes abutting the course are set to be built and occupied before summer's end). Perhaps there are a few more surprises, too (a waste bunker running all along the right of the par-three eleventh provides a dash of Low Country feel, and the uphill, false-front approach on nine references Augusta's ninth). Perhaps for these flourishes, it doesn't hang together quite as perfectly, but it's still a toad-al blast and a bargain to boot. The most memorable things weren't the namesake amphibians (although the tee markers of a frog in midleap are a fun touch) but rather the birds. Specifically, the majestic great blue heron meditating bestride a pond next to the fourteenth tee as thousands of crows cackled away maniacally in the adjacent forest, auditioning, one supposes, for a Hitchcock remake.
THE GENERAL AT BARNSLEY GARDENS
597 Barnsley Gardens Road, Adairsville; 877-773-2447, barnsleyresort.com. Yardage: 7,180. Par: 72. Slope: 141. Architect: Jim Fazio, 1999. Greens Fees: $75-$105. T&L Golf Rating: ****
First, the name: a little machismo to set off against the rather feminine resort title. And what's in a name?Truth, soldier. Only a handful of golfers have broken par from the General's commanding back tees, and with good reason. The finishing pair in particular are brutal: a 192-yard par three to a crowned, boomerang-shaped green with water skulking right (the only hazard, I'm proud to say, that I've putted into) topped by a 452-yard par four with water along the left and a well-elevated green, a hole that must have escaped from the Bethpage Black chain gang and fled south. From on high, with a pretty view of the Appalachian foothills, its rapid-descent 242-yard par-three eighth will have your nose bleeding and your eyes popping; later, the signature 224-yard fourteenth will cause déjà vu. There's more than enough variety of terrain, design and demands elsewhere, however, to prevent the General from seeming too Pattonesque.
REYNOLDS PLANTATION, THE NATIONAL
100 Linger Longer Road, Greensboro; 800-322-1665, reynoldsplantation.com. Yardage: 3,528 (Bluff); 3,538 (Cove); 3,487 (Ridge). Par: 36 (all nines). Slope: 135 (Bluff/Ridge); 136 (Cove/Ridge); 137 (Bluff/Cove). Architect: Tom Fazio, 1997. Greens Fees: $90-$158. T&L Golf Rating: ****
Here is a course that embraces the big attribute of the modern golfer, challenging the long hitter while often leaving the distance-deprived feeling hopelessly inadequate. Or maybe it's just me. In any case, the hilly terrain presented challenges in incorporating the elevation changes, and the result is huge golf with (unusual for Fazio) some hog-backed fairways that shrink their effective width. Lake Oconee makes only a few cameo appearances, augmented by several ponds and streams; flash bunkers are another defense, especially around the generous, nicely contoured greens. Some insiders here consider the Bluff nine the most testing side on the entire Plantation. Overall, the National is a Bunyanesque, formidable task that may prove the most provocative to low handicappers.
ORCHARD HILLS GOLF CLUB
600 E. Highway 16, Newnan; 770-251-5683, orchardhills.com. Yardage: 3,500 (Logo); 3,512 (Orchard); 3,502 (Rock Garden). Par: 36 (all nines). Slope: 131 (Logo/Orchard); 132 (Orchard/Rock Garden); 134 (Logo/Rock Garden). Architects: Don Cottle Jr., 1990 (original eighteen, Logo/Orchard); Walker Moody and Craig Ketelsen, 1995 (Rock Garden). Greens Fees: $45-$53. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
"It's a neat little course—you'll have a blast," said a Georgian golf-writer friend in recommending a visit to this converted pecan orchard. He was spot-on but for that "little" part. This is a strong test. With the wind sweeping across it like a preacher's sermon, the standout, linkslike Logo nine has two consecutive par fours, the 395-yard fifth and 436-yard sixth, which are darn near unreachable. The former is a lovely hole, beginning at a tee box set below the fairway between a narrow stand of pines, recalling the eighteenth at Augusta, followed by a blind approach with a lone sycamore tree as your line. Orchard Hills' slogan is "Southern Hospitality with a Scottish Links Flavor," and indeed much of the charm of the place is in its sense of place. Our rule is that at least once a trip, we play where the locals play, to get a sense of other golfing lives. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely here.
