JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — Jekyll Island has been a golf destination for more than a century, but things have changed a lot since golf was first played there in 1898.
The island thrived when the rich and famous hung out there, but that began to change in 1942 with the onset of World War II. Now it’s a state park.
Georgia is a state rich in golf resorts and, obviously, boasts Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters, and East Lake Golf Club, the home of the PGA’s Tour Championship. Also, at least 20 PGA Tour pros live on Sea Island.
And yet, the state’s biggest public golf facility is Jekyll Island State Park. With 63 holes now, it’s a golf destination that has had two distinct lives. From the late 1800s until 1942 in was a private playground for the wealthy. In 1948, after a period of decay during World War II, it was opened to the public.
History-wise, Jekyll Island stands tall because of what transpired there many decades ago. As a retreat for America’s wealthiest — people with last names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer and Astor either lived or hung out their regularly — Jekyll Island was one of America’s first golf destination.
Pine Lakes Hole No. 9 | Par 4. [Photo: Joy Sarver]
The Jekyll Island Golf Club was the 36th club to gain a charter with the U.S. Golf Association in 1886, though the members didn’t open a course until 1898. Scotsman Willie Dunn, runner-up in the first U.S. in 1899, designed an 18-holer and Horace Rawlins, the man who beat him in the 1895 U.S. Open at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, was Jekyll’s first head professional beginning in 1899.
Rawlins won the inaugural U.S. Open with rounds of 91-82, two strokes better than Dunn. The tournament, only a one-day affair back then, was contested on a Friday, the day after the three-day U.S. Amateur.
Just how long Rawlins hung around is uncertain, but the second head pro was also a notable player and stayed much longer. Karl Keffer won the Canadian Open in 1909 and 1914. In 1910, Keffer was hired as Jekyll’s second head pro. Only one Canadian golfer, Pat Fletcher in 1954, has won the tournament since Keffer last did it.
Keffler was Jekyll’s head pro until 1942 and during his time on the job the club got serious about golf. The members wanted a better course than the original one and a second course was started in 1910 with legendary Donald Ross as the architect. The course is now on the grounds of the Oleander course — toughest of Jekyll’s three 18-holers — but Ross no longer has his name on it.
The construction process was hampered by drainage problems.
“My understanding,” said present director of golf Spencer Brookman, “was that [Ross] was hired to build the course and got it started, then he was either terminated or they couldn’t get the course dry enough.”
That course wasn’t open long before the members lured Walter Travis to design another one, Great Dunes. Hiring Travis was a big deal, for he was a three-time U.S. Amateur champion (1900, 1901 and 1903) and the first non-Brit to win the British Amateur in 1904. He was also a prolific writer and course architect. Design work on Great Dunes began in 1926, according to the Walter J. Travis Society, and opened in 1928, a year after Travis’ death.
Fourteen years later the wealthy left the island, many believing it was too vulnerable to enemy air attacks with World War II looming. There were no workers to keep the place afloat anyway, and in 1947 the state of Georgia took it over and renamed it Jekyll Island State Park. That ended the first phase of Jekyll Island’s life as a golf destination and started the second, which continues to this day.
When Jekyll Island State Park opened to the public for the first time on March 1, 1948, golf was not an option. Neither Great Dunes nor the Club Golf Course that Ross designed was playable. Both were overgrown, and it took years to get the sport re-established on the island.
Great Dunes was reduced to nine holes in 1955 when the island was undergoing difficult financial times. The state then turned over what had been Ross’ design to architect Dick Wilson and he created what is now the Oleander course, which opened in 1964. Pine Lakes, the most family-friendly course, opened in 1968 after a combined design effort by Wilson and Joe Lee. Indian Mound, a Lee creation, was constructed in 1975.
Great Dunes was tweaked last year.
“That course has become more and more popular since we redid the greens and re-routed Nos. 1 and 9 toward the ocean,” said Brookman.
With all 63 holes up and running, the island re-emerged as tourist destination and some of the scenes in the golf-themed movie The Legend of Bagger Vancewere shot there.
“Oleander is more of a shot-makers course with more doglegs,’’ said Brookman. “It plays a lot longer than it looks. Pine Lakes is a little easier but still hard since it was redone in 2005 (by architect Clyde Johnston).’’
The courses are a center of amateur golf two weeks every year when — on consecutive weekends — they host a U.S. Kids Regional, which draws 320 youth golfers, and the Jekyll Island Intercollegiate, hosted by Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University, brings together more than four dozen combined men’s and women’s teams from the NCAA Division III ranks.
The three 18-hole courses are player-friendly and reasonably priced, while lodging and dining options on the island are more than ample.
“Once the state purchased the island there was definitely a push to rebuild,” said Brookman. “Now you can park your car, play 54 holes and never have to get back in your car. That sets us apart from other places.”
As does its history.