Standing on the 8th tee of Jack Nicklaus’ rollicking Bluffs nine at Champions Retreat, under the friendly Georgia sun of mid-autumn, brings into focus every element of golf’s attraction and lasting appeal.
First there’s the hole itself, a handsome mid-length par 3, its tee elevated to afford a view of the reedy Southern slough stretching from the green’s left shoulder to another green perhaps a quarter-mile away, on Arnold Palmer’s Island Nine — much of it strung along the Savannah River — with yet a third nine, the Creek, authored by Gary Player, off to the west a bit.
There’s the middle-of-nowhere setting among dense forest that gives no clue of the 16 luxury cabins and “rustic upscale” clubhouse complex just a few hundred yards away, which cater to a broad array of golf and social members — most of them local, the rest from across America with a handful from other countries — 51 weeks of the year.
The remaining week? That’s when Champions Retreat opens its gates to the public, mostly in the form of corporate hosts and their guests, for the Masters.
Which brings up a third feeling on that 8th tee: The gut-leap of realization that the biggest tournament in golf, and the flawless course that has hosted it for more than 80 years, is just a 20-minute drive (or, for some, a five-minute helicopter ride) away.
THE AUGUSTA EFFECT
The Masters mystique permeates just about every corner of day-to-day life in Augusta and the surrounding towns, and, of course, drives much of the region’s commerce, especially just before, during and immediately after “toonamint” week. It’s truly the center of the golf universe for those few spring days, and it gives Champions Retreat the opportunity to show the world what it’s got going on as a club, a destination and an experience.
And boy, does it have a lot going on.
“Champions Retreat offers the premium golf experience in the Augusta area, allowing for a voyage on courses designed by golf’s greatest legends, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player,” said General Manager Cameron Wiebe, an affable Canadian who came here after stints at some of Southeast’s top private clubs including the legendary, hyper-private Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Florida. “Exceptional regional cuisine, southern hospitality and a lower barrier to comfort makes Champions Retreat the place to be Masters Week.”
“Lower barrier to comfort” is an understatement. This place lives up to its “retreat” moniker in every way. Solitude and relaxation are key. There’s no pressure dress up beyond standard stylish golf attire — certainly no black ties or designer gowns necessary unless they’re part of a wedding dress code at The Barn, the club’s new events center, with its versatile mix of large and small group spaces and quick access to the clubhouse kitchen, where Chef Jeremy Miller can produce a classic Low Country boil or a high-end four-course meal on appreciative demand … and even cater it to your cabin, if so desired. Meanwhile, pitmaster Hal Rowland produces spot-on barbecue from the on-site smoker, including killer ribs and his special Appling Andouille.
To counteract all that fine eatin’, Champions Retreat offers several golf specific strength and strretching programs, including yoga, plus a fully equipped gym. Golf lessons? Of course, in individual and group flavors.
HOME AWAY FROM … IT ALL
Depending on your settle-in-and-hang style, there’s a four- to eight-bedroom cabin to fit the bill. Some have fire pits and brick patios, others verandas. All and spacious common areas, big kitchens to stock with your own food to cook or spirits to drink, and well-appointed bedrooms with private baths — 96 beds in all. For Masters week, cabins for up to $30,000, not including food, beverage or golf; residential homes rentals are also available for up to $50,000-$60,000.
While most of non-hang time will most likely include a round or two of golf, guests can still venture out onto at least one course for some late-day fun. Way out at the farthest reaches of the Island nine, behind the fourth green, awaits The Deck, which is just that — an expansive wooden deck fronting the river that, along with a grassy area suitable or more fire pit action, popular for corporate parties during Masters week and members-only events year-round. Golfers have even been known to drop a ball or from an adjacent platform and try to blast a ball 220 yards or so over the river and into South Carolina.
THE GOLF: BIG THREE GLEE
After nearly 15 years since Gary Player knocked his ceremonial tee shot down his Creek nine’s tough opening hole, all three course at Champions Retreat benefitted from a recent renovations — re-sanded bunkers, improved drainage, better sightlines and green health thanks to some judicious tree removal. Some holes conjure the aesthetics of a certain nearby championship layout so completelh that guests are forgiven if they feel the occasional thrill chill. Masters Week tee times range from $2,400 to $2,700 per foursome (including caddie, $200 merchandise credit, food and beverage all day).
Fittingly, the Island nine brings the most water into play, though its fairways are probably the most generous on the entire property. It’s a classic Palmer-Ed Seay affair asking for big drives over flashed, push-in bunkers and careful approaches to large greens with plenty of break. No. 4 is a highlight reel hole that plays out toward and along the Savannah, with a tall tree that Wiebe dubbed “The Broccoli” pretty much blocking any shot in from the left side. The two par 3s, holes 6 and 8, run neck-and-neck for visual beauty (the latter plays over a slough frequented by kayakers and snapping turtles), while No. 9 is a stellar, zigzagging par 5 with its own perfectly placed fairway tree in the lay-up zone.
With its bright bunkers, forced carries from the tee, bountiful bunkering, strategic sightlines and stout demands on one’s iron game, Player’s Creek Nine is a beautiful beast that comes closest to echoing Augusta National itself on several holes, especially No. 5, which, with the creek snaking up its left side from the tee and around to the green’s right edge on the approach, is essentially a dogleg-right variation on Augusta No. 13. No. 3 might be the toughest par 4 on three nines’ 365-acre expanse — 452 uphill yards from the tips, a still-challenging 382 yards from the members’ tees, with a huge bunker waiting to swallow your drive up the left side. And then there’s No. 9, a spectacular cape-style par 4 swooping left-to-right around a lake. Rinse one there and you’ll most likely have a gallery watching from a cabin’s porch on the left.
We leave the Golden Bear’s rollicking Bluffs nine for last. When each legend chose the site for his holes, Nicklaus couldn't resist this stretch of heaving hills, hollows and piney pitches, which he and his design crew left largely untouched in terms of extensive earth moving. The result is a well-balanced mix of right and left, uphill and downhill holes — and several cool surprises including No. 6, a beguiling and challenging short par 4 that’s best negotiated with a lay-up tee shot downhill to a right-angled fairway, followed by a short iron or wedge to a green tucked between creek and rocky hillside. It’s a delightful birdie opportunity though double-bogeys pop up more often than you’d think.
A couple holes later and we’re back where we started, on that elevated No. 8 tee, reveling in the sweet seclusion, modern club craft and Southern charm put forth every day at Champions Retreat — and revealed to all the Masters-minded world come each magnolia-scented April. If ever there was a reason to take the “member for a week” idea to heart, this is it. You might just decide to stretch that week into a lifetime.