washingtonpost.com
Georgia Golf: Marsh Madness
Tough Tees on St. Simons Island

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004

I so love the marsh.

Hey! Let's play golf in the marsh!

Now, I hate that swamp.

Ah, a haiku of hate. That's golf for you. Some people swear and break their clubs. I seethe in 5-7-5 triplets. It's a dangerous thing to play this game in a beloved setting. Lots of duffers know how even a beautiful spring course -- ablaze with azaleas, awash in dappled sun -- takes on a malevolent air after you slice a few drives into that netherworld where bad balls go forever. After three-putting for a double-bogey, you don't want to stop and smell the roses so much as beat them to a juicy pulp with your good-for-nothing $275 Scotty %&8#@!# Cameron Futura putter. Or at least compose a fuming little verse about them:

Pretty, pretty bloom.

How nice you look by the green.

Distract me, you're mulch.

That's how it was for me at the Hampton Club, a comely Spanish moss-trimmed course on St. Simons Island, Ga. For the most part, Hampton wraps around a handsome resort neighborhood at the tip of the barrier island, bordered on several sides by my all-time favorite terrain, a southern salt marsh. I spent much of my boyhood puttering around these fertile, pungent estuaries that line the Georgia coast from Savannah to Cumberland Island. It's what attracted me to Hampton in the first place -- a chance to knock the ball around in air scented with that heady brume of crab muck and oyster breath.

But a few of Hampton's holes presume to jut out into the marsh itself. Four fairways hopscotch out to a small hammock by way of cute little wooden cartpaths over the spartina grass. It was here that I learned that the sucking power marsh mud has on your flip-flops is actually a force that extends well into the airspace above. I watched three (three!) perfectly sound drives off the 12th tee get suddenly vacuumed from the sky into a mushy no-return. As a trap, a marsh might as well be the deep Atlantic; nothing that drops in is ever coming out.

I never felt the same about the marsh again. Who knew, during all those kayak and boat trips, that these wetlands secretly hated me and were waiting for a chance to ruin my round. Without those kersplatting drives, I would have had a decent shot at breaking 5o on the back nine -- about as close as I ever get to a tour-qualifying mark.

Oh that vicious veld.

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).

Much of the course is lined with the moderate but handsome houses of the Hampton Club development, but most of the fairways are wide enough to keep the window-repair bills to a minimum. I was a bit embarrassed, when trying to thread my drive between two lakes on the 16th, to drop my ball in front of a porch full of people. They were all too happy to watch me shovel a hole in their yard with my 7-iron. Then, from the 17th tee, I dropped one in the back yard of the same house. They must have thought they were in a hail storm.

I played the back nine first, to avoid a backlog of foursomes during the prime morning tee times. That put me in exile out on that dreaded marsh island a little sooner than I was probably ready for, but it did give me some wonderful hours with the egrets and other wildlife that's active before the Georgia heat settles in. The long pond protecting the 14th green was just full of turtles -- and Titleists. And much later -- about 94 strokes later, in fact -- I finished up a fine day, coming in as a fellow whip-cast a fishing line into Butler Lake, the sprawling water that protects three separate greens. A sign posted on the bank read "Fishing for Members Only."

By then I had forgotten some of the abuse I had suffered from the voracious, ball-sucking marsh fairways and was able to appreciate the tableau of a man happily fishing in a setting that was once so beautiful to me: the shade of sprawling oaks, the perfume of decayed shrimp and sunburned grass, the promise of a planter's punch in the clubhouse. And most especially, the wide green estuary spread out so innocently on all sides.

Sigh.

I can't hate you, marsh.

But here's what will keep us friends:

More loft off the tee.

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.

Details: St. Simons Island, Ga.

GETTING THERE: St. Simons Island, Ga., is roughly equidistant from the airports of Savannah, Ga., (to the north) and Jacksonville, Fla., to the south -- about an hour's drive from either. That gives you two destinations for your airfare search. US Airways currently has a round-trip fare of $223 from BWI to Savannah (via Charlotte) and Delta has BWI to Jacksonville for $135 round trip (through Cincinnati). Delta also flies nonstop from National to JAX for $184.

GOLFING THERE: The 6,000-yard

Hampton Club course wraps appealingly around the live oaks and salt marshes at the northern end of St. Simons. The signature feature is a set of four holes on a marsh island, connected by an 800-foot elevated wooden cart causeway. A round during the summer costs $79, including cart. Greens fees drop after Sept. 1, but the fall rates haven't been set yet Info: 912-634-0255,

www.hamptonclub.com

.

There is a range of courses in the area, including those on adjacent Sea and Jekyll islands. On St. Simons, there are the three modest but beautiful nine-hole courses at the

Sea Palms complex (800-841-6268,

www.seapalms.com

), and the stunning and pricey ($230 a round)

Seaside course, a branch of the

Sea Island resort (see below) .

WHERE TO STAY: The sweet and modestly sized

King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort (800-342-0212,

www.kingandprince.com

) is a longtime fixture on St. Simons. And after a recent major renovation, it ranks as one of the most attractive small resorts on the Georgia coast. High-season summer rates begin at $190 a night and go to $269 for oceanfront cabana rooms. After Aug. 8, prices drop to $175 to $245. Two- and three-bedroom villas are available from $349 in the summer. The King and Prince owns the Hampton Club and offers summer golf packages for two -- including room, a southern buffet breakfast and a round of golf with cart -- starting at $320 a night, or $280 after Aug. 8.

For tighter budgets, the

Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort (800-841-6268,

www.seapalms.com

), a few miles up the island, offers rooms, suites and villas starting at $159 in the summer and fall. Closer to the lighthouse and beach district -- but with no golf course -- is the

Village Inn and Suites (500 Mallory St., 888-635-6111), a converted and expanded cottage nestled in the live oaks. Rooms start at $150, or $130 after Labor Day.

WHERE TO EAT: Georgia's coastal cuisine is all about seafood and barbecue, oysters and grits, fried chicken and collards. St. Simons is crowded with restaurants, but two reliable outlets for this heavenly board are the

Blue Water Bistro (115 Mallory St.), a fun, pubby restaurant housed in an old bank near the public pier, and the

Blackwater Grill (260 Redfern Village), which gathers low-country influences from the Georgia coast to the Louisiana Bayou.

INFO:

Brunswick and the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-809-1790,

www.bgicvb.com.

-- Steve Hendrix

© 2004 The Washington Post Company