The fifth hole of Jekyll Island's Great Dunes course is a par-five known as "Mae West." The reason probably has something to do with a pair of buxom mounds--separated by a narrow cleavage of lane--that block your view of the green on the approach. It's a peculiar design for a golf hole, but the occasional quirkiness of Walter Travis's 100-year-old design is part of its charm. It was a piece of a playground owned by a mega-wealthy Gilded Age clique who once regarded this now-obscure island as the Newport of the South.
As I waggled my driver in the tee-box, a flat, curvaceous black slab on the rim of a pond a few feet to the right suddenly moved. I squinted for a better look, then stepped back. "He's a cute little gator, isn't he?" said Dave, a fellow solo traveler who had joined me for the round. "They're used to the golfers," he explained, "so they don't bother anyone."
Dave was from New England, but this was his second swing through the area, so to speak, and he'd played the course enough times to consider himself an expert on its wildlife.
I hit my drive short of a fairway bunker and found myself facing a massive live oak draped with Spanish moss, a thick, tangled weedlike overhang that's neither Spanish nor moss but that dangles from almost every old branch on the island. I creamed my second shot, hoping to find a way through the tree--a good example of bad course management--and the ball went screaming into the great tree's canopy. Leaves and pieces of what may have been a bird's nest dropped to the ground, but my Topflight 2 never did. Dave and I stood looking up at the branches with our hands on our hips.
"Maybe we shouldn't stand here," he counseled. "It could come down in one of our eyes."
Abandoning a ball went against Dave's principles. Two holes earlier, he'd climbed through a thicket, disappearing long enough for me to figure a larger gator had made a meal of him, and emerged minutes later looking positively elated. "I found five balls!" he said, his dark eyes lit up by the success of his treasure hunt. Then, perhaps in response to the look on my face, he confessed with an ambiguous smile that he was "parsimonious." That he wore jeans and sneakers made me think he wasn't just being self-deprecating.
Parsimony is a rare quality in a golfer, a sport generally associated with spendthrifts and high living, but Dave had found his place in the sun. Jekyll Island, a spit of land measuring eight miles long by one mile wide, is one of Georgia's Golden Isles, a strip of barrier islands along the coast. With 63 holes, including three quality 18-hole courses within a pitching wedge of one another, and daily fees including all the golf you can eat for under $30, it has to rate as one of the best golf values in the country.
Such affordability must have the island's founders turning in their marble and granite mausoleums. In 1886, the "Millionaires Club," a group that included Joseph Pulitzer, William Vanderbilt Jr. and J.P. Morgan, bought the former cotton plantation for $125,000 and set about turning it into a winter retreat. They built a stately clubhouse and a six-unit apartment that was probably the world's first condominium. Fifteen lavish homes went up that the builders referred to, in that annoying upper-crust way, as "cottages."
No matter. It was extremely exclusive. At any given time, people controlling one-sixth of the world's wealth could be found playing whist in a clubhouse parlor. Some serious work went on there, too. The Aldrich Plan, an effort to coordinate U.S. banks that eventually served as the blueprint for what became the Federal Reserve, was born here, and Jekyll was the site of the first transcontinental telephone call--two hours long, and this was, let's recall, long before seven cents a minute. When the golf course was carved out of the rolling dunes by the sea, it provided an early example of that funny new sport imported from the British Isles in the 1890s.
Eventually, though, the glamour of the French Riviera and Palm Beach beckoned, and by World War II, Jekyll's luster faded. The profligate millionaires, many of whom had by now squandered their fortunes, abandoned their Italian- and Spanish-style villas and shingled Victorians and a church housing a signed Tiffany stained-glass window. In 1947, the state of Georgia condemned the island, and although it declared it a state park in 1950 and built a causeway in 1954, everything went to seed until the early 1960s, when restoration began to exploit the area's tourism potential. Golf courses were added in 1964, 1968 and 1975, and in 1978 the historic district containing the cottages, the clubhouse and a few other original buildings was designated a national landmark. The state decreed that only 35 percent of the island could be developed. That's kept the island decidedly noncommercial and quiet, though the pace of the restoration has accelerated in recent years.
Besides historic tours, which you can do by horse-drawn carriage or tram, or within the old clubhouse, which is now the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, there's a bike path, tennis courts, a miniature golf course and a long beach. The visitors center has an engaging little history museum; one cottage houses an art museum, and other exhibits on sculpture and a history of golf. It's all quite laid-back, and the golf is varied and ample enough that you should be content playing at least until the skin has peeled off your fingers.
Jekyll Island's three full-length courses--Oleander, Pine Lakes and Indian Mound--are pretty distinct from one another despite sharing roughly the same flat topography that's naturally landscaped with stolid live oaks, pines, yucca, palmettos, pampas, oleanders and wild grapevines. Wildlife is abundant, with wild turkeys, turtles, birds and, of course, the gators. During one late afternoon round at Indian Mound, I found myself hitting over a herd of deer.
