The Jekyll Island gem is already a world-class destination. The presence of the four marsh-bordered island holes make it unforgettable.
By Stan Awtrey
There are many remarkable aspects of a visit to the King and Prince Golf Course. It begins with the journey that takes you from the King and Prince Hotel to the clubhouse at the golf course. Located on the northern end of St. Simons Island, the drive for an early morning tee time to the King and Prince Golf Course is quiet and peaceful. The two-lane Frederica Road veers off the right on the roundabout and leads to the destination. (Going left there will take you to Christ Church and historic Fort Frederica, both worthy of a visit, but today’s mission is golf.)
You’ll share the road with an occasional landscaper’s truck – they may be the only ones in a hurry on a quiet, still morning – and a here-and-there deer. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll enter the gate and get glimpses of the course on the way in. It’s just a teaser, because good times are around the corner.
It doesn’t take long to notice the externals that make the King and Prince Golf Course a special place. The course was built on the former site of the 18th century Hampton Plantation, where they grew cotton, indigo and rice. The course is drop-dead gorgeous, green and luscious to look at. The live oaks, adorned with their mossy splendor, provide more eye candy. The clubhouse is lovely and its efficient, friendly staff offers a warm welcome and instructions to get the day started right.
And what a day it will be. Eighteen holes, four of them on an island the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else or ever replicated again. Yes, the vibe is unquestionably mellow and the amenities are wonderful, but the main attraction is The King and Prince Golf Course. There’s nothing quite like it.
The course was built by Gentleman Joe Lee, who apprenticed and worked under prolific designer Dick Wilson. Lee’s touches – the use of nature, strategic bunkers and those that frame the fairways and greens, forward-facing greens – can be found throughout the King and Prince, which opened in 1989 as the Hampton Club. Lee was tasked with designing a layout that played around and through the marshes and wetlands. The result was a widely praised course that is both playable, beautiful and memorable.
“He wanted something different and he wanted to create a good golf experience,” general manager Rick Mattox said.
Lee certainly succeeded, as he often did. For years Lee did most of the heavy lifting for Wilson and built more than 100 courses on his own after Wilson’s death. Lee is best known for his work in Florida – including the three courses at Disney World — and even ventured to California to build LaCosta and Del Mar. His Georgia work includes Rivermont Country Club in Johns Creek, Green Island Country Club in Columbus, Callaway Gardens’ Mountain View and Indian Hills Country Club in Marietta.
His work, from the modest nine-hole courses to the grandiose clubs, never fail to meet expectations. That’s why Jack Nicklaus once said, “Joe Lee has never built a bad course.”
He built a very good course on St. Simons Island. The King and Prince Golf Course isn’t long – only 6,462 from the tips – and it’s flat. Remember, the course is at sea level, so there’s very little elevation change. (The highest point may be where you check in at the clubhouse.) Choosing the correct set of tees can improve your experience; there are more carries over water and marsh required for those who play the two longer sets of four tees.
There isn’t a bad hole on the course. The front nine is a parkland style and the back nine roams through and around the marshes, lagoons and ponds. It’s really like playing two different courses. The conditions are unique; the fairways are planted with the shade-tolerant Celebration Bermuda that stays green in the hot summers and seems to prop up the ball to provide a better shot-making opportunity.
The opener is a solid par 4 that gives you a chance to ease into the course without getting hammered. The serious stuff begins at No. 3, a long par-5 dogleg left that’s rated as the toughest hole on the course. A pond is on the right to catch a shot that leaks, while the marsh awaits on the left for anyone who overcooks a hook.
The best hole on the front side is the ninth, a par 4 that offers plenty of risk and reward. The tee shot must find a narrowing fairway – from the back set it requires a longer drive over a lake. The end of the fairway takes a sharp 45-degree turn to the left to an approachable green. It’s a fun hole and makes you want to say, “I’d like another crack at that one.”
The fun really starts on the four-hole stretch that begins at No. 12, a stretch that Lee didn’t have on the original design. Those are the island holes that could not even be built today because of environmental regulations. They offer remarkable views of the marshes and players feel a sense of solitude there that can be equaled in few other settings.
The 12th tee is on the mainland and is a short-iron to a green that is surrounded by trouble, particularly if you come up short. A bridge takes you to the green and starts you on the adventure.
The 13th and 14th holes are magnificent. The 13th is a challenging par 4 that requires a semi-blind tee shot from the back tees. But there’s plenty of room in the fairway – you’ve got marsh trouble all the way up the left side — that plays slightly uphill to a green that seems to stick out in the middle of the marsh. It’s an unforgettable setting.
The 14th takes you the other way, with marsh on the left of the par 5 that turns to the right. The pond on the right awaits any loose shot and requires players to take more club to stay safe.
The 15th is another shortish par 3 framed by those famous “ungentlemanly” bunkers. As much as you’d like to turn the cart to the right and tour those holes again, you go back over the bridge to complete the final three holes.
“The Island holes are what people always remember,” Mattox said. “It’s always a major topic of conversation. They can’t believe we were able to get them done.”
The finishing hole is a shortish par 5 that offers a final opportunity for par. There’s water on the right side for the final furlong of the fairway and can eat a poorly struck approach to the green. But, if attacked correctly, the hole can provide some good mojo to end the round.
In 2009, as the course completed two decades of use, the owners wanted to restore the beauty and playability of Lee’s original design. The idea was to make a few changes to the course without making alterations to the routing and to protect the integrity of Lee’s original work.
Billy Fuller, the former superintendent at Augusta National, was hired for the redo. He added some fairway bunkers, reshaped some greens and fairways and cleaned up some of the sightlines. The changes were helpful and popular.
“It’s been ten years and people still talk about it,” Mattox said. “To be part of something so important is very fulfilling.”
Mattox should know. He was lured from Charlotte to St. Simons in 1989 to serve as PGA head professional. He has been involved in all aspects of the operation, from real estate to construction, from the home owners association to club management. Sometimes you might even catch him cooking burgers and hot dogs in the grillroom. Mattox is held in high esteem by the colleagues; in 2011 he received the Bill Strasbaugh Award, given to members for their integrity, willingness to mentor other professionals and for making an impact on the career of others.
Superintendent Chuck Moore began his career at the King and Prince as part of the maintenance crew in 1995. He has been the superintendent for 20 years and in 2017 was named the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association’s Superintendent of the Year.
The course has a small membership, but it’s open to the public. Guests who stay at the King and Prince Hotel receive a discounted rate.
Information and reservations are available at KingandPrince.com.