Sea Island Dreaming

The history and tradition of this spectacular resort fulfill a golf-lover’s fantasy.

BY KAREN ALBERG GROSSMAN

I’m sitting on the waterfront veranda of The Lodge, one of two luxury hotels at Sea Island Golf Resort. (The Lodge, adjacent to three golf courses on St. Simons Island, feels like an old English manor; The Cloisters, built on Sea Island in 1928 but reintroduced in 2006 after a three-year renovation, blends the history and aesthetics of Mediterranean revival style.) I’m sipping a Jack Daniels, taking in a brilliant sunset, and listening to the soulful sounds of a solitary bagpiper who’s been strolling the shoreline for the past hour. Enchanted by the music, the scenery, the wildlife, the canopy of oak trees and the genteel and gracious hospitality throughout the resort, I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in ages. (I had intended to go for a massage at Sea Island’s famous spa, but after only a few hours at the resort I no longer need one…)

Truth be told: I’m not a golfer but since I’m married to one, I looked forward to a mini-vacation at this renowned Forbes Five-Star resort, home to one of the top-rated golf schools in the country. Little did I know how much the property has to offer above and beyond golf! James Gibson, Sea Island’s VP of operations, lists a hunting lodge, a shooting school, a yacht club featuring fishing, sailing and kayaking, a pristine beach, numerous swimming pools, an award-winning 65,000-square-foot spa, an indoor atrium, many fabulous restaurants (including the five-star Georgian room and my favorite, Colt & Alison) and numerous bars (I loved the Oak Room!) among the resort’s amenities. “Our demographic is multi-generational,” he explains as we sip tea in the historic Trophy Room. “Guests come with their children and grandchildren, couples come for romantic getaways, groups come for golf outings, and of course many PGA golf pros have chosen to make this their home.” Asked to articulate the essence of Sea Island, what makes it truly special,Gibson talks about the employees. “At least 80 of our people have worked here more than 25 years, which is unheard of in our business,” he explains. “Robert, who works in our men’s locker room, has been with us 50 years. Ask him how he’s doing and he’ll always respond ‘Mighty Fine’ which is what we now call him. Our repeat customers always make it a point to visit with Mighty Fine…”

Brannen Veal, Sea Island’s director of golf, grew up playing golf in Macon, Georgia but turned to baseball at Auburn University (his dad had been a professional ball player with the Detroit Tigers). “After college, I went back to golf, starting out as a golf cart attendant as many of us do. I’m a good golfer (Editor’s Note: He’s being modest; he’s actually a scratch golfer.) and I’ve taught in Golf Digest top schools, but my passion is the service aspect: I love helping people enjoy the game.”

Discussing Sea Island’s celebrated state-ofthe- art Golf Performance Center (featuring 3D capture, 13 top-rated instructors, three fitters, two fitness experts and its own psychologist), Veal talks about an individualized approach tailored to personal goals and skill levels. Focusing on five core competencies (long game, short game, fitness, club fitting and mental game), Veal notes that each competency has its own instructors. “Our goal at this Performance Center was to create the ultimate golf experience: the best courses, luxury accommodations, fine dining, top fitness programs, exceptional instructors (who currently work with Davis Love, Matt Kuchar, Harris English, Zach Johnson and other pros) and our own sports psychologist, Dr. Morris “Mo” Pickens.

Veal points out that while many professionals frequent the Performance Center, it’s not just for five-handicappers. “I’d say the average handicap is mid teens, and of course we also welcome beginners. And that’s one of the paradoxes we struggle with: because we have so many pros and so many top-50 teachers, people sometimes assume they’re not good enough to be here. So we’re trying to make the experience less intimidating. It’s essential for us to grow the game and not be so focused on professionals and top amateur players. Sure they’re great, sure we want them here, but it’s just as important to get those beginner golfers who’ve never held a club, to make them feel comfortable so they want to be part of the game.” Delving a bit further into the mental game, Veal jokes that “it’s the one place where I could destroy Dr. Mo: if he knew what was really going on in my head, he might never recover…” More seriously, he explains the process: usually a 30-minute initial assessment followed by Dr. Mo accompanying the golfer on nine holes and then coming up with suggestions. “It’s not earth-shattering stuff: it’s generally about how you compartmentalize, prioritize, focus and then let go. I know that’s oversimplified, but it works. And it’s as applicable to business, and to life, as it is to golf…”