SEA ISLAND GOLF CLUB, PLANTATION
100 Retreat Avenue, St. Simons Island; 800-732-4752, seaisland.com. Yardage: 6,549. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Architects: Walter Travis, 1927; H. S. Colt and C. H. Alison, 1929; Dick Wilson, 1960; Rees Jones, 1998. Greens Fees: $145-$185 (includes forecaddie). T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
The back porch of the Lodge at Sea Island looks out upon the tenth hole of Plantation and, beyond, St. Simons Sound, which shimmers in the morning light like diamonds; I suspect this über-Low Country view (from a rocking chair, no less) creates unrealistic expectations for the course. This isn't the show pony that Seaside is, although its grooming is as flawless and some of its oaks remarkable. It's a solid, very playable parkland design with a good mix of holes. The momentum wanes briefly in the middle of the back nine during a string of rather forgettable par fours before reviving with a strong quartet of finishers, especially the risk-reward 492-yard par-five closer that plays shorter if you try to fly the water for a closing eagle, as well you should, never mind our own miserable cowardice.
BEST OF THE REST
Bear's Best Atlanta ($75-$95; 678-714-2582) is a fun romp through re-creations of some of architect Jack Nicklaus's favorite holes. Set on a quiet property in the Southern Appalachians, the Resort at Callaway's Mountain View course ($95-$110; 800-225-5292) has hosted the PGA Tour's Buick Challenge. Near Reynolds Plantation, Harbor Club ($59-$69; 706-453-4414) is a fine Tom Weiskopf-Jay Morrish collaboration as well as an old Mickey Mantle hangout. Port Armor Country Club & Resort ($95; 706-453-4500) is a quality Bob Cupp design also in the Reynolds area. Don't take Reynolds Plantation's unassuming Plantation ($90-$158; 800-322-1665) lightly: It has on occasion played tougher than Great Waters in the club championship. A sleeper thirty-five minutes from Sea Island is Mark McCumber's pretty Osprey Cove ($37-$55; 912-882-5575). And don't get sloppy on the vast fairways of Sea Island Golf Club's Retreat ($125-$145; 800-732-4752), Davis Love III's very enjoyable remake of the old Island Club.
Atlanta Athletic Club, Duluth. The 2001 PGA Championship was held on its Highlands eighteen, now most famous for its pond-fronted closer and the smartest layup in golf history, courtesy of David Toms.
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta. Love or hate the recent changes, it's still the course you play when granted one wish.
Cherokee Town and Country Club, Atlanta. One of the city's grand old establishment clubs, the few funky holes among the thirty-six, all renovated by Tom Fazio, only add to the considerable charm.
The Club at Jones Creek, Evans. This Augusta-area ex-public Rees Jones design got very good reviews when it opened in 1985; some now argue that it's harder than it is memorable.
East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta. This Tour Championship host is a corporate club that's part of an innovative neighborhood-renewal campaign, and it's where Bobby Jones learned the game.
Hawks Ridge Golf Club, Ball Ground. It's known for the state's best upkeep outside of Augusta National; a friend who played here received an apology for the greens only running thirteen on the Stimp.
Ocean Forest Golf Club, Sea Island. This highly regarded 1995 Rees Jones links-style design hosted the 2001 Walker Cup and is one of golf's toughest tickets.
Peachtree Golf Club, Atlanta. A pure golf club whose Robert Trent Jones design (done in collaboration with Bobby Jones) was his first masterwork; it has fast multilevel greens, plenty of water hazards and one of the game's finest opening holes.
