Golf fans dream of watching The Masters up close from the grass at Amen Corner. Tickets, unlike membership at Augusta National, aren’t impossible to come by, but the lottery system makes getting them an uncertainty.
For those lucky enough to win badges for the tournament, there are now two problems to solve: first, where to stay and second, where to play golf while you're there.
Golf at the Champions Retreat is a tale of three nines, each stunning, distinctive, and designed by a multiple Masters Champion; the Bluff course by Jack Nicklaus, the Island by Arnold Palmer, and the Creek is the work of Gary Player.
The Nicklaus nine is the most challenging and features a number of elevated tees and several risk-reward opportunities. The short, serene, par-four sixth hole on the Bluff course requires restraint off the tee. With a creek off to the right, a mid iron or hybrid, down the hill, is plenty of club to find the landing zone on the left, leaving a wedge into a green protected by the same creek.
Two holes later, the par-three eighth brings the Savannah River in to view. From the tee, players hit a mid-to-short iron across a large area of long, native grass to a green framed by four bunkers. This is a great hole to stop, take a breath, and soak in the picturesque scenery.
The Palmer course, set along the Savannah River, begins with a couple of gentle par-fours and nearly reachable par-five, but the approach shot is no picnic if you choose to try to hit the green in two. Unless you’ve striped your drive and missed the fairway bunkers, the wiser choice is to layup and take the dangers of water right and sand left out of play.
The par-four fourth features one of our favorite tee shots on all the courses. The hole is nicknamed 'Broccoli' after the aiming point, a tall tree that looks like a large floret. As the course winds back toward the clubhouse, players will tangle with the drivable par-four seventh, but in three rounds, we never saw a tee ball find the green. Most ended up with a sandy lie and a long blind bunker shot to the pin — not an easy up and in.
The Black Knight, Gary Player, designed the Creek nine, "to be more open and enjoyable, where you hopefully will play better than usual, and perhaps even wish to play it again because you had so much fun," Player said.
Unlike the other two courses, the Player nine doesn’t finish on a par-five; his long holes come a little earlier in the round. The fifth is par-five that has the look and feel of number 13, Azalea, at nearby Augusta National. The approach plays over a small, meandering creek, to a speedy green, making a two put less than certain.
The golf on all three courses is so good you may want to skip the tournament all together and just keep playing.
For a taste of Georgia, treat yourself to a pimento cheese sandwich at the halfway house and maybe a beer or three if the round has gone a bit sideways.
Players interested in showing off or just having a larf will want to take a driver to the tee on the par three sixth of the Island Course and hit balls back across the Savannah River from Georgia into South Carolina, just be mindful of people fishing on the opposite shore.
The week of the tournament, the Retreat has a number of homes available for rent, including several cottages a stone’s throw from the clubhouse. Each can pamper between four to eight couples in resplendent, contemporary, Southern luxury. The cozy king-size beds make getting up for an early tee time a struggle, but a cottage porch is a perfect spot for unwinding after a round, preferably with a double on the rocks.
Post aperitif, head to the Grille House for an experience in farm-to-table, elevated, Southern cuisine. The braised pork shank is so melt-in-your-mouth good it’s worth the caloric indulgence. As is the Trout “Pecandine” — a play on the classic almondine dish, coated instead with Georgia pecans and served with a citrus beurre blanc. The hearty fare sticks to the taste buds as well as your ribs.
For those who like to imbibe, the wine cellar is expertly stocked by the Retreat’s culinary guru and sommelier, Doug Snyder. Also, a whiskey lover, Snyder has curated a deep collection of scotch and bourbons, any of which are perfect for soaking in the scent of sweet Georgia pine on a post-dinner stroll under the stars.
Of course, luxury on this level doesn’t come cheap. Masters week greens fees for a foursome at the Champions Retreat runs between $2,200 and $2,500, depending on what day you want to play. That’s Pebble Beach expensive, but all you care to eat food and drinks are included, which makes the experience a little more valuable. A week in a home at the Retreat is no less expensive. Prices start at $13,000 and work their way up, for Sunday to Sunday. Steep, yes, but not unreasonable when amortized by a few golf-obsessed couples punching a bucket-list ticket to the Masters.