Warmer temperatures, longer days, the changing colors of the trees, and blooming flowers. To most, these characteristically mark the beginning of spring. However, to golf enthusiasts, this all means one thing: The Masters is just around the corner.
As Jim Nantz reminds us each April, “It’s a tradition unlike any other.” The Super Bowl of golf, the Masters is the first PGA Major of the year and is widely recognized as the most prestigious. Rich in history, the tournament started in 1934 and takes place annually at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Traveling to Augusta to experience the Masters firsthand is more than likely high atop every sports fan’s bucket list.
It is impossible not to think of Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus when talking about the history of the Masters. Known as the Big 3, this troika of men collaborated to create the idyllic golf destination, less than 15 miles from the grounds of Augusta National. As the story goes, in 1999 Player used the Masters Champions dinner to recruit the all-time Masters winner with 6 Green Jackets, Nicklaus, and 4-time winner Palmer, to help create the one-of-a-kind Champions Retreat.
The Big 3 got together, each designing nine holes whose culmination is a spectacular—and exclusive—golf haven. Appropriately named The Bluff, The Island, and The Creek, the 27 holes are housed on 365 acres of previously untouched land that houses Georgia pines and wetlands nestled along the Savannah River. In discussing Champions Retreat, Nicklaus once said, “Most people work all their life to retire and play golf while I played golf all my life to retire and work.”
The majority of said work is, of course, golf course design. The Golden Bear transferred his competitive nature from player to designer where he implements a philosophy of enhancing the natural environment around the course. He did just that when laying out The Bluff.
As with many of his designs, The Bluff course offers ample risk versus reward, featuring uphill and downhill shots with the perfect balance of right-to-left and left-to right shot making holes. The short par-4 6th will stick in your head well after your time on the links. The hole has a severe change in downhill elevation from the tee to the fairway and is surrounded by magnificent Georgia pines and a creek that runs along the entire right side and through the front of the green.
As for the work of Player, it’s safe to say he takes his designs seriously. Gary Player Design has been a global leader in golf course design since the early 1980s with a portfolio of nearly 400 projects in 38 countries on five continents. The Black Knight didn’t disappoint, designing the most difficult of the three courses.
The opening four holes weave through a wetlands area that comes into play often, serving as a natural hazard on multiple shots. Coming through these first four holes anywhere around even par deserves recognition via a pat on the back and double back in the clubhouse. After the wetlands, you will find the course challenging but fair. When approaching the par-4 9th tee box, pause and reach for your camera not your club. The dramatic dogleg is defined by a lake along the right side of the fairway leading all the way up to the putting surface while the left is lined with magnificent cottages.
Palmer is generally regarded as one of the greatest and most charismatic players in the history of sport. Known as The King, Palmer was always one of the game’s most popular stars and is considered a trailblazer in part because of his charm and gracious personality. Last year at Augusta National there was a somber moment on Thursday morning. An annual tradition, the Big 3 announce the start of the weekend by each hitting an opening tee shot. In 2017, the Big 3 was a Proud 2 as Palmer passed in September 2016.
I found Palmer’s nine holes – The Island – the most picturesque at Champions Retreat. These nine had about as much character as The King himself. Situated with the Savannah River on one side and the Little River on the other, the Island Course is lush with preserved Georgia pines. It is a manageable 3,316 yard, par 36 course and, just like the other courses, has bent grass greens and perfectly manicured playing conditions. When reaching the par-3 6th, pull out your driver. With about a 250-yard carry you are able to hit the ball from Georgia over the Savannah River into South Carolina.
While the courses are the story, Champions Retreat is more than just golf; it is as luxe as any country club community out there. Set in the charming Georgian landscape, the magnificent clubhouse is surrounded by well-appointed guest cottages. These living quarters range from four to eight bedrooms and offer a comfortable, rustic feel. With large open floor plans, the cottages are decorated with designer furniture and feature vaulted ceilings, state-of-the-art appliances, and expansive windows that allow you to enjoy the sweeping golf course and surrounding landscape views. The cottages all have expansive porches and decks that are extremely welcoming with fire pits, fireplaces, and rocking chairs. What’s the South without a sturdy rocking chair?
Dining at Champions Retreat also does not disappoint. The club recently welcomed Augusta native Jeremy Miller as their new executive chef. Miller’s culinary experience is impressive to say the least. He has worked at notable establishments such as Jean Georges in Trump International Hotel Manhattan, Napa Valley’s French Laundry, Atlanta’s Bluepointe, and STK. Miller and his team use the freshest local ingredients, with a farm-to-table attitude, resulting in Southern flavors with new flair. Hal Rowland serves as the club’s very own pit master, preparing some of the finest smoked barbecue around. Beyond the BBQ, Rowland uses his grandmother’s recipes to make a variety of pastries—from raspberry shortbreads to good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies.
Masters Week 2016 marked the grand opening of The Barn, a facility about which the Champions Retreat team is especially proud. The Barn is a 10,000-sq.-foot banquet space that, from the outside, looks like a chic barn. The inside boasts Southern charm with rough sawn pine walls, rustic dining tables, chic chandeliers, and a grand fireplace that together produce a one-of-a-kind banquet experience.
In addition to the main banquet space, The Barn also includes a private dining room as well as a green room lounge, making the space suitable for large corporate events or weddings.
While Champions Retreat is an exclusive private country club for 51 weeks of the year, it is that 52nd week that should have your attention. Masters week, the club opens its doors to the public.
With a cottage rental, you and your guests will be treated like members for the week. Beyond hospitality and customer service, your week will be spent masquerading around the grounds taking in parties, live entertainment, family-style barbeques, and bottle service. Lest we forget to mention it, the driving range is lit up in the evening.
In addition to the myriad activities and events planned by the staff, you can customize your time to include golf and private dinners while taking advantage of the complimentary shuttles to the Masters tournament. Looking for a little adrenaline rush? Charter a helicopter to Augusta National.