Sea Island Golf Club's Seaside Course - Satisfying from Start to Finish

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

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA – Tom Fazio’s impressed with Sea Island Golf Club.

“I’d say, in terms of strength and beauty and excitement -- the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club is probably as good a golf course as we’ve ever had the opportunity to work on,” Fazio said.

Looking from the tee of the par three 3rd hole. Fazio's a master at the visual golf experience, and this hole is just one of his pallets.

That’s saying a lot, since Fazio’s widely considered one of contemporary golf’s most prolific and talented course designers, garnering numerous awards and titles in his four-plus decades in golf architecture.  Perhaps more importantly for this particular observation, he’s seen hundreds if not thousands of golf courses in his time.

And it’s not just the golf at Sea Island that’s inspired him, it’s the whole experience.

“It really starts there at The Lodge,” Fazio continued.  “That whole feeling, the environment – you drive in down that avenue of huge oak trees, and then check in at the Lodge.  From a golfer’s standpoint, what would you expect when you see all that, then drop your bag off at the bag drop, walk into the pro shop and experience that spectacular building?”

“And then you’re going to play a round of golf on a course named ‘Seaside?’  You’re expecting drama, uniqueness, excitement and something very special, or you’re going to be disappointed – because the visit starts off so well,” Fazio answered rhetorically.

On the green of the par five 15th hole. You've navigated all those hazards to get to this point -- trees, water and sand. Now make the putt.

It’s true, the expectations are raised a few notches when coming to Sea Island Golf Club.  It’s old, traditional, and incredibly luxurious – one can only speculate at the famous feet that may have strolled those grounds over the years (Bobby Jones anyone?), and what’s even better about Sea Island Resort is that it’s both time-honored and new (or should we say, modern) at the same time.

Sea Island’s history goes back hundreds of years, but for our purposes, the Seaside Golf Course story is thankfully a bit shorter than that.  Seaside’s back nine was the second nine built for the resort (it, and all of the resort’s courses are actually located on St. Simons Island) by legendary English architects Colt & Alison.  This particular nine holes was called ‘Seaside’ and followed a year after the club’s initial nine holes (called ‘Plantation’) was completed in 1928.

The club eventually expanded to thirty-six holes, including adding Seaside’s current front nine, originally called the Marshside Nine, designed by Joe Lee in 1973.  Fazio was then hired (in 1999) by Sea Island’s owners to transform what was considered two distinct nines into one complete ‘Seaside’ golf course.  By all accounts, including this reviewer, he’s accomplished it in spectacular fashion.

Sea Island Golf Club’s Director of Golf, Brannen Veal, said the thinking in the late 90’s was that something needed to be done to bring the two nines together in a cohesive manner:  “One of the reasons we decided to close those two nines and bring in Tom Fazio was a desire to make it look like one complete golf course, but also to try and restore those Seaside nine holes to the brilliance of the original Colt & Alison design on the back nine.”

The dogleg right, par four 5th hole gives you the option of cutting as much off as you dare. Of course, if you play it safe, you could end up in the bunker on the left side, too.

A similar combination was accomplished just a year prior, when Rees Jones finished work on Sea Island’s other two nines, Plantation and Retreat, which became the ‘whole’ golf course known as the Plantation Course.

Veal continues, “Though the finished Seaside work is basically a new golf course -- in every respect that we could, we took it back to what the original design looked like.  If you saw the photographs from the 1920’s, there weren’t many trees out there – then over seventy years, the foliage grew up, and it really didn’t have that ‘Seaside’ feel any longer.  I think Mr. Fazio did a phenomenal job of bringing back the Colt & Alison quality, then uniting the two nines into a whole golf course.”

What was there before Fazio was hardly a disaster, but there were two distinct golf nines that didn’t mesh.  He said it was low-profile, flat-ish land with some marshes bordering the edges and more wetlands occupying the interior.

“It was a rather plain site without a lot of flare, so we added several bodies of water and generated additional marshes and open-space water areas in order to create elevation changes.  By digging those lakes, we were able to excavate out a tremendous amount of sand – from which we built natural looking dunes that created a lot of excitement and drama along the edges of the golf holes,” Fazio explained.

Sand and wispy ocean grasses help fulfill Fazio's goal of making the Seaside Course feel like you're right by the ocean.

They were also able to raise up the tees and fairways, effectively minimizing the drainage issues that had cropped up over decades of prolonged use and surface drainage.

The end result was, gulp, a ‘links-style’ golf course.  That’s certainly an overused term when describing low-profile golf courses without a lot of trees, but in Seaside’s case, it’s the truth – although admittedly it’s more Yankee in form than Old Country.

“You wouldn’t call it ‘links-style’ like we’re used to seeing in Scotland and Ireland, because there, you generally don’t have any water hazards.  But it’s pretty much what I would call ‘American links-style’ where you’re right near the ocean but you also have sandy dunes and ridges and elevation fluctuations,” Fazio said.

There’s nothing wrong with a new world version of an old world classic style, after all.

Short's not a bad miss on the par four 9th hole. But even if you don't make par, you can still soak in the beauty of the golf course.

The Seaside Course is missing one aspect of modern American golf – real estate – but you probably won’t hear many complaints about that fact.  The course is bordered on one side by the Rees Jones renovated Plantation Course and the other by the sea, with nary a dwelling in the interior as well.  Brunswick, Georgia lies on the other side of the sound, and there was a huge car-carrying ship heading out to sea as we played the fourteenth hole – there’s no doubting the maritime ‘feel’ of the layout.

