Osprey Cove Golf Club Still the Jewel of South Georgia
ST. MARYS, GA - Bill Murray once said it was good that Christmas only comes in December because people can't maintain that level of intensity year round.
But when you are a golf course that Golf Digest has labeled a "Must play if you are within 100 miles" you pretty much have to keep up that type of intensity. If players are making a pilgrimage to your course to see what the fuss is about, everyday needs to be Christmas.
Osprey Cove, at once honored and burdened with the renown of being the best course in southern Georgia (collecting accolades from not only Golf Digest but from GolfWeek as well, first landing a coveted spot on their 100 Best Modern Courses list in 1996), knows the difficulty of keeping momentum. The glory days of the 1990's turned into rather gloomy days around 2000 when ownership of the course changed hands, a move that resulted in a sag in maintenance and marketing.
In late 2001 Osprey Cove was bought by Hampton Golf, Inc. and is now beginning its climb back to the top of the South Georgia/North Florida golf landscape. The purchase now gives Hampton Golf four golf clubs along the I-95 golf trail (including North Hampton, South Hampton, and Grand Haven in Florida). One of their first moves was to bring in, as Director of Golf, the affable Jay Iskow recently of Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, KY.
The biggest obstacle to overcome was simply neglect. Osprey Cove, once considered the jewel of the South Georgia coast, was no longer being treated like a princess.
"The golf course and the facility itself were being run by a trust for almost two years as the owners actively tried to sell," says Iskow. "Locally there's been a stigma surrounding the course that it's not in the best condition because of the fact that they (the owners) were trying to sell it."
"The emphasis that is necessary in giving your customers and your members the best golfing experience that they can have and giving them value," Iskow explains, "was not emphasized in the last 16 to 18 months. We're turning that around, putting a lot of money into the golf course."
Hampton Golf, Inc. has already plunged $500,000 into a facilities renovation that includes transforming what was formerly the players lounge into an upscale, mahogany framed grill and bar, upgrading the current restaurant area into an improved and intimate players lounge, and refurbishing the interior of the banquet/conference space. The effects of the money injection have the staff and the members excited.
As far as the golf course is concerned, it's not as if there was ever anything wrong with it. It's still clinging to the 100 Best Modern Courses list (No. 99), a considerable achievement given the massive number of praiseworthy new golf courses opening across the country. A visit to Osprey Cove in early February revealed it to be in excellent condition with only a little fray showing around its edges at worst. The site, situated at the very edge of the expansive St. Marys River basin, remains one of the most natural and memorable in the region. In any estimation this is a premier course, a gorgeous rendition of southern coastal golf.
Nevertheless Iskow says, "We're committed to bringing the golf course back to the way people remember it in the late '90's, and that is a golf course that hosted two Qualifying Schools for the PGA Tour, was a Top 100 Golf Course according to GolfWeek, and a Mark McCumber design that...Golf Digest (considered) as one of the Top 15 courses in Georgia."
The design displays a balance of inland and outland holes with two separate nines that show tantalizing views of the expansive Intracoastal marsh early on before tuning toward the landlocked portion of the property. After some jumping around, each side emerges from the interior to romp freely along the edge of the vast river basin. They culminate in the centerpiece ninth and eighteenth holes which share one of the great open playing fields of Southern golf and rush headlong into each other to lock skulls Siamese-style at a double serpentine green.
At just under 6,800 yards from the tips, the course would be considered a shot-makers course by contemporary standards. It's evident McCumber was confronted with some serious land or zoning issues because the routing sputters and the distances between greens and tees are frequently long, sometimes in excess of 500 yards. The first nine is laid out in a spiral, ram-horning initially around the driving range before unwinding out toward the perimeter. The second nine is a more traditional out-and-back arrangement.
As disjointed as the routing may be, the integrity and natural quality of the site is overall preserved. (This despite the fact that in places, namely the fifth, sixth, and seventh holes, serious amounts of earth has been mounded to create hole boundaries.) The glory holes on the brink of the endless river basin can make all the traveling seem well worth the effort. In addition, the interior holes of the second nine are as striking for their isolation as the coastal holes are for their sweep.
Iskow believes Osprey Cove is not simply a beautiful setting but also a course that demands a high level of execution and shot placement. "I think it's the playability," he says of the course's multifaceted appeal. "It's a beautiful golf course that has a high degree of playability. It's not going to be a Scioto or a Valhalla or an Oakmont, it's going to be a golf course that's playable. I compare it a lot to golf in the desert where you have fairway and you have desert. You have ample targets, but if you miss those targets you're going to pay the price."
"It's a great layout," he continues, "but it's not a golf course that will beat you up. I come from Valhalla, and that course will beat you up and you'll be a bloody mess by the end of the day."
Safe from bludgeoning and aside from mandatory carries at the third, fourth, eighth, ninth, fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth holes, it's the dainty greens at Osprey Cove that pose the most serious challenge to scoring. These are among the smallest collection of rugs to be found on a modern golf course and McCumber often has them tilted significantly one way or another and usually hidden behind deep saucer bunkers.
The par five third typifies the need to place the ball intelligently. After two rather standard par fours, number three calls for the drive to flirt with a trio of bunkers on the left side of the landing area and to travel no more than 240 yards, resting just short of the wetland that bisects the fairway. The approach is into a tiny green protected by a round bunker flashed up against the front. Iskow explains the difficulties, diagramming the hole on a napkin
"There's the bunker here," he says, pointing to the smaller of two circles he's made with his pen, "and there's a mound behind it, and with the slope going away from you," drawing arrows, "if you're in that bunker you've got no chance. I don't care where you hit it, it's going off the green. It's all straight downhill to that green. Even coming in with a wedge, if the pin is tucked behind that bunker, there is no way you can keep it on the green, even if it lands a foot from the hole."
"The best approach is actually to hit it long and to the side (the right) and come in with the length of the green. The hole's only 505 yards so you're saying, 'It's only 500 yards and par five,' and you're licking your chops, but..." Iskow trail off.
As sly as the third may be, the course comes into its own with the stretch of eight through twelve, five of the most stirring consecutive holes that McCumber has ever produced. The eighth and ninth are par fours flush against the Intracoastal on the left that reward drives played close to the hazard with preferred angles into the well bunkered greens.
A long voyage to the 10th tee places the player at the brink of an isolated forest to begin the memorable journey back home. More pretty than significant, ten is a straightaway par four with a compact green setting that flows directly into the par three 11th, all 137 yards of it awash in sand. The green is elevated and squared off and the slope is notably pitched back-to-front. Twelve follows at a diminutive 327 championship yards, a hole that begs long hitters to draw the ball around the pines at the inside corner and take a run at the bunker-speckled green. As a package, ten through twelve demonstrate a thrifty ability by McCumber to squeeze elegant holes into a very small area.
It's difficult to come away from Osprey Cove unimpressed. With the ample support now provided by Hampton Golf, the course could very well be heard from again beyond its South Georgia fan base.
"I think we're unique in the sense that we're offering a private club experience with public access," says Iskow in summery. "There are other golf courses that have that and profess that, but other than North Hampton, I don't see a club that really addresses that (in this region)."
"We have a wonderful facility and a wonderful resource in the golf course (and) we just have to let people know that there's a new sheriff here now and we're going to get it back to what you remember."
February 12, 2002