At Oleander, the most challenging course, architect Dick Wilson mixed tight and wide fairways and varied lengths, with two longish par-threes (more than 200 yards from the blue tees); three relatively short par-fours (353 yards or shorter); and par-fives ranging from a modest 479 yards to a robust 561 on the fourth, which is rated as the hardest hole. My favorite was the par-four No. 12, a wide fairway with a big pond reflecting the afternoon sun about 250 yards from the tee. On Pine Lakes, Wilson, along with Joe Lee, routed consistently tighter fairways through thick forests of pine trees. Indian Mound, Lee's solo project, is the easiest course, with generous fairways but enough bunkers that it's not without challenge. The greens on all three are only moderately undulating, which not only saves strokes but keeps the course moving when there are crowds.
On my first night, I'd stayed at the Holiday Inn, but I found it somewhat dreary. Businesspeople attending meetings walked around with their names and corporations pinned to their lapels, and I felt as if they were looking at me toting my clubs like I was some kind of slacker. Either that or they were envious. So the next night I packed myself off to the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Because I was alone and the hotel charges per person, compared with the chains that charge per room, it worked out to about the same price. Given the elegance of the hotel, the change was a no-brainer.
The hotel didn't have an available room the next night, so I continued my vagabond journey and left Jekyll for St. Simons Island, 15 minutes north.
"It's different from Jekyll," parsimonious Dave had warned.
St. Simons is about the size of Manhattan, and the southern end has what locals call "the Village," a row of boutique shops and casual eateries leading to a pier with fetching sea views. After Jekyll, St. Simons felt almost too modern and overly developed with executive subdivisions. Most of the island is residential, with lovely dense forests, and a few clearings created to make space for fashionable strip malls. In contrast to the budget chains on Jekyll, St. Simons has a selection of four- and five-star lodgings. All of the island's four courses are club courses, though three allow nonmembers.
The King & Prince, which is registered as a historic hotel though it looked pretty modern to me, had a special going, and because of its affiliation with the semi-private Hampton Club, I could get a reduced greens fee of $65.
That's expensive only in comparison with Jekyll, but not with similar courses and up-market destinations elsewhere. And even if it were, playing the Hampton Club, one could hardly complain. Set on the island's northernmost tip, the 6,465-yard Joe Lee design is a visual splendor, with awe-inspiring vistas of pristine marshlands and voluptuous landscaping throughout the course. It's also something of a mind trip, especially from the ninth hole onward, as the course departs from its route through a handsome, heavily wooded subdivision into the vast marshes of the island's interior. Hole 12 is on a miniature causeway, and from tee to green is a 112-yard pitch shot; surrounded by the wetlands and guarded by a pond and a bunker, the short hit is unforgiving; except for a tiny landing area that ought not to be your target anyway, anything that doesn't hit the green is irretrievably out of bounds. Holes 13 through 15 are on an island within the expanse of the marsh itself, with shots that provide the golfing equivalent to tightrope walking. Strong breezes coming off the wetlands can misdirect otherwise decent strokes and cause second-guessing on subsequent shots.
By reputation, St. Simons' other public-access courses, the St. Simons Island Club and three nine-hole courses at Sea Palms Golf & Tennis Resort, are modern and sophisticated. I didn't play them, though. Not only was I short of time but I had grown fond of Jekyll's more laid-back milieu and relished the chance to play on the cheap. The disadvantage of low fees is crowds, but I found that if I played before 10 or after 2, I rarely got held up.
Playing alone has its good points. As long as you don't get caught behind a two- or more-some that won't let you play through, you can play a round in less than two hours. It's not a social experience but it is a contemplative one, and it is permissible to talk aloud and offer yourself extravagant compliments you'd never get from golf partners.
A couple of times I paired up. There was Parsimonious Dave, of course, and then there was Generous John, who had a full set of clubs but played entire holes with just a five-wood. He'd choke down to shorten shots. "When you think about it," he said, "you really only need one club."
He kept calling me "Joe," which I took to be a generic nickname, as in "an average Joe." I called him Don, because that's what I thought his name was. Toward the end of the round, he corrected me.
"Actually," I told him, "my name's not Joe, either." He looked surprised and asked if I was sure. When we finished, he told me he was "all golfed out," which I took to mean just for the day, not retirement from the sport. Then he opened up his golf bag and offered me all the balls inside.
I'm sure he'll play again. In the meantime, the philanthropic gesture would have been worthy of a millionaire.
For nonstop flights, United, US Airways and Southwest offer service from the Washington area to Jacksonville, Fla., about an hour from Georgia's Golden Isles. Round-trip fares start at about $160, with restrictions. For more information on the region, phone the Brunswick and the Golden Isles Visitors Bureau, 1-800-933-COAST (2627), or visit the Web site at www.bgivb.com. For Jekyll Island golf, phone 1-800-841-6586 or 912-635-2368. On St. Simons Island, the Hampton Club is at 912-634-0255; Sea Palms Golf & Tennis Resort, 912-638-3351; and the St.Simons Island Club, 912-638-5130.
Todd Pitock, who lives in Philadelphia, is a regular contributor to the Travel section.