My visit to Champions Retreat, near Augusta, Georgia, was my first trip taken on behalf of LINKS Magazine. I spent three nights in the cottages on the property and we played each nine-hole course twice. We also experienced all of the amenities available at the club. It was three days living in the lap of luxury, eating great meals, getting massages, playing golf, drinking prized wines and rare whiskeys… I came crashing back down to earth on the drive back to Hilton Head.
The club buildings and surrounding cottages feel like a small town, with the “town center” in the photo above. The locker room (locker building), pro shop, main grill, and golf services building are all on the central square.
Rather than try to emulate the traditions of the old classic clubs of the US, Champions Retreat has gone for a more relaxed feel. I was told that the only rule is respect. You see people wearing blue jeans to dinner and checking their phones on the golf course. The aim is a laid back atmosphere and they have achieved it very well. That same owner said their plan for growing the club is, “The better the party, the more people will come.”
Like many other high-end private clubs in the area, Champions Retreat opens its doors to the public during Masters week. Those who get their name on the list early enough can rent one of the cottages or homes on the course for the week. Others can simply book tee times for a foursome at the club. I imagine Masters week to be similar to my visit – a chance for the club to flex its hospitality muscle. If you have a group going down to the Masters, I highly recommend checking out Champions… it will be one heck of a party.
The club also prides itself on having excellent food and beverage. They have some serious talent in the kitchen and behind the bars. The photo above is a deck on the property overlooking the Savannah River. We had dinner on the deck our first night, with the head chef cooking over an open fire. It was a seriously cool experience that they offer for small groups.
I could go on and on about the experience off the course at Champions Retreat, but let’s delve into the golf. The club has three 9-hole courses designed by Nicklaus (Bluff), Palmer (Island), and Player (Creek). I was a little skeptical of the three architect, three nines model in the lead-up to the visit, but in practice, I really enjoyed the three different flavors. It’s not going to win over the architectural purists, but if golf is about enjoyment, having three distinct nines from which to choose is a nice change from the norm.
The Bluff Course – Nicklaus Design
The Bluff course is the toughest of the three nines. Typically tough Nicklaus green complexes combine with tight doglegs and treelined fairways to create a challenging test.
The par 3 second hole (above) seems easy at only 150 yards, but the massive false front left me with a double during my first round. This photo of the third hole shows the Bluff’s typical elevation changes. You end up taking an extra club on many of the approaches. The short par 4 6th has stuck in my mind after the trip. The small green and creek are intimidating… I doubled this sub-350 hole twice. The par 3 eighth is another that has remained in my mind. The hole is gorgeous with the two-tiered green framed perfectly by the banks and trees.
The Island Course – Palmer Design
The Island is the most scenic of the nines with multiple holes playing along the Savannah River. The course has much wider fairways than Nicklaus’s design, leaving the main challenge to be the large flash faced bunkers and sloping greens.
The second hole is simply beautiful. Bunkers narrow the fairway visually, while also making a large sloping green feel small. The same theme of large bunkers visually narrowing fairways appears again at the par 5 fourth hole. The two photos above show the picturesque sixth hole, which is a dogleg right along the Savannah River. This stretch is one of my favorites at Champions Retreat.
The lake in front of the par 3 eighth is visually intimidating, but shouldn’t come into play unless you really mishit the ball. Two large Augusta-esque bunkers frame the green nicely.The final hole on the Island nine features the visual narrowing of the fairway yet again. It also shows an area left of the green where the club has removed trees to open up the hole. Tree removal and drainage improvements were a big theme for upcoming winter improvements.
The Creek Course – Player Design
The Creek course has wide fairways, and similar to the Palmer nine, the real challenge lies in the bunkers and greens (and the creek…). The first hole presents a large green working away from players, and, depending on the wind, the hole can play very long at 471 from the tips and 428 from the member tees. Subtle slopes on the green make the par 3 second a tough par, particularly with the pin on the right side of the green. The par 3 fourth hole was my favorite on this nine. The two tiered green works away from the tee, but large slopes on the right side of the green act as a bouncing board kicking balls onto the putting surface. We never saw a pin back left on the lower tier, but it would be so much fun to bounce balls off the slope back to that pin. I like the strategy involved in playing the par 5 fourth hole. Layups can be played left or right of the creek, both with pros and cons.
The 6th is another great short par 4 at Champions, giving another opportunity to play the right to left kicker off the greenside slope. Rely on your caddie for the line off this tee. Having the correct angle into this green is crucial.
The finishing hole is a beast on the Creek course. Long players can cover those bunkers on the left, but if the hole is into the wind, you have a long iron into a thin, long green bordered by the lake. Having a row of cottages along the left leaves plenty of spectators to watch you succeed or fail.
My expectations going into the weekend at Champions Retreat were exceeded by far. There have only been a handful of modern clubs that I leave thinking, “Well, how could I save up to join this place…” and Champions was the most recent occurrence. The golf was a lot of fun, but it was the people, food, drinks, that added up to a really special experience. If I wasn’t staying in a cabin off the tenth at Augusta National during the Masters, I’d want to be in one of the cottages at Champions Retreat… Anybody want to chip in and come along?