Sea Island Resort's Retreat Course - Local Boys' Dream Design Becomes Reality

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

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA – How many times have you played your favorite golf course and thought, ‘If only I could have a shot at re-doing this course, I’d… make the driving areas bigger, eliminate the forced carries, design greens like Donald Ross, put in a short, risk-reward par four….,’ etc?

Then it’d be the course of your dreams, and we’re not just talking about creating your own fantasy golf course from scratch, like you can with some of this fancy computer game software these days.

At 149 yards, the par three 16th hole is the shortest on the course -- but it certainly doesn't lack in aesthetic quality.

That was the situation for brothers Mark and Davis Love (III) on Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat Course.  It’s fairly well known that the Love boys grew up around Sea Island Resort, tutored in golf by their father Davis Love Jr. – who started the Learning Center at Sea Island, which continues to function as one of the premier teaching programs in the country (for pros and hacks all the same).

Mark and Davis spent many afternoons playing at the Retreat, formerly known as the St. Simons Island Club, a Joe Lee design that opened in 1972 – and Davis even held a job there as a cart attendant in high school … better hope the patrons tipped him well.  Cart attendant-to-major-winner and PGA Tour star – at least you know it can happen.

Mark Love says he and his brother played the old ‘Island Club’ hundreds of times, and over the years, it became more and more difficult to play – not because of design flaws in the layout, but because of the march of time:  “Davis and I have always had great respect for Joe Lee and the work he’s done, but when they built the Island Club, they basically piled all the dirt they dug out of the lagoons on top of the exposed land.”

Love continues, “Which created a golf course where everything was crowned – the tees, the greens and the fairways – all were raised up above ground level.  That alone created a drainage problem, because the surface drained water would flow down from the high spots and just kind of pool in places.  If you hit your ball in those wet areas, it was like hitting in a hazard.”

Looking from the tee of the short par four 6th hole. The Love brothers like a driveable par four on all their designs, and this one's one of the better examples you'll find anywhere.

A few years ago, the Sea Island ownership realized it was time to do something about the situation.  The Resort had already re-done its other two golf courses – the Plantation Course was completed by Rees Jones in 1998, and then Tom Fazio built his own masterpiece out amongst the dunes, the Seaside Course, in 1999.

As to whom should rework the Island Club… why not call on the local firm of Love Golf Design to fix up a course they’d known like the backs of their hands?  After all, they’re around, they’d earned a pretty solid design reputation, and the Love legacy at Sea Island was long and deep.  So it all made sense.

Davis, Mark and their team looked forward to the opportunity.  “The first thing we wanted to do,” Mark Love said, “was try and create more width on the golf course.”

On the face of things, it seemed like a daunting task -- because it didn’t appear like there was much room to grow.  Unlike the Plantation and Seaside courses, the Island Club wound amongst and through an established housing development.  You can’t move the houses, and peoples’ backyards weren’t all that flexible as well… or were they?

Mark Love said they added yardage to the par three 12th, and it's now a much more challenging hole. A little difficulty never hurt anyone, right?

“It turns out, when Joe Lee built the golf course in the early seventies, he didn’t use every inch of property that was available – there were some nice set-backs from the houses for the golf holes.  Well, over the years, the homeowners had sort of bitten off more and more, and kind of claimed the land for their backyards.  All of a sudden, you had these very narrow corridors with both the trees and the lot lines, all set up with out-of-bounds stakes,” Love explained.

And because the fairways and greens were crowned, which tended to move the golf balls down the slopes, it just intensified an already claustrophobic feeling.

So the solution was to ‘reclaim’ the real estate for the golf course, lower the golf surfaces and install a sub-surface drainage system.  Presto, the width emerged, right from amongst the trees.  Love said they also cleared about forty acres that had become overgrown – which, if you think about it, is a pretty substantial amount for an established golf course in a residential environment.

The result was a completely different golf course that’s gotten rave reviews from club members as well as resort guests.  Love said throughout the process they listened closely to the member feedback on the first two course re-dos, and now the Retreat Course is the local players’ favorite.  It doesn’t have the incredible long-range water views of the other layouts, but it’s certainly got more of the ‘private club’ feel to it.  The Retreat Course is more playable from day to day, which is always a good thing.

Lowering the playing surfaces made the Retreat Course feel a lot wider. The par four ninth is a good example -- it's not that wide, but it doesn't feel cramped.

Brannen Veal, Sea Island’s Director of Golf, agrees the Retreat is the members’ favorite, but what’s best about the course is its wide appeal to all types of players:  “The changes that Davis and Mark designed into the Retreat Course made an incredible difference – and certainly our members and resort guests love its playability.  But what’s probably the best part of the ‘new’ Retreat Course is its challenge to better players.  If you move to the back tees (which can stretch to about 7,200 yards), the course really makes you focus on shots to hit – the proper side of the fairway to shoot for in order to try and make birdies on the greens.”

The Love brothers built into the Retreat Course the biggest greens at Sea Island Golf Club, but they’re also the most undulated.  That means you can hit them from the fairway, but in order to avoid three-putts, you’ll have to be accurate.  Veal said they’ve taken out all the forced carries from the shorter sets of tees, and designed the greens so you can run the ball up on virtually every hole – the definition of playability.

“If not the best, it’s one of the best re-dos that I’ve ever seen in a golf course,” Veal observed.  “A lot of times you might see some work done on the bunkering, or working hazards in or out here and there.  The Love team came in here and not only made it wider, they changed the way the golf course plays, for low-handicappers and occasional players.  That’s about as good as you can do for an existing golf course.”

