Appeared in April 1995 LINKS
On the northern end of one of the game’s most prestigious addresses—Sea Island—sits Ocean Forest Golf Club, where golfers also wend their way along freshwater wetlands, saltwater tidal marshes, a river basin and, yes, the Atlantic Ocean. The pacing of the layout, the teasing quality which offers glimpses of coastal ground and then routes back inland, only to return to the sea for the conclusion, makes for great anticipation of each hole.
With only 18 feet of elevation change on the site, this is not a course that overwhelms golfers with threatening feature work—the kind only to be found on a steeply graded site. On the contrary, Ocean Forest is made of subtler stuff. Rees Jones has always favored fairway bunkers that enable one to advance the ball. While his greenside bunkers run a little deeper, they still offer essentially shallow, low-lying surfaces that will hold the sand in the wind.
The lay of the land here is lateral, on a horizon line rather than vertical. Ramps, hollows and greenside chipping areas require all manner of an inventive short game. Nor are there artificial mounds behind greens—what some architects foolishly parade as a test of “depth perception.” A golf course is no occasion for an eye exam. Instead of blocking out panoramas, Jones has allowed the native terrain to offer deep views behind the green sites. And what views they are—of magnolia trees, stands of live oaks, lovely Intracoastal marsh grasses and clam boats puttering off to work the mud flats.
Each nine heads out to the river, then loops back at the midway point. The front side runs counterclockwise while the back nine flows the other way. Don’t be disarmed by the opening hole, a mere 330-yard par 4. Though the fairway is pinched by a lake, bold players may opt for a driver. And the approach is no simple matter, since the green is perched on a lake and is well-bunkered behind.
From here the golf course quickly intensifies its demands, yet at crucial moments seemingly relaxes its hold. After a pair of long, demanding holes, the 190-yard 5th looks likes a breather, especially because it’s designed to hold a run-up shot into the prevailing wind. But vary the line by a few degrees and a very tough bunker shot remains. Worse yet, hit the approach a tad long and the ball will kick down behind the tilted putting surface into marsh grass or the Hampton River.
At the next tee, golfers confront a par 5 of 612 yards. Perhaps only Davis Love III, a member at Ocean Forest, will consider reaching this hole in two. Thank goodness it generally plays downwind. A towering pine 290 yards down the fairway provides a target off the tee. A sprawling bunker snakes its way alongside the fairway well short of the green. What with dunes, woods and wetlands interceding everywhere, a golfer would never know that this hole plays on a dead straight line.
As if any doubts could remain, the 13th hole provides final confirmation to a golfer that Ocean Forest is indeed something special. Here is a lay-up par 4 on the edge of the Hampton River, only 362 yards. The view of the lowlands to the left makes it very difficult to concentrate on a tee shot. An old-fashioned burn traverses the fairway, and unlike any other green on the golf course, this putting surface is vaulted above the fairway.
From then on the golf course offers one unexpected thrill after another. There is nothing comparable to seaside golf, and no terrain more intriguing for a designer or player than wooded linksland. That’s why Ocean Forest ultimately proves so successful. Each of its holes offers a distinctive look, yet in combination the theme is clear. The course seduces you with the promise of the sea, offers tantalizing peeks of saltwater marsh, forest, dunes and river along the way, and finally delivers you to the ocean’s edge.
It is, in the end, how golf was born, and how many think it is still most finely played.