The Big Thanksgiving Golf Trip, Part 1: “Sea-ing is Believing at Sea Island in Georgia”

This trip turned out to be so epic and I tend to be so long-winded, I had to break it into three parts. When all was said and done, I played seven rounds of golf in the span of five days and was able to experience some of the country’s most beautiful courses and resorts.

On Thanksgiving day, it was all about travel. I got up way before dawn to get to John Wayne Airport in Orange County for a 6:45am flight. I had a connection in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport with a bit of a layover. Had lunch at Pappasito’s bar/grill in the terminal. Decent Tex-Mex style food. Nothing spectacular, though.

I then flew from DFW to Jacksonville International Airport, arriving around 5:45pm. Took a little time to get my rental car, but worth the wait. They told me they had a yellow (!) Chevy Aveo reserved for me. Fortunately, it was already checked out and they gave me a free upgrade to a nice Mercury Mariner SUV. It was a very comfy ride with all the driving I had ahead of me and looked a lot nicer for some of the high-end resorts I was about to visit. I was off to a good start. Looking back, I am trying to imagine what the fancy folks at Sea Island would have thought of me if I showed up in a yellow Aveo.

My trusty steed:

Speaking of Sea Island, that was my first destination. I headed straight from the airport up the I-95 and then onto St. Simons Island (only about an hour away from Jacksonville). I got a little lost on the way as it was very dark on the island and clear signage was hard to find. I eventually found the entrance to The Lodge. From the moment I arrived, I was treated like royalty, which I am really not used to. Normally, I wouldn’t stay at a resort if I didn’t have to, but if you want to play Sea Island’s famed golf courses you have to stay there.

I was greeted by the butler when I walked into the lodge, which is an incredibly beautiful building that just smelled like old money (kind of a combination of cigars, cologne, mahogany and leather). Very impressive place. I was lead to my room, which was really, really nice with a private balcony overlooking the 10th fairway of the Plantation course and the Intracoastal Waterway that separates St. Simons from the mainland. I walked around the grounds a bit after I checked in, but it was really dark out and there was not too much to do around there at night.

Pictures of The Lodge and my room:

The view from my private balcony:

I ordered some room service (one of the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever had in my life) and they also brought me my “complimentary” (as in free if you don’t want to tip the butler again) milk and cookies. The cookies were appropriately decadent and ridiculously delicious. I took a bath in my giant marble tub and relaxed after a long day of travel in preparation for all the golf I was about to play.

The next morning, I got up early to walk around the grounds as the sun came up. I checked in at the golf shop for my 7:40 time on the Seaside course. They told me I was playing by myself and was scheduled for second off the tee, which was perfect since I also had a 12:20 time on the Plantation course that day and I knew I’d finish the first round with ample time to spare. The guy in the shop told me I should probably get to the first tee a little early and the starter would let me go out first. He also let me know my fee included a forecaddie, but I didn’t have to utilize one. I said I’d rather not since I was just playing by myself.

I hit the driving range and putting green. Let me tell you, the practice area at Sea Island is one of the most impressive you’ll ever see. It’s definitely the most beautiful as the driving range, practice chipping area and putting green are set right on the waterfront and have as great a views as any holes on either course.

This is the chipping green’s view!

And the putting green…

I got to the first tee and the starter let me go first (though I had to wait until exactly 7:30 to tee off per resort policy). However, a caddie did show up and said he was with me. I didn’t have the heart to deny him, so he just rode with me as more of a personal caddie. The best part of that was I was able to put him in charge of my camera, so he learned my routine and would hand me my camera whenever I wanted to take a picture (which was often on this picturesque course). They recommend $25 as the traditional forecaddie tip, but I ended up giving him a little more since he was only serving me and not a full foursome. I guess felt a bit bad for him.

The round only took about two-and-a-half hours, which was excellent because it gave me a little extra time to explore, eat and relax in between rounds (as well as check out from my room).

The Seaside course was amazing. One of the most beautiful and well-maintained courses I’ve ever played. The course was lush from tee to green, even in late November. The weather was great this morning. A little windy on the back nine but rarely a cloud in the sky as you’ll see in the pictures.