That’s part of the philosophy for Davis Love III on his signature golf courses.  Mercifully, he doesn’t expect you to be able to drive it like he does, or putt it like he does, or really, do anything like a pro could accomplish.  He just wants you to enjoy the game he loves.

From behind the monster par four 14th hole's green -- the mature trees hide the houses very well, and the houses don't intrude much on the solitude.

“Our thinking has never been to design US Open type tests every time,” Mark Love said.  “We always remember that the vast majority of people playing our golf courses are going to enjoy being able to get from tee to green without a lot of overly contrived difficulty.  We want them to be able to get to the greens, have a chance at par or bogey, and move on.”

“At the same time, we want to force better players to plan their way around the golf course, and look at each hole backwards from green to tee – to choose how they’re going to attack the hole based on the pin position.  That’s a major factor on how we design our greens, with pin positions that’ll make a good player hit a precise approach shot to leave a scoring chance,” Love added.

Love said to design the Retreat’s greens, they did their homework – including examining photos of Pine Needles in North Carolina (Pinehurst) to discover Donald Ross’s secrets, and plan accordingly.  Davis and Mark have both seen great courses from around the world, but even those a few hundred miles away can provide the right inspiration.  They chose Pine Needles over Ross’s masterpiece, Pinehurst #2, because it’s a bit softer in terms of slopes around the putting surfaces.  Good choice.

The practical problems were solved as well.  We didn’t notice it on our visit, but Mark Love pointed out that the range, which runs parallel to the first hole, slowly rises up above the golf course.  Why?

The par five 8th hole is a nice, comfortable par five. Lots of room off the tee and choices on your second shot -- good design, good golf hole.

“We needed someplace to dump the dirt,” Love said.  “When we got done taking out all the elevation in the fairways, there was a lot of earth left over – so we just kept saying, ‘Well, haul it to the driving range.’  By the time we were done, it’s ten, twelve, fifteen feet above the ground level at the end of range.”

One other by-product of having the local Love brothers work on the course was personal attention.  Mark said that all their projects get plenty of visits from him and their design team, but Davis’s travel schedule won’t allow for as many trips from the top billing on the ticket.  The company purposely limits the number of projects they’ll work on at any one time, in order to make sure all their courses receive the ‘Love touch.’  But admittedly, the Retreat Course was different.

“Because he lived so close, Davis was able to stop by a bit more than he would on a typical project.  A good example of his input was Retreat’s sixth green, which he wanted to design in a Biarritz-style, with a big dip in the middle.  He was driving by one day and noticed the construction crew out there, and he kept telling them to make it bigger.  ‘No, bigger.  No, BIGGER.’  So that green turned out the way it did because Davis was in town, and was just driving by,” Mark explained.

In addition to the obvious playability changes, the Love team sought to make the layout more interesting as well.  Love said he’s particularly proud of a stretch of holes on the back nine (twelve through fifteen) where there previously was a short par three followed by three par fours of roughly the same length.

One of the more challenging tee shots on the course, don't go right off the tee of the par five 17th hole, or you're reaching for another ball.

“We worked hard to build a lot more variety into the Retreat course, where you’re not just hitting the same clubs off the tee and into the greens.  So we worked with the lengths of the holes so you’d be hitting a long-iron on one, a short-iron on another, and a medium-iron on the third.  We thought that was one of the biggest improvements we could’ve made,” Love added.

Other than the sixth hole mentioned above, another hole we particularly enjoyed (amongst many) was the fourteenth hole.  The back nine’s toughest hole (by handicap), it’s a 463-yard monster with an interesting second shot.  “You can’t see the green from your approach shot,” Veal described.  “It kind of rises up, then drops back down – but you can see the flag.  But what really makes it a great hole, you can run it up to the top of the hill, then kind of let it fall down towards the green.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful golf hole.”

That’s the type of impression you’ll get from playing The Retreat – one great golf hole after the next.  Never having seen it before the work was done, it’s hard to speak of the difference, but of the courses at Sea Island, it’s probably the least taxing, from a playability and atmosphere standpoint.

Thanks to the local boys, it’ll remain that way for a long time to come.

This photo captures only a small portion of the 6th hole's massive green. Designed in the Biarritz style, there're two plateaus separated by a large dip.

The Lodge at Sea Island

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.

Glancing at the 18th green, you can see a lot of Donald Ross in the design of this green complex.

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.

Just a short drive down the road from The Retreat Course, The Lodge at 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 Sea Island Golf Club’s other golf courses, as well as a profile of Mark Love.


The Retreat Course at Sea Island Golf Club

100 Kings Way

St. Simons Island, GA 31522 

Phone:  (912) 634-4460; Reservations:  1-800-SEA-ISLAND, (912) 638-3611 


Course Designers:  Joe Lee, Mark Love & Davis Love III

Director of Golf:  Brannen Veal, PGA

Sea Island Resort’s Owner:  Bill Jones III 

Tees/Yardage/Slope/Rating (Par 72)Championship          7106   135/73.9

Back                       6715   131/72.2

Middle                     6318   124/70.0

Member                   6062   121/68.9

Forward                   5142   119/70.0 


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.

Related Links   Comments on this article?
Maryland National Golf Club
Hollow Creek Golf Club
Rocky Gap Resort
PB Dye Golf Club in Ijamsville
Whiskey Creek Golf Club
E-mail Jeff Rendall, Editor: