Out of the shadows: Savannah emerges as a golf destination

By Joel Zuckerman, Contributor

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Crossing the magnificent Savannah River Bridge towards South Carolina, experienced drivers turn their gaze to the right. Looking east affords a glimpse of the leafy and flourishing downtown, while looking west provides a landscape of industrial blight. Now there's another compelling reason to fix your eye on the east. It's the Club at Savannah Harbor, a sterling Bob Cupp and Sam Snead co-design located on a spit of land on the Savannah River called Hutchinson Island.

This commendable layout is part of the Savannah Harbor Resort, and many players stay on premises at the 403 room Westin hotel, which is one of the finest lodgings in the Lowcountry. Presumably so will gentlemen like Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and their colleagues when they come to town. Though a fairly new venue, Savannah Harbor has made a distinctly positive impression, and has been selected to host the Senior PGA Tour's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf for at least four years, a tournament that played to rave reviews in its first incarnation this past spring.

You won't find too many vacationers, or Champions Tour pros, for that matter, willing to tackle this track from the laughably long championship markers, just a dozen steps shy of 7,300 yards. That's a reasonable distance for a golf course at altitude, something in Colorado or Utah. Here at sea level in the humid air, its borderline psychotic for all but the strongest players. The middle boxes are more than enough for most decent golfers, stretching over 6,600 yards. The front tees are perfect for seniors or "resort players" (i.e.-hackers) at about 6,050.

As befitting a resort course, the first few holes serve as something of a warm-up. A medium length par-4 is followed by an equally benign par-5, both with generous landing areas. The third hole is a change in tone though; a 430-yard par-4 with a monstrous, 17,000 square foot green. With about 65 paces from back to front, the various pin placements can result in as much as a five- or six-club difference on the approach shot. Frustrating as it might be to be faced with a 50-yard putt, the sheer size of the green and consequent variety of pin placements insure a golf hole that will play dramatically differently from day to day.

The short sixth hole is a straightforward par-3. It's unremarkable, save the unforgettable view of the Savannah River Bridge looming majestically behind the flagstick. One expects the bridge to be the dominating structure on the landscape, but in fact the most noticeable structure on the premises is the gleaming hotel. The bridge is more of an innocuous presence; a player can enjoy the graceful span or choose to ignore it.

More disconcerting are the other urban encroachments that detract just a bit from an otherwise bucolic experience. There are inherent difficulties in a golf course located in such close proximity to a city center. It's nice to be a stone's throw from downtown, but by extension, you're also shoulder to shoulder with the industrial base. The occasional sight of smokestacks, pulp mills and power lines tempers the novelty of golfing within view of the bridge or the golden dome of city hall.

On the other hand, with the exception of the trio of courses found on Daufuskie Island and just a few other examples, finding a truly rustic golf experience in this area is virtually impossible. A never ending succession of houses and condos line almost every fairway on the Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines Plantation , and many other area courses of lesser renown. In time, thoughtful tree plantings and landscaping will help to temper much of the urban intrusion which currently detracts a bit from the "walk in the park" ideal of a day on the links.

As benignly as it begins, the golf experience at Savannah Harbor concludes in stalwart fashion. The 15th and 16th are particularly harrowing. First is a long par-4 with wetlands guarding the right side as you approach the green. The next is a gargantuan par-5, 600 yards from the middle tees, with a visually intimidating drive. Many players will be in the unusual position of hitting a wood over wetlands to approach the green if their tee ball and second shot are anything less than ideal.

The shortish par-3 penultimate hole offers some relief, though it's ringed by bunkers. The final hole is a par-4 playing directly toward the clubhouse. It has marsh to the right, a copse of trees to the left and numerous bunkers guarding the green. Not exactly a stroll to the finish line.

Closing stretch aside, the Club at Savannah Harbor is a challenging, but not overwhelmingly difficult test of the game. The driving areas are generous, and while far from a treeless expanse, the tree cover is mostly incidental, much like the bridge in the backdrop. The course is managed by Troon Golf, one of the best names in the business, so conditioning is almost uniformly excellent.

Savannah's golf options always have paled in comparison to the richness and diversity of the Carolina Lowcountry. The Club at Savannah Harbor, a welcome and meticulously manicured addition, helps to tip the scales just slightly back in balance.

Joel ZuckermanJoel Zuckerman, Contributor

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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