100 First Street, Sea Island; 800-732-4752, seaisland.com. Rooms: $190-$600. Suites: $800-$1,200.
Opened in 1928 and built in classic Mediterranean style by Addison Mizner of Palm Beach fame, the Cloister offers 269 rooms, including thirty-eight suites, located in fifteen buildings, as well as more land and water activities than you could possibly hope to cram into your stay. Rooms in the main hotel are set back from the beach, while the newer Ocean Houses sport Atlantic and nature views.
THE INN AT BARNSLEY GARDENS
597 Barnsley Gardens Road, Adairsville; 877-773-2447, barnsleyresort.com. Suites: $215-$395.
A self-contained universe an hour northwest of Atlanta modeled after a nineteenth-century pedestrian village. There are seventy individually decorated suites in English-style guest cottages, the only Andrew Jackson Downing-inspired formal gardens in the South, sporting clays, fishing and horseback riding, for starters, as well as a Fairy Godmother, who tosses fairy dust on guests and performs other random acts of kindness. Truly, this is a one-of-a-kind, quintessentially Southern experience—except for its Bavarian Beer Garden, which is quintessentially Bavarian.
THE LODGE AT SEA ISLAND
100 Retreat Avenue, St. Simons Island; 800-732-4752, golflodge.com. Rooms: $500-$800. Suites: $800-$1,000.
This past November, the Lodge at Sea Island debuted with five stars in the Mobil Travel Guide, which is not unlike winning an Oscar in your maiden performance. Consider, randomly, the bathroom: heated towel bars, a special safety button needed to start the hot water in the shower, nonfogging mirrors, speakers to hear the TV piped in from the bedroom—no detail is overlooked. Twenty-four-hour butler service, two wonderful restaurants, the Oak Room Bar, patterned after New York's famous Oak Bar, access to the five miles of private beach at the Cloister (as well as its shooting school) and to the stables nearby: For just forty big rooms, including two suites, it adds up to one of the country's best golf-resort experiences.
THE RITZ-CARLTON LODGE, REYNOLDS PLANTATION
One Lake Oconee Trail, Greensboro; 706-467-0600, ritzcarlton.com. Rooms: $225-$475. Suites: $500-$575. Cottages: $325-$1,475.
One thing about a Ritz-Carlton: If you sit in one place long enough, someone will do something nice for you. Ensconced with a book on a couch in the massive yet comfy lobby, you decline a drink from the waiter; a minute later a glass of water with lemon and a tray of nuts and olives appear on the light stand next to you. Elsewhere, the 26,000-square-foot spa is the only one in the world based on principles of the native Creek Indians (and offers "Biological Terrain Assessment," which involves the "monitoring of your saliva and urine for pH, redox and resistivity"). The Dave Pelz Scoring Game School is, well, based on the principles of the noted Dave Pelz. The infinity-edge pool overlooking Lake Oconee is beautiful, and you'll want to end afternoons at the adjacent Gaby's by the Lake, watching the blue sky fade to black over the placid Oconee.
THE CLOISTER MAIN DINING ROOM
(Continental) Sea Island (at the Cloister); 800-732-4752. $$$$
Under the direction of Sea Island's executive chef, Todd Rogers (who has prepared dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, among other dignitaries), this formal restaurant offers a combination of classic and new cuisines in a romantic setting, with a vast wine list and by-the-glass pairings to the night's menu.
COLT & ALISON'S
(Steak) 100 Retreat Avenue, St. Simons Island (at the Lodge at Sea Island); 800-732-4752. $$$$
Jackets are required, but the superb dry-aged beef along with the excellent wine list produce a joviality that keeps stuffiness well at arm's length despite the elegant atmosphere.
(Southern) One Lake Oconee Trail, Greensboro (at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation); 706-467-7135. $$$
The quality and variety to be found merely in the bread basket is a giveaway; the fois-gras crème brûlée with peppercorn-poached peaches and Georgia figs with cinnamon pain perdu (whew!) demands nearly as many superlatives as words in its name. The restaurant's taste in warm, welcoming staff is equally good.
