For ultimate swamp golf, get yourself down to Waycross, gateway to the Okefenokee

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Waycross, Georgia is a good starting point to explore the huge Okefenokee Swamp and to get in some golf at one of the area's golf courses, like the Lakes at Laura Walker State Park, Okefenokee Country Club and Lakeview Golf Club.

Okefenokee Swamp - Alligator
Alligators are no longer considered an endangered species in the Okefenokee.
Okefenokee Swamp - AlligatorLakeview Golf Club - Blackshear, Ga.Lakes at Laura Walker State Park Golf CourseOkefenokee Country Club
If you go

WAYCROSS, Ga. - The tourist walking her little white poodle on a leash, high on the bank above the boat ramp that disgorges boats into the great Okefenokee Swamp, was oblivious to the subtle wake down at the water's edge. Barely visible above the water was the tip of an elongated snout, moving noiselessly through the dark, tannic water.

A closer look revealed a pair of reptilian eyes. They followed the dog's every move.

When the lady and her dog stopped, the wake disappeared. When the pair began walking again, the wake reappeared. When the lady started to take her dog down to the water's edge, it was time to warn her. Staring in horror, mouth agape, she scooped up Fifi in her arms and scrambled up the bank to her husband waiting by his car.

Fifi lived another day and the snout sank slowly out of sight in the water, the disappointed 8-foot alligator looking elsewhere for a breakfast appetizer.

You won't find many marketers hawking a swamp-golf trip, but it you're looking for something different - the real "wet and wild" - try golf in Waycross and the surrounding area.

Waycross is one of a handful of Georgia cities claiming to be the gateway to the Okefenokee. Waycross is at the northern tip of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, and boasts several golf courses, enough to make a three- or four-day swamp-golf trip viable.

Most golfers are outdoors people in general, and the Okefenokee is the largest, intact, un-fragmented wilderness swamp in North America. It's almost 440,000 acres - nearly 700 square miles - straddling the Georgia/Florida border.

Things to do in the Okefenokee

The Okefenokee is a vast, peat-filled bog, and what better place for a man to have fun in than a peat-filled bog?

Oddly enough, the fishing isn't as spectacular as you might think. It has to do with the tannic acid level of the big swamp. Still, you can catch bowfin, bream and largemouth bass. In fact, there are legends of giant largemouth caught in the Okefenokee, but scarce evidence. I myself have had only moderate success fishing the big swamp.

For a treat, go after chain pickerel, locally known as jackfish. Use a spinner bait and reel in fast for best results. They're bony, but can be eaten. Ask a local how to prepare them.

Maybe a better way to enjoy the swamp is to simply take a boat trip - either motorized or in a canoe or kayak - to enjoy the "Land of the Trembling Earth."

There are more than 120 miles of paddle and motor boat trails, and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge issues a limited number of overnight wilderness paddle trail permits. Or just paddle or motor around for a day, visiting the many islands and prairies.

Watch out for the gators, especially if you have a dog. Gators love dogs.

Waycross-area golf courses

The Lakes at Laura Walker State Park is deep in the Georgia woods with nothing but you and the lonesome pines. So lonesome, in fact, that you are warned not to drive or walk in the woods, lest you run into one of the more dangerous native species, like rattlesnakes.

Of course, being so close to the vast Okefenokee, there are also black bears, but you aren't likely to run into any so close to the golf course. Look for alligators in all the water on the course, though.

The Lakes is a very picturesque course, with three large lakes and small ponds dotting the landscape throughout. Fairways and landing areas are accentuated by links-style mounds. The Lakes at Laura Walker is an excellent value, with green fees of $33 weekdays and $38 weekends, including cart. Junior and senior discounts are available.

The Okefenokee Country Club is a private club just outside of Waycross. With its name, you'd think the course would be a swampy thing, all alligators, snakes and mosquitoes, but it isn't. In fact, water isn't really evident til you get on the back nine.

It does have the advantage of having the beautiful Satilla River playing alongside the 15th hole. With its dark waters, high banks and sandy beaches, the narrow waterway is just a tantalizer, though; you wish it made more appearances.

The golf course is laid out on classic, south Georgia terrain, with gnarled old oaks dripping with Spanish moss, pines, palmettos and other southern flora and fauna - plenty of shade on a sweltering, summer day. You can hear the cries of swamp birds occasionally, and catch glimpses of hawks and other airborne predators.

Lakeview Golf Club is in nearby Blackshear. The lake in question makes several appearances as you play your way around the golf course, slipping and sliding out of view on some holes while serving as the main man on a handful of others, both aesthetically and strategically.

Lakeview Golf Club is nicely treed, mostly with tall, stately pines, with some palms and oaks thrown in for good measure. The fairways are tree-lined, with an interesting configuration of holes. There are a number of doglegs that can be challenged, some water to be carried, blind tee shots to be negotiated, and the conditioning is good for a public course that is in a relatively rural part of the state.

Waycross hotels

For a serious wilderness experience, get an overnight permit and camp on top of a wooden platform built over the water, called a chickee.

If you're not into camping, the Holiday Inn in Waycross is a good place to stay if you want to sample Waycross' small sampling of golf or to play around in the big swamp. It's close to the Ware County airport and only 60 miles from the Jacksonville, Fla. airport.

The motel consists of a two-floor exterior corridor surrounding a pool area, with a good, full-service restaurant and lounge. Kids eat free. There's also a hot continental breakfast.

It opened in 1963, but the property has had many renovations since. There is a relatively extensive fitness center, and the motel offers guests use of a bigger fitness center a block away. There are laundry facilities to wash off the swamp bugs.

It has a business center and high-speed Internet service available.

They're country friendly here, which means for one thing they allow pets. Also, ask about the Okefenokee Swamp package.

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.

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