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.”