Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sea Island (Seaside Course)

Bobby Jones teeing off at the Seaside Course

On a recent trip to Sea Island, Georgia to play Ocean Forest, I also had the opportunity to play the Seaside course. Golf at Sea Island has evolved over the years through the design of four separate nine-hole courses. The first nine hole course was designed by Walter Travis, and the second was a combined design of the original nine-hole Travis course plus a new set of nine holes designed by H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison. Colt and Alison's original design was changed again by Tom Fazio in 1999 as part of Sea Island's plan to change its four original nine-hole courses into two eighteen hole courses.

Having seen a lot of Alison's work in Japan, I think he is one of the finest architects the game has ever seen, though his best work doesn't get a lot of exposure because it is in Japan. His course designs in the United States are hard to see because they are at private clubs such as Burning Tree, Milwaukee Country Club and Century Country Club. Thus, the Seaside course is a rare opportunity to see the work of Alison. The course was designed prior to Alison's trip to Japan in the 1930s so it is some of his early work.

It is difficult to tell how much of the original design features of the Seaside course remains intact today. Having looked at course maps from various points in time, it looks like a meaningful amount has been changed. Yet, many of the original holes Colt and Alison designed do remain, even if some of the routing has changed. Most importantly, what are today's fourth and fifth holes are surviving examples of the original layout. The land the Seaside Course was built on was dredged out of the nearby marsh and steam shovels and mule teams were used to sculpt the land and move dirt.

Even though the private Ocean Forest course is ranked #84 in the world, I liked the public Seaside course better. Ocean Forest is over-rated because of who its members are, and Seaside is under-rated because it doesn't have eighteen great holes. However, the front nine at Seaside are so special that it is worth the trip to play it.

The Golf Course

1st green at Sea Island Seaside Course

The first unique thing you notice about the Seaside course are the distinctive red wicker baskets instead of hole flags, like those at Merion. Most of the green designs are like the first green seen above, with slopes and shaved areas that repel shots hit short away from the green. Most of the greens are small.

Of course, I jinxed myself by mentioning how great the weather was when I played Cypress Point. The golf gods were listening and got even, so the pictures here are not as brilliant as I would have liked, due to the cloudy and foggy day. On the bright side, it gives me an excuse to have to return to Sea Island and play again.

The tee shot on the second hole shows off one of the principal design features the architects had to work with, namely, routing a course through the lowcountry marsh. Many holes have a forced carry off the tee like the one here.

The third green at the Seaside Course

The third green again shows the design feature of an inverted bowl with the oak trees in the background. This is a demanding 200 yard par three that normally plays in a crosswind.

Fourth hole looking toward the green

I've played some good golf holes in my day. The Road Hole at St. Andrews, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen at Carnoustie, the Island Green at Sawgrass, the Postage Stamp at Troon, the 15th and 16th at Cypress Point and the 18th at Pebble Beach. The fourth hole on the Seaside Course is right up there with them. Not only is the design brilliant, but with marsh and ocean as a backdrop, it is visually dramatic as well. A link to the best holes is here.

SI 4 from tee
The 4th looking from the tee toward the flag in the distance to the left

The fourth hole is 421 yards on the card, but is one of the severest dog-legs in all of golf. The hole makes an acute left turn at 300 yards to a green situated on the other side of the marsh at a ninety degree angle from where you are standing on the tee.

The 4th carry off the tee over the marsh

The tee shot is a forced carry over marsh, and the left side of the fairway is preferred because it lessens the length of your second shot to the green. The entire left side of the hole is bordered by the marsh and White Heron Lake. If you play too safely, you end up in the bunkers on the right, so not only is it a nice risk-reward hole, it is one with a severe penalty for being too greedy and a penalty for being too conservative.

The 4th fairway

Your second shot to the green requires you to hit the ball a precise distance. Even if you play more conservatively and aim away from the marsh to the fairway approach, your distance has to be perfect or you will go into the marsh on the other side. The hole requires back-to-back perfectly placed risk-reward shots that places a premium on well struck balls and penalizes poorly struck ones.

The fourth hole was originally named "It Is" which was short for "It is unlucky if played carelessly." Perfectly named.

The 4th approach to the green

The green has big slopes in it and is well protected. The fourth hole is the #1 ranked handicap hole on the course, without question.

The fifth at Seaside, approach to the green

The fifth hole is the mirror opposite of the 4th. It is a 388 yard par four that is a sharp dog leg right over the marsh. It also requires you to hit back-to-back risk-reward shots with a high penalty for error. The fifth hole was originally named "Marsh" and again is both visually dramatic and requires precision. Those playing cautiously away from the marsh have to be careful not to hit too far through the fairway to the left.

The fifth green sited between the marsh and the trees

The creativity required to design two holes like this back-to-back is what makes Colt and Alison such brilliant golf course architects.