For the most part, Seaside is a rugged links style layout framed by the tidal marshes, views of the Intracoastal Waterway and peppered with a handful of live oaks and other trees dripping with Spanish moss. Most of the fairways are pretty wide and forgiving, but there’s still plenty of trouble you can get into with well-placed bunkers and waste areas. The rough isn’t too harsh if you find it, though. A lot of marsh/water will come into play and positioning can be important on some holes. There are several doglegs where you have to determine how much of the corner you want to bite off.

All in all, though, the course was pretty fair. I was playing pretty well (not my best) and shot an 87, which I was happy with for my first round of the trip. In the end I really, really loved this course. Even though it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience because it costs so much and the luxury resort setting is a bit out of my comfort zone, it was all well worth it on this visit.

One thing you will notice in the pictures below is a distinctive feature of the Seaside course, which is the old-timey wicker balls instead of flags—a throwback tribute to some history of the game in the UK.

Some pictures of the Sea Island Seaside course (11/25/11):

A sand trap so big I couldn’t fit it all in this picture!

After my first round, I had ample time to relax in my room and enjoy the daytime view from my balcony. I checked out and checked back in at the golf shop for my second round of the day on the Plantation course. I was hoping to get off a little earlier, but they let me know that they do split nines in the afternoon and that I was second off (again set to play by myself behind a foursome).

I went into the men’s locker room to kill some time. It is simply gorgeous inside there and one of the greatest features of the Sea Island experience. Everything I’ve read recommended eating lunch in there (with full food service and a full bar inside the locker room). For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like doing that. So I went to the “snack shack,” grabbed a turkey sandwich and went over to the big row of adirondack chairs that were lined up behind the lodge facing the same view as from my balcony. There was a nice breeze and it was a very relaxing place to enjoy my lunch.

Inside the men’s locker room:

My lunchtime view:

At around 12:00, I headed out to the 10th tee to check in with the starter for my afternoon round (they had me starting off the back). He pretty much let me go right away and let me know it should be fairly open in front of me. No forecaddie showed up, so I teed off and played the course on my own. I did run into a couple of groups on the 16th hole and had to wait a little bit for them, but they were all finishing their rounds. By the time I got back to hole number 1, it was completely wide open in front of me. This round only took about two-and-a-half hours, as well, which was perfect since I wanted to hit the road as early as possible for my drive further up the coast to Hilton Head Island, SC.

The Plantation course was also exceptional and a completely different experience than Seaside. Considering they are right next to each other, it’s hard to believe they are part of the same property. Plantation is a more inland-style course framed with a ton of trees, plenty of man-made water hazards (as opposed to the natural tidal marshes of Seaside) and a number of awesome southern-style homes.

The course was in really good condition. The rough was much more dried out than on Seaside, but didn’t affect play one bit. Otherwise, the fairways, greens and tees were all in great shape. Though every hole is well-framed by trees (Spanish moss and live oaks galore), they don’t come into play as much as you might think. Overall, the course layout is pretty forgiving. Fairways are pretty wide and rough is playable. Water hazards and bunkers are prevalent and add to the challenge to this course.

This course really reminds you that you are in Georgia with the framework of trees and homes. Whereas Seaside feels like you could be anywhere on the southern Atlantic coast, Plantation really feels like you are in the heart of Georgia’s rich southern history, scenery and tradition.

Some pictures of the Sea Island Plantation course (11/25/11):

I really loved my experience at Sea Island. It is truly a great destination for golf. I wish I had more time to enjoy the other amenities of this luxury resort, but this trip was all about the golf and I got everything I needed to make my short visit worthwhile. There is a third course there—The Retreat—which I didn’t have the pleasure of playing. I heard it’s very nice and worthy of the Sea Island name, but all indicators pointed to it being the consensus least-favorite of the three courses.

I was on the road away from Sea Island a little after 3:00, on my way to my next destination: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. On my way to play one of Pete Dye’s masterpieces, Harbour Town Golf Links!

The road into and out of The Lodge is as “Georgia” as it gets!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my story, which will feature my experience at Harbour Town as well as my “bonus round” on my first day back in Florida at the King & Bear course at the World Golf Village. Part 3 will feature the finale of the trip at TPC Sawgrass and my visit to the World Golf Hall of Fame in nearby St. Augustine.

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