Sea Island Golf Club's Plantation Course - Wrong Island, Right Experience

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos By Jeffrey A. Rendall

Note:  The Plantation Course was closed for overseeding during our visit – and the photos depict a course in transition.

In this late fall photo, you can see the par five 8th hole is all risk-reward. It's only 476 yards in length, but there's a lot of trouble if you go for it and miss.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA – “One of the things I’ve always found interesting about our location -- when you come to Sea Island Golf Club, it’s actually located on St. Simons Island,” remarked Brannen Veal, Sea Island’s Director of Golf.

There’s no attempt to fool people here, and there’s no movement to re-name the resort ‘St. Simons Island Golf Club,’ either.  But the fact there’s golf on one island named after another brings up a few questions as to why or how things got to the way they are today. 

The truth is, Sea Island Resort has a long history, and its golf courses have just as storied a journey through time – straight to the present day, where Sea Island is recognized as one of the very best resorts in the United States, if not the world.  For decades it was known as a southern family destination, where the famous and not-so-famous came to vacation.  Now it’s a place where folks with children continue to visit (there’s no additional room charge for children), but a good many others are giving Sea Island a try because of its growing – and richly deserved – reputation.


Veal continues, “The reason we’re located where we are is because, in the old days, there wasn’t a bridge to the islands – you had to take a ferry.  The drop-off point for the ferry from Brunswick was right here, so they built the golf courses here.  You could play some golf, and then head over to Sea Island to the Cloister for the night… have dinner and do all your social activities there.  Then you’d come back here the next day, play golf and board the ferry back to the mainland.”

Standing near the Lodge, Old Glory flies proudly over one of the United States' grandest golf resorts.


That’s a pretty good set-up, and it still works in 2005.  The Golf Club and its relatively new sleeping accommodations at The Lodge are quite an exquisite introduction to the golf aspect of the resort.  For our purposes here, in fact, we’ll concentrate on the St. Simons Island offerings of the Sea Island Golf Club – and more specifically, the club’s original golf product, the Plantation Golf Course.


The Golf Club’s first nine, called ‘Plantation’ opened in 1928, a Walter Travis design that introduced those initial ferry visitors to great golf.  A year later, the ‘Seaside’ nine (Colt & Alison) completed the club’s first offering of a full-length, eighteen hole golf course.  Eventually, the Club added the ‘Retreat’ nine, designed by Dick Wilson (in 1960) and a fourth nine was opened in 1973, designed by legendary southern architect Joe Lee.  Each was operated independently until combined in the late nineties.


The land on which the Golf Club resides was once the site of a working plantation, called ‘Kings Retreat Plantation’ – hence, the origin of the name for its Plantation and Retreat combination of golf holes.  There’re tangible connections to the past as well, in the form of ruins of the original plantation home, built in the 1790’s.  The oaks that line the formal drive into the club were planted over two-hundred years ago, and there are also the ruins of the old slave hospital on site.

Rees Jones' dramatic bunkering helps point the way on The Plantation Course. Here, the par five 16th hole.

In addition, the plantation’s historic corn barn functioned as the Club’s clubhouse prior to moving into the Lodge in 2001 – you can see it as you journey to the first tee of both the Plantation and Seaside Courses.  In other words, this is celebrated land for far more than just golf, but the golf’s pretty substantial, too.

In the early 1990’s, the ownership at Sea Island Resort, led by Bill Jones III, decided to bring in architect Rees Jones to do some upgrade work on the club’s original course, the Walter Travis inspired Plantation Nine.  “The thing that’s so great about Sea Island is that Bill Jones has continually had the foresight to stay ahead of the pack,” Rees Jones said.

“The Plantation Nine was a classic Walter Travis design -- so we sort of combined the Travis look with a little bit of a Rees Jones flare.  A few years later (1998), we came back to work on the Retreat Nine – to bring it more in line with the look and feel of the Plantation Course.  They’d been used as separate nines, but the goal was to make it one complete Rees Jones golf course,” Jones added.

There were some other reasons for the combination as well.  Bill Jones III wanted to build a state-of-the-art clubhouse on the site, and the land chosen for the new Lodge sat right in the middle of the Retreat Nine’s first fairway.  Therefore, the timing was perfect for Rees to come in and do a complete overhaul to form the club’s first complete eighteen hole combination, to be called The Plantation Course from that point on.

Rees Jones said most of the work in 1998 was concentrated on the Retreat Nine, but there was some additional bunker work done on The Plantation Nine to ensure the two nines matched from a visual standpoint.  On the Retreat Nine, they changed some of the pars on the holes (for example, Retreat’s number one was a par five, and the ‘new’ Plantation number ten is a par four) and lengthened the course to bring it up to more modern standards. 