The sixth green shrouded in fog

The sixth hole is a short par three at 164 yards from the back tee. It is a nice respite following the harassing fourth and fifth holes. Such is the brilliance of the design at the Seaside course. The routing of the course through the marsh and dunes is brilliant.

The seventh green falls off at the rear

The seventh hole is a challenging 531 yard par five. The fairway zig zags with sand bordering the left side of the fairway and the marsh down the right side, while the green falls off at the back, penalizing shots hit long.

A shot of the 8th green from the fairway bunker

Eight is a short par four with a tee shot over marsh and a large bunker in play on the right side off the tee. This makes the effective landing area on the left side of the fairway very small. The hole finishes you off with a devilish, well-protected, harshly sloping green.

The ninth hole provides a strong finish to the front nine. The back nine feels like a different course, because it largely is, although the theme of alternating long and short holes, risk-reward shots and forced carries over marsh continues. There are some good holes and the routing is interesting and varied, as is the front, but it lacks the sizzle that the holes on the front nine have. When Bobby Jones played the course, the current front nine played as the back nine on a different composite course. Jones said, "Second nine is one of the very best I have ever seen." Who am I to disagree with Bobby?

The Seaside Course is a really unique place to play golf. We saw several bald eagles, which nest nearby, flying overhead while we played. The feel of the Seaside course is the lowcountry meets Merion; it is a throwback to an old-style design that requires the golfer to do more than just hit the ball long.

Sea Island Resort
The Sea Island resort has been owned and run by the Jones family (no relation to Rees or Bobby) for generations. The current generation, Bill Jones III, runs the business and resort.

No expense was spared when Sea Island was built, including at both the Cloisters hotel and the Lodge. Dark woods are prominently featured, but done tastefully. It is not as overbearing as the Breakers in Palm Beach or the Boca Raton Resort; it has more class. They do a lot of little things right at Sea Island, which adds up to a very nice experience. Bach's Brandenberg concerto was playing on the Bose CD player when I entered my room, for example. The employees all pronounced my simple name correctly, instead of making it two syllables instead of three, like many people do. There was stationery on the desk with my name engraved on it, underneath which "In Residence at the Lodge at Sea Island" was printed. I felt a bit like an English King or Howard Hughes. I imagine they used this type of thing occasionally, dashing off a letter from Balmoral or The Desert Inn, whilst in residence.

There are dozens of real wood-burning fireplaces throughout the resort. It has better service than a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which is a high standard to surpass.

The resort has more five star ratings than The Pentagon has five star generals. At Sea Island, the Lodge, the Cloisters, the Spa and the Georgian Room all have received five stars from Mobil, which is a rare feat. It is also one of the few civilized places in the world where you can still smoke a cigar without persecution. You can smoke in the locker room at Ocean Forest, in the locker room at Sea Island and in the elegant cigar lounge at the Cloisters.


Anonymous said...

Been awhile since I read your post on Cypress,and I cant remember if you reference it,but have you read "the match"? fantastic story centered aroun a match between nelson and hogan vs venture and ward at cypress.

Duncan said...

Enjoyed the write-up on Seaside and agree with your preference of it to Ocean Forest. It's at least the stronger of the two courses due to a more omnipresent with and the shape of the green complexes, and certainly more interesting.

However, my understanding of the course's history is that Seaside's out nine, which you praise and attribute to Alison, was actually added by Joe Lee in the 1970's. Colt and Alison (or perhaps more Alison), designed Seaside's second, or western, nine.

The course Jones played would have been the Travis nine (today Retreat's out nine) and Colt & Alison's nine (Seaside's second nine).

I could be wrong but I don't think so. In any event, the routings haven't changed much but the entire course is now really the work of Fazio, some of his best in my opinion.

--Derek Duncan

Juka Ribeiro said...

Well written post, the pictures really excites me even though it is cloudy and foggy day for a game of golf. I'll visit the course one day and play the sport I really enjoy. Thanks for sharing and good luck!

Virginia Golf Courses said...

I agree with your assessment that Seaside is worthy of Top 100 consideration. My preference was for the back nine, but all 18 holes were very fun to play in my mind. Great course, great resort!

Anonymous said...

The current Seaside #4 was created by Tom Fazio in his 1999 merge of the Marshside (J. Lee, 1973) and Seaside (Colt & Alison) nines. The fourth tee is close to where the Marshside tee was, and the fourth green is close to the old #5 green. The original 4th green was straight out from the tee, near where the trees are now, with the fifth tee slightly to the left.

Spencer said...

Duncan is right. The back nine is the acclaimed nine and was designed by Colt and Alison. I have played the course well over 50 times and can assure you that the back is far superior to the front in every way.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that I played the Marshside and Seaside nines with some kid my aunt and uncle hooked me up with. He turned out to be Mark Love, Davis Love III's brother! I holed out from nowhere for eagle on the 1st hole (Marshside)and it was all downhill from there! Beautiful layout and ammenities. One of the best I've played!