Sea Island’s oldest golf course now offers the resort’s newest play experience.
By Judd Spicer
A scorecard of childhood memories and inspiration from some of golf’s most iconic architects have transformed the resort’s most historic course into the property’s newest treasure. Brothers Mark and Davis Love III grew up in the area, moving to St. Simons Island in 1977 when their father, Davis Love Jr., was hired as the resort’s teaching professional.
Playing Sea Island’s Plantation Course in their formative years, the Love brothers were reared on the nine-hole play, designed by Walter Travis in 1928. Iterations over the years saw the modern day Plantation become 18 holes in 1998, when architect Rees Jones paired Travis’ original nine with nine holes from designer Dick Wilson’s Retreat Course.
When Sea Island hired the Love brothers’ firm, Love Golf Design, to craft the 18-hole putting course that debuted last year, the swings were soon put in motion to hire the local team again to renew the resort’s oldest course.
With a course redesign project that began in December 2018, the Loves, along with their firm’s lead architect, Scot Sherman, began work. It is projected to open for all to play in October 2019.
“We’re lucky to have the Love brothers,” says Brannen Veal, the director of golf at
Sea Island. “It’s a deep connection; they grew up here, they’ve lived here, they grew up playing this course with their father. Mark has probably, in his mind, been redesigning Plantation since 1998.”
The redesign also marks the Loves’ 25th project in their 25 years working together as a design duo.
A Classic Style
In addition to their intimate familiarity with Sea Island, Mark and Davis have played golf around the world, due in no small part to the latter’s career as a professional golfer. Their collective knowledge of course architecture has instilled a special appreciation for golf’s Golden Age of design, a window from roughly 1910 to the mid-1930s, which enjoyed a domestic course building boom.
When initially approaching the Plantation project, the Loves saw an opportunity to take the layout back to its original design elements, while creating a brand-new golf course along the same corridors. “We grew up playing the Plantation and have closely followed the renovations over the years, and we were thrilled when opportunity arose to redo the course,” Mark says.
The concept of going old-school with the new course was an idea that appealed to all. “We were very intrigued by their vision to take the course back to its historical origins—to take it back to what Walter Travis had envisioned,” Veal says.
The Loves further felt the classic-style vision would complement the property, while providing a distinct contrast in play to the resort’s Seaside Course. “We’re very much traditionalists,” Mark says. “We like [designs by golf architects] Tillinghast and Raynor and Ross. And Davis and I have talked a lot about how the old golf courses are the ones we tend to enjoy the most. A lot of it is about the character and the style. And we’ve spent a lot of time on Google Earth looking at strategies and approaches of these classic designs.”
They also pulled from their own Sea Island golf experiences. For example, Mark says that the Seaside Course fifth hole that he and Davis grew up on had wooden sleepers in the face prior to the Fazio renovation, which inspired the idea to use that feature on the new second hole.
Additional favored features included grass moundings known as “chocolate drops” and railroad ties to select lagoon banks and
“Because there was a lot of opportunity for bulkheading, we wanted to embrace it,” Mark continues, as evidenced by the various wood elements used throughout the course. “What we ultimately settled on were classic influences such as original Plantation architect Walter Travis, architect Seth Raynor and old-school Pete Dye for look and feel of the course.”
As the redesign came together, the wood features and retro vibe appeared in their natural element. “The crosstie walls just look like they’ve been there for 50 years,” says Berry Collett, director of golf course maintenance for Sea Island.
Moving Earth and Turf
Veal says that architecture, including historical green complexes inspired by Seth Raynor, Walter Travis, Charles B. Macdonald and Donald Ross define Plantation’s new look, feel and engagement. “The movement and the potential pin placements will make them very engaging,” he says. Mark adds that every greens complex is totally new, and significantly different.
In concert with aesthetic differences, the biggest change going from the previous iteration of Plantation to the new one was the course bunkering or, perhaps, lack thereof. “Previously, there was quite a bit of square footage of bunkering,” Mark says. “It was a great look and made the course fairly difficult for the average player. Part of our charge was to reduce that square footage, which we did, but to then try and be more strategic with the bunkering, to get the bunkers more involved in the interior of the holes, rather than along the peripheries.”
