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We Spy... Sea Island

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in Winter 2012 LINKS

WHEN THE PGA TOUR’s McGladrey Classic aired last fall, it made Sea Island look like a golf Shangri-La. But would the Georgia resort stand up to LINKS’ white-glove test? I booked the “Platinum Medal Golf” package to find out. Starting at a steep $625 a night with a two-night minimum, the “deal” included golf and lunch each day. I was also able to arrange my tee times.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t a room available in either The Cloister’s main building or The Lodge right at the courses because a couple of large groups had taken over the boutique hotels, which have just 102 and 40 rooms, respectively. I had to slum it at the Beach Club, a new Mediterranean-style facility right on the ocean. Although my room couldn’t have been more spacious, comfortable, or tastefully decorated with its exposed beam ceiling, oriental rugs, and wood floors, I would have much preferred an ocean view over one of the parking lot.

The Beach Club is located within walking distance of the main building, which opened six years ago and has the feel of a grand Spanish estate full of stone, wrought iron, and arches inspired by the original 1928 Cloister. Although it contains the state’s only Forbes five-star restaurant, the opulent Georgian Room (bring a jacket), I opted for something more casual for dinner after my arrival and ate at the River Bar, where I had a perfectly prepared catch of the day.

The courses and renowned Learning Center are a few miles from The Cloister, which is why if you come primarily to play golf you’ll want to stay at The Lodge. The English hunting lodge-like hotel is pitch perfect, from the richly appointed lobby and restaurants (be sure to try a dry-aged steak at Colt & Alison or the Oak Room, which is where I happily dined the second night) to the plush rooms that come with a butler who will iron your clothes or bring you a nightcap. With its dark-wood lockers, exposed beams, and leather chairs, the clubby men’s locker room, which has a bar and lunch service, is one of the nicest anywhere.

My first round was an early one on the Tom Fazio-designed Seaside. I was first off as a single with a caddie, but don’t count on that. I got lucky since one large group had an afternoon shotgun and the other was playing the Plantation Course. Often times I find caddies distracting at worst and unhelpful at best, but the one I had couldn’t have been better. He knew exactly when to speak up to help with course management and when to shut up to allow me to enjoy the stroll on what is undoubtedly one of the best walks in the Southeast, a beguiling mix of dunes, marsh, and manicured turf set on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Rees Jones’ Plantation Course isn’t as good as Seaside, but it’s a worthy undercard, especially the back nine, which starts with a tee right on the inlet while many greens are hard by lakes for some picturesque—and challenging—approaches. Locals Davis Love III and his brother Mark also contributed to the golf offerings with the Retreat Course, redesigning a 1972 Joe Lee layout they grew up on. They couldn’t do anything about the real estate routing, but they greatly improved the playability and drainage.

The best part of the trip was my lesson at the Learning Center, where instructors like Todd Anderson work with about 20 PGA Tour pros. He runs about $300 an hour so I opted for one of the less well-known instructors who cost half as much. The fresh-faced young teacher, Jared Zak, watched me hit a few balls and videotaped me. We then ducked into a little hut beside the range, which is scenically set right on the water, so he could critique my swing on a big flat-screen TV. Zak thoroughly and clearly analyzed my positions and angles with special teaching software that did wonders for understanding my swing and correcting its flaws. Best of all, the video and all his comments were recorded and placed on the Learning Center’s website to view again and again.

Unlike my swing, when it comes to critiquing Sea Island, it’s hard to find much wrong with it, but there was one thing: The resort gives each guest personalized stationery with the name of the hotel and “In Residence” on it. Alas, they misspelled my name, using an “o” instead of a “u.”

Oh, the indignity of it all. 

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