(Barbecue) 229 Jackson Street, Newnan; 770-253-4421. $
After—not before—a round at Orchard Hills Golf Club, this no-nonsense joint is a must-stop for authentic finger-licking-good Georgia BBQ, which is more tart than its Texas cousin; we passed on the Lewis Grizzard Special (believing, incorrectly, that he died of heart disease) in favor of the combination platter but later felt a twinge of regret.
(Continental) 100 Retreat Avenue, St. Simons Island (at the Lodge at Sea Island); 800-732-4752. $$$
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Terrace menu offers Continental cuisine with a Southern flair. The fried lobster tail, for example, is truly a revelation, managing to maintain its luscious lobsterness while being something else entirely. We can't get our claws around exactly what that thing is, but we highly recommend it.
THE WATERSIDE RESTAURANT
(Southern) 126 Cuscowilla Drive, Eatonton (at the Golf Club at Cuscowilla); 706-484-2044. $$$
Overlooking Lake Oconee, the Waterside offers fine dining minus the formality; Southern Living recently called this its favorite area restaurant. One intriguing dish is the Creole pie, a zesty main course involving andouille sausage, not, as might be expected, a Cajun dessert. Also note that Cuscowilla offers vacationers lake-villa and golf-cottage accommodations.
Atlanta is one of the most convenient cities to fly to, and, of course, it has no shortage of fine hotels. The Buckhead area in the north of the city remains the prime place to stay, shop and dine. Reynolds Plantation, in Greensboro, is about a ninety-minute drive from central Atlanta on I-20 east and halfway to Augusta. Sea Island is best reached by plane to Brunswick-Golden Isles airport, fifteen minutes away (both Sea Island lodging options offer transportation), via a short flight from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport—or fly to Jacksonville, Florida, or Savannah, Georgia, both about an hour's drive from the island.
Sprawling, transient Atlanta isn't everybody's cup of sweet tea, and the traffic can be a nightmare, but the Gateway to the South has much to recommend it. The politically and socially minded should explore both the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (404-331-5190) and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum (404-331-3942); the latter contains not only artifacts from the Georgia native's presidency and his Nobel Peace Prize but also a magnificent Japanese garden with a fine view of the downtown Atlanta skyline. Gone with the Wind fanatics can take in the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum (404-249-7015), while theater buffs and architectural buffs alike will enjoy the historic Fox Theatre (404-881-2100). Thirsty for more local culture?Check out the World of Coca-Cola (404-676-5151), with everything you ever wanted to know about our star-spangled beverage. High-end shopping can be found in abundance in Buckhead at Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza (catty-corner to each other at Peachtree and Lenox Roads) and at Miami Circle, a cul-de-sac that's home to interior designers' showcase boutiques as well as more than a handful of antique shops. In the heart of midtown you'll find the Atlanta Botanical Garden (404-876-5859) and its new Fuqua Orchid Center, featuring one of the world's largest permanent orchid displays. Another high-minded midtown endeavor is the High Museum of Art (404-733-4444), which will be showcasing French works borrowed from Moscow's famous Pushkin Museum starting April 5 through June 29.
Elsewhere, the focus is on taking advantage of all the offerings at the resorts, because there's certainly not a flurry of activity in their surrounding rural areas. This is a compliment, of course: What is the charm of the drawl, after all, but its unhurriedness?Near to Reynolds Plantation is the historic town of Madison, the heart of the Antebellum Trail and one of the few towns left intact on Sherman's March. Visit the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center (706-342-4743) for an overview of Southern life pre-1900 and the Rogers House (706-343-0190) for a lovingly restored example of the Piedmont Plain-style architecture seen throughout the rural South. Not far from Sea Island you'll find the port city of Brunswick, which once upon a time was decreed one of the five ports of entry into the colonies by George Washington; its antique and specialty shops and art galleries all connote a simpler way of life.