Along with providing more benign paths for mid-to-high handicappers, the new bunker styles also serve the grounds’ maintenance team well. “It’s a totally different course and, in my opinion, an improved course,” Collett says. “It was a maintenance challenge before, so the design team really kept the maintenance aspect in mind. With the new, flat, grass-faced bunkers, it’s far more maintenance-friendly than the steep-faced style bunkers.”
The timing of the redesign looks to provide further benefits in agronomy, with the authenticity of the former Bermudagrass starting to reach its lifespan. “Before we removed the old greens, they were the oldest TifEagle greens in the country,” Collett says of the previous Plantation putting surfaces. With a peripheral TifTuf Bermudagrass in the rough, the turf at Plantation will have an entirely new look and feel, to both the eye and the clubface.
“The grassing scheme will be a lot better all around,” says Collett, adding that the grassing process began in May. “The tees and fairways were planted with Platinum paspalum, which allows us to cut it tight and also presents a really nice contrast in color. People really also like how this grass plays.”
In addition, elevation was lowered significantly throughout the course, but particularly on the back nine where it is now possible to have vistas throughout the golf course of the Atlantic Ocean and the front nine looking over lakes, marshes and the Seaside golf course. Trees were trimmed and pruned in order to establish the views. “Even from the farthest point on the back nine, from 14 green, you can see the course, The Lodge and the ocean,” Veal says.
With agreeable weather throughout the process, the redesign was able to stick to a tight schedule. A major asset in timeliness was having Mark not simply on-site through most of the process, but rather at home on-site. The Love family has a house on the course’s 14th hole, and Davis once resided along the Plantation Course.
“There’s a little extra pressure on them, because of living here. Everybody knows them, sees them,” Veal says in partial jest. “But, really, it’s so very rare, such a great benefit, to have an architect basically being on-site during construction on a near-daily basis.”
Collett agrees: “Mark is here all the time, so any changes have occurred in real time.”
From the beginning, the plan was for the redesigned layout be ready for the return of the PGA TOUR’s annual RSM Classic (Nov. 18-24, 2019) alongside Seaside and Plantation Courses. Mark anticipates that the world’s best will be taken back a bit by a totally different course crafted in such short time. “For them to come back a year later and see a whole new look and feel, it will be really interesting to see how it plays from the vantage of difficulty, as it was a challenging course for them previously.” Amid the design changes, players will study up for a slightly tweaked back nine card, which will see holes 14 through 16 carded in a par 5, 4, 3 scenario, in contrast to the former run of par 4, 3 and 5.
However, the design team kept in mind a balance between the professionals and those who will be teeing up at Plantation across the rest of the calendar. “We were certainly considering the RSM, but it was also of great importance to us that players will enjoy this course the other 51 weeks of the year,” Mark says. The track will offer engaging experiences for all golfers.
“For the PGA TOUR players, there are some drivable par 4s, but also some longer par 4s and 5s as well, along with some difficult pin positions to keep the pros honest,” Veal adds. “And the Love brothers have done a great job making it very playable for all levels of golfer. There are very few forced carries, and there are opportunities for players to run the ball up to the greens on almost every hole.”
Collett notes that there was a lot of consideration paid to the high-handicapper: “I think the new forward tees and family tees, along with fewer bunkers, will make it play easier for them.”
By pairing history with playability, the project close to their hearts and homes was a job that gave the Loves pause as the redesign neared its final touches.
“It was fun and … it was nostalgic,” Mark says. “And it also went so fast that we felt a little melancholy when it started wrapping up. But we feel that golfers will enjoy this for a lot of years.”
10 months to complete the Plantation redesign
250,000 square feet of bunkering on the former Plantation Course
80,000 square feet of bunkering on the new course
3,700 square feet on the new 15th hole (the smallest green)
8,100 square feet on the new seventh hole (the largest green)