Georgia in early April: Golfers know it well as a place and a time for renewing the spirit. Azalea bushes bud and bloom, evening light remembers how to linger, and roars rise through the pines at the Masters. True, golf has only one Amen Corner, but Augusta National holds no patent on flowers. If it’s Technicolor shrubbery you’re after (and if you want to play golf rather than just watch it), head in a different direction out of the Atlanta airport.
About seventy miles to the southwest you’ll find Callaway Gardens, a thirteen-thousand-acre golf resort and nature preserve at the base of Pine Mountain in the Appalachian Piedmont. It has thirty-six holes of golf, a brand-new spa and lodge, miles of forested walking trails—and more azaleas than Alister MacKenzie ever dreamed of.
It was the azalea, in fact, that inspired the place. Eighty years ago, Cason Callaway, an executive at the textile company run by his father and uncle (whose son, Ely Jr., would found Callaway Golf), began picnicking with his wife, Virginia, in Blue Springs, Georgia, just up the road from the natural baths in Warm Springs that FDR floated in to ease the pain of polio. It was there in 1930 that Callaway discovered the very regional, nearly extinct Rhododendron prunifolium—commonly called the plumleaf azalea. With preservation in mind, he and Virginia started buying cotton fields left fallow around the ridge. They would soon devote their lives to fashioning those fields into an Eden.
The Callaways opened their vast garden to the public in 1952, hoping to offer people a place for quiet contemplation. Golf was a part of their vision: The original nine-hole Lake View Course, designed by J. B. McGovern, a thirty-year associate of Donald Ross, was among the resort’s first amenities. The idea was to use golf as a vehicle for enjoying the outdoors, not to demonstrate how difficult the old Scots believed the game should be. Dick Wilson expanded Lake View to eighteen holes in 1961, but at 6,031 yards, the course won’t tax your long game.
Much of Lake View feels like a nature trail, wending around bodies of water and through the forest. The front is more charming than the back, which is sullied by a stretch along a relatively busy drive. It does have memorable moments, though, including the par-three tenth, where an S-shaped bridge connects the island tee box to the green, and the par-four fourteenth, where you’ll fire your tee ball through a chute of foliage.
But ever since Wilson and Joe Lee designed it in the mid-1960s, Lake View’s sister, the Mountain View Course, has been the Callaway Gardens layout to reckon with. These days, its fairways aren’t as tight as they were when the PGA Tour’s Buick Challenge was held there (from 1991 to 2002), nor is the rough as high or the greens as tiny. “Although if you hit one in regulation,” notes head pro Bud Robison, “you still won’t have much more than a twenty-five-foot putt.”
Robison and the grounds crew have worked to make Mountain View easier on the average player. “But,” he says, “the greens are so small and so well bunkered that your better player finds the challenge as well.” Though the tournament drew sparse crowds, several top pros extolled the course, even calling it one of the finest venues they got to play all year. “You have to drive the ball well,” David Toms once said, “and there are a lot of little doglegs here and there.”
The most affecting part of Mountain View, though, may not be its natural contours or its beguiling greens. Each of the tee markers, as with those on Lake View, serves not only to point you toward the next fairway but also to remind you that golf is about more than knocking a ball into a cup. Notice the Eastern bluebirds and brown thrashers on the par-four ninth, the markers implore; look for the slider turtles sunning themselves by the pond at twelve, a standout par three; watch the great blue heron tiptoeing along the shore of the par-five fifteenth, a picturesque hole whose main flaw is that its fairway slopes toward the water.
Insofar as it emphasizes this vital dynamic between you and your surroundings, golf at Callaway Gardens works alongside the rest of the resort’s enjoyably didactic attractions: the butterfly and horticultural centers; the Birds of Prey show; Cason Callaway’s Vegetable Garden, which for years has been a set of PBS’s Victory Garden; and the Azalea Bowl (paid for by Ely Callaway Jr.), which, with 3,400 varieties of the shrub planted over forty acres, is the world’s largest and densest azalea garden. “We’re not really about big, barnstorming, robust activities,” says Hank Bruno, the director of horticulture. “Our gardens are places for repose, to slow down and breathe deep and understand your relationship to the trees and to this place.”
Despite a recent reduction in the number of golf holes—both the nine-hole Sky View and the eighteen-hole Gardens View closed for budgetary purposes after September 11, 2001—Callaway Gardens is burgeoning. It’s still a family business, but since 2005 day-to-day operations have been run by a luxury-hotel operator charged with modernizing the resort. The Lodge, the most upscale of the accommodations, opened in late 2006, with the attached Spa Prunifolia debuting last March. That building was affixed to the resort’s conference center, which opened in 2002 and was the first of its kind to be LEED-certified, the preeminent seal of eco-friendly design. The twenty-six-acre Twin Oaks practice facility opened in September. The two courses got a combined $3.1 million spruce-up a few years ago, and plans are in the works to raze the A-frame clubhouse and erect a new one.
A half-century on, Callaway Gardens is poised to become the residential resort that Cason and Virginia Callaway envisioned. A 138-lot certified-green development opened in 2003 and is almost completely built out, inhabited mainly by “halfbacks,” Northeasterners who migrate to Florida only to decide it’s a bit too far south. Over the next fifteen years, up to fourteen hundred homes could be built, each fitted with energy-saving features. In fact, as of this spring, all of the energy Callaway Gardens consumes is being offset by wind credits. “We are very conscious of these things,” says Bruno. “The entire concept was to have sustainability at its root.”
It’s a simple premise: Take care of your natural surroundings and your natural surroundings will reward you—with, in this case, the grandest display of golf’s official flower.
17800 U.S. Highway 27, Pine Mountain, Georgia. 800-225-5292, callawaygardens.com.
Mountain View Course
Architects: Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, 1965. Yardage: 7,057. Par: 72. Slope: 139. Green Fees: $100–$120.
Lake View Course
Architects: J. B. McGovern, 1951; Dick Wilson, 1961. Yardage: 6,031. Par: 70. Slope: 123. Green Fees: $80–$100.
Lodge and Spa: from $269. Villas: from $247.