Georgia Golf: Marsh Madness
How cruel its muddy --
Ah, forget it. Besides, other than the traitorous marsh holes, I loved the place. At 6,000 yards from the white tees, the course overall is on the short side; only one hole tops 500 yards -- a tight 545-yard crescent fairway at the third. And the torment-o-meter swings agreeably between teasing and torture. Much of it is treeless, but Lord, is there water, water everywhere. There's only one dry hole in all of the back nine, and on the 14th, a wicked combination of a fast, sloping green and a needlessly pushy trap means you could easily overputt yourself right into the pond. (That didn't happen to me. It didn't!) Still, disastrous rolls -- or even felicitous ones -- are rare enough on this level edge of a flat island. And course designer Joe Lee thoughtfully follows his tough, testosterone-spiking shot-makers' specials (the hazard-flanked 16th green, for example, couldn't be any more protected if it were surrounded by Secret Service agents) with some "there, there" comfort holes (the 400-yard par-4 dogleg on the 17th).
And if the carrot-and-stick rhythm doesn't keep you playing, the setting certainly should. I've always thought the Pearly Gates must open directly onto a Georgia barrier island. The food pyramid here starts with barbecue, grits and shrimp at the base and ends with oysters and Bloody Marys at the tip. And everywhere you look on these islands is a scene waiting for its Ansel Adams close-up: massive live oaks poised on grassy bluffs, their lanky widespread arms swagged in tattered moss that dances in the sea breeze; vast plains of marsh, shot through with tidal creeks and rivers; wide dirty beaches marked by plover feet and turtle tracks.
The Hampton Club built its course in 1989 on old cotton plantation grounds next to the Hampton River on the northern tip of St. Simons. It's the least developed end of one of the most developed islands in the Georgia archipelago. Most of the rest are locked up in conservation trusts or some kind of public protection, and even here the state Department of Natural Resources takes a heavy hand in how things get done in and around the marsh.
"You can't dig up a plant without the permission of the DNR," says Rick Mattox, Hampton's general manager. "But you do want to protect the integrity of the view; that's why we're here."
Although even up here, many a tree wears an ominous orange contractor's ribbon and ready-to-wire utility boxes are planted everywhere, all indicators that the pell-mell building of the southern end is coming soon. But even a house-filled barrier island is irresistible, especially if you want to add some golf to the seafood and sweet tea routine of a low-country spring getaway.
My wife, Ann, and I based our St. Simons weekend out of the good old King and Prince hotel, a Spanish colonial-style beachside resort at the south end. The King and Prince is a Georgia institution, and when I was growing up a few hours' inland, almost everyone I knew had spent some vacation time beneath its red-tiled Mediterranean roof. It saw some tired years but now, after a hefty and comprehensive multimillion-dollar renovation, has emerged as one of the most pleasant, personable hotels on this coast. There's a just-right scale to the place that combines the intimacy of a beach motel with the amenities and sophistication of a mega-resort. The rooms are large (they went from 70 down to 57 in the main building) with up-to-date luxe bathrooms and West Indies-style furnishings that any Junior Leaguer would be proud to see in her sunroom. We bagged a ground-floor room that walked out onto the beach and were close enough to hear the blender whir at the poolside bar.
We arrived too late for golf on the first day and spent the time instead exploring the beach and the island. It's a small place, only 15 miles from end to end. It's tucked behind the very-much posher Sea Island (home of the famous Cloister resort and $200-per-round golf and host of next month's G-8 Summit) and the all-but undeveloped Little St. Simons (still privately owned and run, island-wide, as one of the finest ecologically oriented inns in the country).
Much of the St. Simons community is concentrated on the south end, where marshes give way to the open Atlantic and an active beach scene. The town center is an oceanside strip of local pubs and cafes and galleries near the public pier. We watched a few halfhearted crabbers pull up their baskets -- they seemed more interested in the sunset than tending their chicken necks -- before walking over to dinner. The Blue Water Bistro, in an old bank, is jammed with memorabilia and a medley of seafood, fancified chicken dishes and southern desserts that violate both low-carb and low-fat diets. (It's not to be confused with the Black Water Grill, where we had our second dinner, a livelier blend of low-country and Cajun in a good-time Mardi Gras setting.)
The next morning Ann planted herself on the sand and I set out for the Hampton Club, which is owned by the King and Prince, and my first morning round. With the top down on the convertible we'd rented in Jacksonville, Fla., the drive up the middle of the island was delightful, with the breeze off the marsh and the sun filtering through the canopy of oaks. Later, between rounds, we would come here to visit Fort Frederica National Monument, site of a colonial British settlement and garrison. St. Simons was essentially the high-water mark of the Spanish Empire's push north from Florida; James Oglethorpe's Frederica soldiers drove them back down after the Battle of Bloody Marsh. That's what they should call those four wetland holes at Hampton.
There is major golf on the south end, a dramatic, oak-lined, round-of-a-lifetime course that is a St. Simons branch of the tony Sea Island resort (the Seaside course, $230 a round). On the north end, away from the ocean and the careful grooming, is a wilder setting. It's almost links-like in places, when the views open up to the wide, flat marsh. It's also much cheaper, with a $79 greens fee that includes the cart ($59 for King and Prince guests).
© 2004 The Washington Post Company