Appeared in July/August 2000 LINKS
Something happens to the Lowcountry of South Carolina as it stretches down the Intercoastal Waterway toward Georgia. From Savannah to St. Simons Island to Sea Island, the sunlight changes perceptibly, taking on a golden hue as it bounces over marshland and filters through silver-gray moss hanging from century-old oak trees. This area is called the Golden Isles for reasons instantly apparent.
Sea Island was relatively uninhabited until 1924, when a causeway from Brunswick to St. Simons Island was completed. Over time, this five-mile-stretch of milky white beach and elegant cottages was transformed, gently and superbly, into an enchanting resort community recognized around the world. For 70 years, at the center of it all, The Cloister has offered its unique charm and hospitality to presidents, royalty, honeymooners and generation after generation of families. It has garnered countless awards for its facilities and service along the way.
Time moves slowly around this sleepy Georgia island, yet it moves with distinction and precision, and today, The Cloister is a resort on the move. Of its many changes, however, the most noteworthy is the renovation and combination of the former Marshside and Seaside nine-holers—under the supervision of Tom Fazio—into an 18-hole challenge that is truly a Modern Classic.
Around here, we have to be mindful of our past and mindful of our traditions,” says Alfred W. “Bill” Jones III, president and CEO of the Sea Island Company, “but our job is to build for the future.”
Jones should know. Since its inception, The Cloister has remained under one management—the Sea Island Company—and someone with the last name of Jones has manned the helm. Jones III assumed the duties of chairman of the board nearly five years ago from his father, Alfred W. Jones Jr., who had taken the reigns from his father, Alfred W. Jones Sr., many years before.
With an eye to the future, Jones III made one of the best decisions of his young tenure when he hired David Everett as one of the company’s senior vice-presidents. Everett moved to Sea Island from Hilton Head, S.C., where he had spearheaded development of Colleton River Plantation and, later, Belfair Plantation, two of the finest golf and real estate developments on the East Coast.
What Everett found upon arrival at Sea Island was a classic resort community with golf courses sorely in need of enhancement. “For 20 years, people would come to The Cloister and play golf because they were here,” Everett says. “We want them coming to The Cloister because of the golf.”
One of the first moves Jones III and Everett made was to merge the two companion courses, Plantation and Retreat, into an 18-holer under the supervision of Rees Jones. Walter Travis had laid out the Plantation nine in 1927, and Dick Wilson drew up the Retreat nine in 1960. “Parkland by the sea” is how Jones describes his magnificent new Plantation Course, which opened in 1998. And he’s right. His re-creation melds the best of parkland design with the windswept beauty and seaside vistas of a links course.
But this led to a dilemma: Once the Plantation and Retreat courses were renovated in such splendid fashion, the other two nine-holers—Harry S. Colt & C.H. Allison’s Seaside (1929) and Joe Lee’s Marshside (1973)—paled in comparison, particularly in terms of conditioning.
Truthfully, Marshside was a good, not great, nine holes of golf, and change to it would be welcome. But change a classic? Like Seaside? At a place as steeped in tradition as Sea Island? Jones and Everett knew it would not be easy.Bobby Jones had described Seaside as among the best nine holes he had ever played. Then there was the now-famous exchange between Sea Island’s favorite son, Davis Love III, and Fazio, after the architect was hired to perform the re-design. “Do what you want to Marshside,” Love told him, “but change Seaside and I’ll lie down in front of the bulldozer.”
“We knew we were treading on hallowed ground, but we had to do something,” explains Jones III. “Seaside was a great nine holes of golf, but it had its weaknesses; in particular, the par-5s were not great.”
The major problem with Seaside, according to Jones, was its infrastructure. “Like many marshside golf courses built during that time, the land had begun to sink,” he says. “[The late] Davis Love Jr., used to say that the only way to fix Seaside was to start over, but he didn’t think anybody would ever have the guts to do that.”
Fazio wasn’t nervous: “All I saw was potential,” he says, “and a great piece of land.”
The challenge for Fazio was tying the two nines together, raising Marshside to a level where it would complement Seaside, then giving them the “feel” of the old Seaside while functioning as a modern 18-hole golf course.