Jones said they left the raised greens the way that Travis originally designed them on the Plantation nine, and basically altered the bunker styles and green contours throughout the entire eighteen holes.  “You have a common theme on the Plantation Course, but you have different sized greens and contours, different elevations.  In other words, we shaped the course so that it looks like it was done in one look, but there are lots of diversities within the golf holes – which, I think, is a Rees Jones trademark.”

Looking from the tee box on the par four 5th hole, you see what makes The Plantation Course so beautiful and memorable -- all the trees that accompany you on your trip around the links.

Jones continues, “To me, the things that stand out about the ‘new’ Plantation Golf Course are the views of the sea and the new Lodge – and, the fact it’s a challenging course.  It played more difficult during the 2004 USGA Mid-Amateur Championship than the Seaside Course – but at the same token, the average golfer can move himself up on the tees and enjoy the layout on a continuing basis.  It’s got the best of both worlds.”

Brannen Veal echoes Jones’ thoughts.  “Our members generally think that the Seaside Course is tougher, but that’s probably because of all the water and marshes on that layout, so there’s a greater potential for penalty strokes.  The Plantation Course actually plays a bit harder because it’s longer, and the lengths of some of the holes make them really challenging, especially some of the par fours.  You probably won’t lose many golf balls on the Plantation Course, but you’ll still have a hard time matching the scores.”

There are other contrasts to the Plantation Course’s Seaside sibling.  Though they occupy the same plot of land and rest alongside each other, they couldn’t possibly look any more different.  Seaside’s got huge rolling sand dunes and plentiful marsh, whereas Plantation’s more of an old-style, southern parkland layout with huge oak trees.

Rees Jones built an entirely new hole to replace the old Retreat Nine's first hole. Now, the Plantation's 10th hole resides next to the sea, and provides quite a view.

“We worked very hard to save all the old live oaks on Plantation, because they tell you where you are.  When you see those trees, they tell you you’re in the south – they’re spectacular,” Jones said.

Jones used the live oaks to accent the golf holes, but Veal said the architect also made sure that you can see the Lodge from virtually every vantage point on the back nine.  You’re still among the oak trees, so you don’t really feel like you’re right on the ocean – but you’ll know that you’re at Sea Island Golf Club, nonetheless.  That’s a good thought right there.

The difficulty in playing the course stems not only from its length, but the nature of its raised greens.  “Again, the nature of the ‘hazards’ are different on the Plantation Course, because although you’ll be playing the same ball, if you miss the green, it’s a much more difficult up and down.  Since the greens are mostly up in the air, there’re more forced carries to the greens.  For the average player, when you combine the length and carries, that’s going to add on a few strokes that maybe you’ll save from not hitting it in the trouble on the Seaside Course,” Veal added.

One final thing you’ll get at Sea Island – tournament level conditioning, virtually year-round.  As the photos depict, we visited during a transitional period, and the Plantation Course was closed to over-seed with cool season grasses.  The Seaside Course had been open only a few days after its over-seed treatment, yet it was in outstanding condition – and Veal says their goal is to maintain all three of their resort courses in tournament ready condition.  That seems to be the case.

Though not long, the peninsula, almost island-like green on the par three 7th hole will test your nerves and your club selection.

Hole highlights include the seventh hole, a 163-yard par three with a bulkhead peninsular green that Rees Jones said “separated the men from the boys at the Mid-Am.”  Though it’s not long, like the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, the wind will play havoc with club selection for your tee shot.  A fun golf hole, one that’ll test your mettle as well as please your sensibilities.

The ninth hole is one of those long par fours Veal was talking about, 445-yards from the back tee.  The landing area’s defined by bunkers left and right, and then the approach is to a slightly raised green.  Here, you can run the ball up if you negotiate between the bunkers guarding each side of the putting surface.

On the back side, the tenth is a great hole.  It starts out parallel to the ocean, and offers one of the best views you’ll get at Sea Island Golf Club.  For the second shot, the hole doglegs left – the Lodge is right there to the left, which offers another attractive view.  This hole offers one of the bigger greens on the course, so there’s a big target to aim at as well.  A great way to begin the inward nine.

Though it's not right on the golf course, the ruins of the old plantation house will remind you of the land's history.

Skipping ahead to eighteen, it’s the epitome of the classic, risk-reward par five.  ‘Only’ 492-yards in length, from your tee shot landing area it slightly doglegs left – and you’re looking at what appears to be a peninsula green jutting out into the lake.  There’s safety on the right, but the shape of the green will still challenge you on your third shot to get close enough for a birdie try.  With the Lodge as the backdrop, this is an exceptionally memorable hole.

And memories are what Veal and the staff at Sea Island Golf Club want you to leave with:  “We want people to leave here having soaked in the whole experience.  We want them to think it was a wholly different golf course than on Seaside, but just as excellent, from the standpoint of the layout, the service, the conditions, everything.”

