An exclusive glimpse into golf history and good hospitality
written by COLIN RITSICK | photography courtesy of CHAMPIONS RETREAT
Growing up right down the road from Atlanta Country Club, some buddies and I occasionally snuck on the course when it was closed on Mondays to play nine holes right before the sun went down. We hardly ever saw anyone else and I remember leaving excited because we played such a beautiful and well-kept golf course. There was a tinge of adrenaline to it.
That’s how I felt after my first round at Champions Retreat Golf Club — almost like I got away with something. The golf course is so organic and tucked away that it feels as if no one is supposed to be there. It was like I stumbled upon a buried treasure in the middle of the rural Georgia woodlands.
Located approximately two hours from Atlanta, this Heritage Golf Group’s property has something to offer that no other place in the world can — a 27-hole course with each 9-hole track designed by Arnold Palmer, Gary Player or Jack Nicklaus. Those three names, perhaps the three biggest in all of golf history, add such validity to the club that it is worth the trip to play a round. Each year, to celebrate one of the most important weeks in golf, non-members have the chance to stay and play during the Masters.
While it isn’t always easy to steer a golfer away from a course, Champions Retreat has so much to offer, it is easy to see how golf is only one of the reasons to visit.
The first thing you see when you pull onto the grounds is a sweeping view of cottages and pine trees that parallel the road, followed by an undeniable fluidity. Hues of copper and green mix and match on every cottage and golf building with an arcadian brick-style siding, giving off a rustic, organic feel to the club.
A small sign outside the first cottage read “Jones.” The next read “Nelson” and I started to catch on. Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Snead, Hogan, Sarazen and Player round out the row of cottages that parallel No. 9 of Player’s Creek Course.
All of the cottages, which feel like small mansions, are designed similarly, some darker and more handsome than others, some lighter and fresher than others, but all of them beautiful and beckoning.
I stayed in Sarazen, a tranquil well-lit cottage with an open kitchen and living room design. Rough-sewn pine wood flooring, designer furniture and granite countertops are cast into the light from the wall of windows ahead, providing an unobstructed view of the fairway just beyond it.
Along a creek, through a bluff and around an island, three nine-hole courses make their way amongst the dense woodlands of Evans, Ga. in what was once an untouched timber plot.
The idea for Champions Retreat came to fruition at the 1999 Masters Champions Dinner. Player, the leading visionary, sought out his two most accomplished peers to help craft the course. Already knowing the topography, he wrote down “Creek,” “Island” and “Bluff” on index cards and let Palmer, the senior member of the three, draw first. Palmer drew Island. Nicklaus then drew Bluff. That left Player with Creek. Each nine-hole track embodies its designer and his golf game.
The Island Course is long, loose and powerful. Plenty of room to land shots off the tee, but precision is mandatory around the greens. Palmer was known for his graciousness and charisma during his playing days, and his course at Champions Retreat is no different. Beautiful views of the Savannah River and surrounding marshlands make this nine feel like a true Southern gem.
The Bluff Course is downright tough. For a Georgia course not in the mountains, it has dramatic elevation changes and is a tight, long course. There is very little room for error in approach shots, and even less from the tee box. What made Nicklaus such a threat for so long on tour was his competitive nature. Bluff Course rises to that same standard, and many view it as the toughest of the three nines.
The Creek Course is a beautiful combination of power and charm. A golfer with precise long irons or hybrids is in luck, but it is wide enough not to intimidate the average player. The first half of the course meanders through low wetlands and the back half is mostly uphill. The ninth hole is the money shot. A slightly elevated tee box lets you see the sweeping long, thin fairway with a pond on the right, but also the row of cottages amongst the towering pine trees along the left. It is the ideal way to end a round. Each course is unique and challenging, but undoubtedly fun. Aside from the legendary status of the course, what stood out was how private it felt. Not private in the sense of a membership, but solitary. In three rounds of golf, I saw maybe four other groups the entire time. The “thwack” of iron on golf balls along with birds and rustling leaves are the local soundtrack. It felt like I was wandering in the forest and happened upon this beauty. The key to a successful course isn’t necessarily how easy or difficult it may be, but rather how many holes you distinctly remember when you are finished playing; and I can picture every hole perfectly.
Throughout my two-day stay, I sat down for some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. An oyster roast and Low Country boil for dinner on Friday was a true Southern treat, but honestly I could’ve eaten nothing but the sausage from the boil and been a happy man. As Executive Chef Doug Seaver explained, the reason I’ve never tasted anything like it before is because they make and package it in-house. A former executive chef for Big Night Entertainment Group of Boston, Mass., Seaver brings more than 25 years of culinary experience and an emphasis on supporting local purveyors with a farm-to-table program.
Thankfully, more was to come. Our Breakfast of Champions the next morning was grits, eggs, more sausage and sundried tomatoes in a skillet accompanied by fried quail and waffle in another. If I could repeat any meal from the weekend, it’d be this one.
A Southern dining experience would not be complete without quality barbecue. And boy, let me tell you — they’ve got quality.
Hal Rowland, a local from Appling County, serves as Champions Retreat’s exclusive pit master. With him at the helm for dinner Saturday night, the pork loin, sausage and ribs smoked to perfection in his personal smoker were nothing short of decadent. Tender and savory, they didn’t quite fall off the bone — which Rowland says is a good thing. He likened a perfect rack of ribs to a loose tooth on a baby: not quite falling off, but pulling apart easily with a little tug. When asked how long it took to perfect his craft, Howland shrugged and said, “You’ve just got to go out and burn up some meat.”
A sommelier from Moët & Chandon tantalized our thirst buds with a champagne tasting on Friday night, and a truly relaxing afternoon on Saturday was courtesy of a complete spa treatment including foot, hand and back massage.
Driving away on Sunday afternoon, the arcadian cottages and towering pine trees stared at me in my rear-view mirror. I couldn’t help but feel like I did when I first played the course — like I got away with something. Champions Retreat not only grants guests full access to the club, but they are made to feel like they belong.
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