When Fazio looked at the Marshside nine, he saw a great deal more land than was being utilized. This led to a considerable amount of clearing: Cedar trees and pines that had previously blocked views and set off the marsh were picked up and moved around the course to serve as backdrops and frames for individual holes. Raising the golf course and clearing some of the borders around the course also allowed Fazio to take advantage of the great views. And where dirt used to help raise the course was taken out, two new lakes were added on the former Marshside nine—one on the sixth hole and one on the ninth.
The new fifth hole of Seaside is the only recognizable hole on the former Marshside; the others all look new. Even the fifth, a shortish par-4, is now a modified cape hole where heavy hitters can cut the corner with a big drive. No. 8 is another short par-4 and one of the side’s best holes, requiring a drive over marsh between a pair of sizable bunkers in the landing area. Another large bunker fronts the right two-thirds of the green; avoiding it may cause missing the green, which will invariably lead to a tough up and down.
Still, however, the most distinctive holes of the golf course are found on the Seaside nine. The former fourth hole of Seaside is now the 13th and remains a wonderful test, with marsh on the left and a series of bunkers on the right. A driver will still leave golfers with a middle iron in, depending on the wind. The hole looks similar to its old design, using the same flash bunkering as Colt and Allison employed, but the green has been elevated slightly.
No. 14 (the former fifth of Seaside) was shifted left so that it now runs adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. Another highlight is No. 16, a wonderful par-4 measuring 378 yards from the tips. From the tee, the temptation is to bite off as much as possible, leaving anything from a 6-iron to a wedge depending on the wind. Fronted by another large bunker, the green is wide yet very shallow, making it extraordinarily difficult to hold—so difficult, in fact, that plans are underway to enlarge the green slightly.
Where Seaside and Marshside had both been par-36, the Seaside 18 is now a par-70 golf course. The second hole of Marshside was a par-5, and is now a par-4. Likewise, the ninth hole of Seaside was a short and somewhat average par-5; now, as the finishing 18th hole, it is a wonderfully challenging par-4 measuring 439 yards from the tips.
“When I think of seaside courses, I think of dune grasses and sand next to the water,” says Fazio. “That’s what we did with Seaside.”
For Jones and Everett, Fazio’s work was mission accomplished. Love III and fellow Sea Island legend Louise Suggs have both expressed complete satisfaction with the changes. Another Georgia golf eminence, Atlanta’s Charley Yates, says the new Seaside is better than the old.
“Tom looked at what Colt and Allison did, and he tried to enhance it,” says Jones III. “If you look at old photos of Seaside from the ’20s, it is very vast and open. It looks a lot like it does now.
“It’s got the flavor of the old Seaside, but this is a brand-new golf course.”
That’s not all going on at Sea Island—not nearly all. Now being built at the foot of the club’s Avenue of Oaks entrance, overlooking the Plantation Course and St. Simons Sound, is the Sea Island Golf Club and Lodge. The Lodge will offer 38 guestrooms, all with views of the water, as well as two parlor suites and private function space. Among the many highlights of the new clubhouse will be two restaurants, a pro shop, an Oak bar, fitness and massage facilities, billiards room, wine cellar and a trophy room, as well as elegant locker rooms.
In addition, there are plans to improve the nearby Island Club and bring it under the umbrella of the private Sea Island Club. Included in this overhaul will be a renovation, under the supervision of Davis Love III, of the old Joe Lee golf course that will be called “Retreat”.
“Right now, it’s a very tight golf course,” says Mark Love, president of Love Enterprises.
“We’re going to max out the room and change some of the angles. It will have green complexes similar to Pinehurst No. 2.”
The plan is to have the new Retreat course ready for play by the time Ocean Forest—a private club in the Sea Island Company’s stable located on the eastern-most tip of Sea Island—plays host to the Walker Cup matches in August 2001 on its Rees Jones-designed masterpiece. Meanwhile, the Sea Island Company plans to begin building a golf course on the northern portion of its St. Simons Island property, with construction by a yet-unnamed architect beginning in 2001 and opening in 2002. This will allow resort guests access to the Fazio 18 (Seaside), the Jones 18 (Plantation), the Love 18 (Retreat) and the new course. And, the company owns more land in north St. Simons for two more courses in the future, one or both of which may be private.
“We want to be the very best out there,” says Jones III. “When you think of a great resort and great golf, Sea Island ought to one of the first places that come to mind. There’s a lot of competition out there today, and we’re not going to be left behind.”