That’s a lofty goal, but one they’ve been satisfying, time and again, for a long, long time.

The Lodge at Sea Island

With The Lodge in the background, you see the raised nature of some of The Plantation Course's greens. If you're in this bunker, it'll take a clever sand shot to help save your par.

In all our travels, we’d have to say staying at Sea Island’s Lodge has to rank as the most unique.  First off, it’s smaller than a ‘traditional’ hotel, with only forty guestrooms – which adds a supremely intimate aura to the surroundings, similar to staying at a Bed & Breakfast.  The Lodge also functions as the clubhouse for the Seaside and Plantation courses, complete with locker rooms.

And, as Tom Fazio commented about visiting the resort, the experience begins the second you arrive.  The concierge greets you at your car with reservation in hand, so everything’s taken care of, from unloading your bags to providing for a tour of the building from your personal butler.  Needless to say, they’ll call you by name and ask you how your travels were – they even know where you’re from.

Our room overlooked the Plantation Course’s 18th green, and there was a spacious deck just outside the sliding door to enjoy the cool October evening.  The room itself was about twice the size of a ‘normal’ hotel room, complete with sitting area, large TV and DVD player.  Of course, size matters, but what really set this living space apart was the prominent wood features in the room – furniture, exposed beam ceilings and hardwood flooring, to nicely accent the beautiful oriental rugs (or the other way around).  Wow.

From the tee of the par three 11th hole. It looks like a long carry, but it's only from the back sets of tees that you'll need to fly a lot of water. The entire golf course is very fair to all skill levels.

The marble bathroom was an experience in and of itself, with soaking tub and separate shower.  Part of the butler’s tour, he’ll explain how to work the shower and bath hardware, and he’ll even offer to draw the lady a bath if you wish, or iron your clothes in the morning prior to your tee time.  Don’t forget to try the bathrobes and slippers – you’ll learn the true definition of soft and comfortable.

To top off the evening, your butler will bring you cookies and milk, if you desire, to ensure your stomach is enjoying the experience as well.  Put away the sleeping pills, you won’t need them when visiting Sea Island.

We didn’t get a chance to try any of the restaurants at The Lodge, but they certainly looked inviting and offered aromatic appeal as well.

One note – The Cloister Hotel, which originally made Sea Island Resort famous, is currently undergoing a $200 million renovation.  With the amazing success of The Lodge since its opening in 2001, the ‘new’ Cloister is destined to be just as special.

Here's a glimpse of what the course and Lodge look like when properly greened up. Photo Courtesy of Sea Island Golf Club.

As if Sea Island’s three outstanding championship golf courses aren’t enough, the accommodations at the resort – both at The Lodge and the various choices at The Cloister (there are 209 rooms at the Cloister, in more than fifteen buildings at the south end of Sea Island.  The hotel itself will be finished in late 2005) are something you’ll remember, long after you’ve left the island.

Note:  Check the links below for stories on the other courses at Sea Island Golf Club, as well as a profile on architect Rees Jones.


The Plantation Course at Sea Island Golf Club

100 Retreat Avenue

St. Simons Island, GA 31522 

Phone:  (912) 638-5118; Reservations:  1-800-SEA-ISLAND, (912) 638-3611 


Course Designers:  Walter Travis, Dick Wilson & Rees Jones

Director of Golf:  Brannen Veal, PGA

Sea Island Resort’s Owner:  Bill Jones III 

Tees/Yardage/Slope/Rating (Par 72)Championship         7058   135/73.9

Back                       6549   130/71.4

Middle                     6068   124/68.8

Forward                   5194   124/69.8 


Sea Island Golf Package:
Unlimited green fees at Retreat and Plantation courses
Forecaddie (a time-honored Sea Island tradition)
Daily complimentary range balls and practice slot
Shared cart
Club cleaning & storage
Sea Island golf lithograph
Golf amenity package including a picture frame and lithograph, logo ball, yardage books and a $20 gift certificate for merchandise at the golf shop or merchandise at the Golf Learning Center
$135/per person: January 1 - March 14, 2005; June 1 - August 31, 2005; December 1-31, 2005
$165/per person: March 15 - May 31, 2005; September 1 - November 31, 2005

*Play on Seaside course is an additional cost
*Room accommodations are an additional cost
*Length of stay restrictions may apply

Golf Special at the Lodge:
Includes room accommodations
One round of golf for one to two players daily at the Retreat or Plantation courses
Cart and forecaddie
$325 Sunday - Wednesday; $375 Thursday - Saturday: December 10, 2004 -
February 10, 2005; May 30 - September 7, 2005
*The Seaside course is available for a supplement of $50 per player per round.

For Golf Package reservations or information, please call 1-800-SEA-ISLAND.

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