Donald Ross' fingerprints are all over the Oleander Course at Jekyll Island Golf Club

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. -- There was a time when Jekyll Island was a golf hot spot, when 140,000 golfers annually teed it up at one of the resort island's three and a half golf courses.

Jekyll Island G.C. - Oleander golf course
The greens on the Oleander Course at Jeykll Island Golf Club are in excellent condition.
Jekyll Island G.C. - Oleander golf courseJekyll Island Golf Club - Oleander CourseJekyll Island Golf Club - Oleander Course - deer
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Oleander at Jekyll Island Golf Club

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There are three 18-hole courses available at Jekyll Island Golf Club, making it the largest public golf facility in Georgia. The Oleander Course is the club's original layout and still remains the most difficult. Don't be fooled by its seemingly modest yardage, there are plenty of challenges in store. The course features tight-, tree-lined fairways and an abundance of water in play throughout.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6521 yards | ... details »

"It was huge," said Kevin Udell of the Jekyll Island Authority, the state agency that owns and operates the courses. "They said every morning people would be lined up outside the clubhouse."

Yearly rounds here are about half what they used to be. There are several reasons, some beyond the courses' and local officials' control.

Nowadays the Southeast is now lined with major destinations for golf vacations, from the Carolinas south into Florida. There's a lot more competition for golfers' vacation dollars.

It must be said as well that the great state of Georgia hasn't exactly gone out of its way to maintain Jekyll Island Golf Club in tip-top shape. In particular, the Oleander Course -- Jekyll's oldest course and biggest star, loaded with history and potential -- could use an infusion of cold, hard cash.

At 6,521 yards from the tips, Oleander is out of step with the modern trend of longer layouts, and out of fashion with those who like a little more distance.

But with some loving attention from a reputable architect, Jekyll Island could regain some of its lost golfing luster.

There has been talk of building condos on spare state-owned land to raise money for an upgrade, and of bringing in someone with a vision (read: a wealthy developer) to take care of business.

"This course, if it had $2 million, could be astounding," Udell said. "Which might happen -- there's some big money coming on the island."

There's plenty of possibility at this Donald Ross original. While the Oleander isn't officially recognized by the Donald Ross Society -- Dick Wilson, who oversaw a 1964 redo, gets credit -- the old master's fingerprints are all over the place, from the bunkering to the small, elevated greens. It's a classic Ross layout that needs only a modern touch-up.

While it's short, the course can be challenging. It's a tight track with some rugged doglegs, on most of which the tall trees rule out compromise. No. 12, a long par 4 with an approach over a wide creek that juts across the fairway, has been named one of Georgia's 18 hardest holes.

Jekyll Island Golf Club's Oleander Course: The verdict

For all its shortcomings, Jekyll Island Golf Club's Oleander Course is a good play, especially at $58 including cart (cheaper if you get a hotel/golf package or an annual discount card available to locals).

Right now, the best thing about the golf course is the setting. Development has been severely restricted on lovely Jekyll Island, and there's none at all around the course. Alligators and deer roam freely, seemingly used to the presence of humans.

It's well-laid out, as are most Ross courses, and has a nice mix of loblolly pines, white and live oaks and oleander. You can hear the roar of the ocean from almost anywhere on the course.

Stay and play

Jekyll Island was once a prime retreat for America's richest swells. It is said that when the likes of William Vanderbilt, J.P Morgan, William Rockefeller and Joseph Pulitzer wintered here, a sixth of the world's wealth as concentrated in one place.

At the center of it was, and still is, the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, built in 1886 as a private club for the very rich and now a National Historic Landmark. In the Grand Dining Room the original millionaires were served 10-course meals prepared by famous chefs.

The hotel has been modernized over the years, but you still get the feeling you're in an old place once haunted by the very rich, all wide porches, big verandas, bay windows, oak wainscoting and leaded art glass. Many of the rooms have Jacuzzis, fireplaces, balconies and sun porches. The marsh is always in view.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Jekyll Island Golf

    Mike Ryan wrote on: Jan 19, 2007

    I went to Jekyll Island several years ago and played all 63 holes over a few days. It was inexpensive compared to a similiar vacation in Hilton Head both for the golf and the hotels/meals. I would recommend Jekyll Island to anyone who wants some leisurely golf. BTW, my golf partner and I walked each round and had a great time. I would agree that the courses at HHI were generally superior to Jekyll, but again would unhesitatingly recommend going to Jekyll Island.