Because of its exposed location, Seaside plays much like a traditional links-style course as well:  “When we thought of the concept of the Seaside Course, we wanted the ‘name’ to remain a dominant characteristic of its personality.  Again, what do you expect when you hear ‘Seaside?’  You’d expect dunes and elevations, wind-swept areas, open-space and views of the water – but you’re also thinking wind.  And you’re thinking big greens with bold rolls and surrounding elevations and roll-offs,” Fazio added.

With all that, it’s almost like you’re at the beach, with a little grass thrown in – can’t you just see the picture?

Though the sandy environment looks very natural, the irony is that it isn’t.  Fazio said there weren’t really any natural sand dunes on the site, and much of the vegetation was brought in to create the impression of being amongst seaside sand structures.  He said they moved in cedars and oaks to accent the course, as well as planted wispy grasses and sea oats to give it a mature ‘ocean dunes’ look.

From the tee of the par four 13th hole -- the day we played was relatively calm, but you can only imagine what it's like with the wind blowing off the water.

All this, and you’re still playing a golf course.

Veal talks about it:  “Seaside’s a very fair golf course where you’re going to have a variety of opportunities to make your pars or bogeys, whatever your handicap is.  The short game challenges out there are just phenomenal – you can putt, chip, pitch – all kinds of different choices, and it’s left up to your imagination.  I think that’s really when a golf course works best, when the layout of the hole suggests a certain type of shot but doesn’t demand it.  And obviously the wind direction and severity makes the course play completely different from day to day.”

Another thing that marks the greatness of a golf design is its playability – here, Fazio scores another triumph.  The tee shots look a lot harder than they are, with the usual Fazio-provided wide landing areas and bail-out zones.  There’s a lot of water and marsh to look at, but there’s just as much green grass to play to – you won’t lose a lot of balls here if you’re concentrating on the right areas.  If you do occasionally stray to the sand dunes, we discovered that you can not only find your ball, but advance it as well.

If you’re successful driving on this course, you’ll leave yourself in good shape to score well, as long as you’ve brought along some creativity for the short shots.  You can stretch it out to over 7,000 yards if you like, but the white tees play at 6,062.  If the wind’s really howling, better take that into account.

Turning the corner on the par four 4th hole, you'd better hope this is as close as you'll get to the ample wetlands on this hole.

A final note before describing a few of the highlight holes – the Seaside Course is about as walker-friendly as you’re going to find at a resort, or anywhere.  And not only is walking available, it’s actually encouraged at Sea Island Golf Club.  A forecaddie is included with your greens fees on all the courses (required if you’re not playing with a member), and you can upgrade to a walking caddy if you wish.  Veal says it’s the best course in the world to walk, and he ought to know.

Highlights include the fourth hole, a 421-yard, dogleg left par four.  Because of the length of the tee shot you’ll need to reach the dogleg, you’ll have to hit driver off the tee – but then it’s a mid to short-iron into the green.  It’s a beautiful hole, with nothing but the marsh around it and the sound behind it.

The par four ninth (410-yards) is a great one to conclude the outward nine.  From the tee, there’s a lake down the right side which isn’t really in play unless you push it pretty badly.  On the approach, there’s a huge bunker to the left of a green that drops off on all sides.  Missing short isn’t a bad option here, as it’s wide-open in front.

On the back, we particularly enjoyed the 13th hole, a 409-yard, dogleg left par four that’s very similar in look to the original Colt & Alison inspired link.  Drive the ball over the marsh, and it’s one of those where you can cut off as much as you dare.  That leaves a second shot into a raised green guarded on the right by a bunker – and there’s nothing but the sound as a backdrop.

Plenty of bail room to the right off the tee of the par four 16th hole, but then you're setting yourself up for a very difficult second shot.

The fifteenth is a great par five, 545 yards in length.  If you can take it over the left-hand bunker off the tee, you might have a chance to go at the green in two.  The feature we remember most from this hole is an enormous dune bunker to the left of the green.  Now that’s a sand feature.  Good hole.

We’ll let Fazio conclude:  “When you think about it, ‘where do you go to play golf?’  Obviously there are the old classics like Pebble Beach, and the new ‘hot list’ places such as Bandon Dunes in Oregon.  Now, with the Lodge and the Seaside Golf Course, I tell people – if you’re looking for a second-to-none golf experience, you go to Sea Island.”

We think so too, Tom.

The Lodge at Sea Island

After rolling in your final putt on the 18th hole, you'll certainly be craving to go back and play the Seaside Course again.

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 above, 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.

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.

Here's a look at the Avenue of Oaks that you travel down to reach The Lodge and the Seaside Course. Fazio's right, you're expecting a lot, and you'll get it. Photo Courtesy of Sea Island Golf Club.

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.

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 of architect Tom Fazio.


The Seaside 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:  Colt & Alison, Joe Lee, Tom Fazio

Director of Golf:  Brannen Veal, PGA

Tees/Yardage/Slope/Rating (Par 70)

Championship 6945   141/73.1

Back               6557   137/72.3

Middle            6323   133/70.9

Member          5980   129/69.2

Forward          5048   120/68.8 


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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