At South Georgia’s Ohoopee Match Club, Old World Scoring and Spectacular Scenery Share The Honors
COBBTOWN, GEORGIA | Rare is the golf retreat where both club and course enthrall. But such is the case with the Ohoopee Match Club, which officially opened last fall on more than 2,100 remote acres in Vidalia onion country just west of Savannah. Founded by Mike Walrath, a bartender-turned-tech-industry-titan, it is designed to be a place wholly about golf – and golf as it is so often enjoyed in the Old World, in matches as opposed to medal play.
The membership is small in number and populated by people who possess profound passion for the sport and deep knowledge of the game and its culture. The guest policies are liberal, so groups can gather at Ohoopee for fun competition as well as good food and drink, whether accompanied by members or not.
Just as appealing is the layout that Gil Hanse and his associate Jim Wagner constructed on this sand-based site, which boasts gentle rolling hills, small groves of live oaks, stands of cathedral pines and meadows. A lake is cut in one part of the property, the Ohoopee River runs through another, and small clusters of cacti grow throughout. The course is reminiscent of heathland-style tracks like Sunningdale outside London – and also evokes places like Pine Valley and Royal Melbourne, thanks largely to the vast sand waste areas the designers incorporated in many of the holes and the bunkering around the greens.
The course at Ohoopee is a par-72 that measures more than 7,000 yards from the tips – but can be set to play at far less taxing distances. There is also a so-called Whisky Routing, a separate track that incorporates five completely different holes (dubbed A, B, C, D and E) and variations of 13 from the big course. Par on this puppy is 69, the scorecard says it measures 5,610 yards and the idea is to give golfers an alternate and less arduous place to tee it.
“The site drains incredibly well and provides really interesting movement and contours,” says the 43-year-old Walrath, who in 2007 sold the digital advertising exchange marketplace firm that he had founded and run, Right Media, to Yahoo for a reported $850 million. “The dunes are very special, and Gil and Jim did an amazing job of building us exactly the type of course we wanted, focused on fun, risk/reward decision-making and showcasing the natural beauty of the environment.
“Because of the sandy soils, we are able to present a course that varies greatly with the seasons, while always playing firm and fast,” adds Walrath, who after selling Right Media worked at Yahoo as a senior vice president of advertising strategy for two years before setting out on his own as a venture capitalist and angel investor. “The personality of the golf course changes over the course of the seasons. With changing conditions and a huge array of setup options, we can present a different golf course every day of the year.”
Walrath is right about the course being special. The design compels golfers to use every club in their bags and hit a variety of shots. Hanse and Wagner made it to be a strategic layout, and golfers are rewarded if they hit to the proper sides of the fairways, and the right quadrants of the greens. But it is also quite playable and gives golfers the ability to hit recovery shots if they miss their targets. When the wind comes up, as it often does, it takes even more of a British Isles feel.
Few people realize that a rich vein of white sand, similar to that found in Wisconsin where Mike Keiser built Sand Valley, and in Nebraska where Sand Hills is found, also runs through Georgia from a line just north of Columbus on the Alabama line down to Savannah. The sandy soil bifurcates the red clay of the north with the swampland of the Okefenokee in the south. One of the reasons golf hasn’t been built in this rich basin until now is something Southerners call “the gnat line,” an imaginary line that designates where elevation and humidity provide the perfect breeding ground for the tiny, irritating insects. Middle and south Georgia, from Macon to Moultrie, is the heart of the gnat line, which can make golf in the summer akin to battling an Egyptian plague.
The soil is also what gives the onions from nearby Vidalia their taste, a combination of the sand and blackwater nutrients spilling in from the Okefenokee that produce the sweetest onions in the world.
As for the nature of the club and its emphasis on match play, they only enhance that throwback feel.
I traveled to Ohoopee shortly after its opening last fall, for a two-day event called the Bernard Darwin Matches. The drive from Savannah took me from an interstate to a two-lane blacktop and eventually a sandy lane that led me past scrubby fields and ramshackle wood houses. In front of a few of those, University of Georgia flags flew from aluminum poles. There were beat up pickups in several of the driveways and tractors, too. But no signs of golf. I wondered for a moment whether I had made a wrong turn. But then I saw a flag with the Vidalia onion logo of Ohoopee and a guard house by the entrance to the property.
Driving down the club road, I gaped at the sandy road, and all the sand I saw off to the sides. Then, I came upon the four eight-bedroom cottages that Walrath constructed to house visitors. Their dark-stained wood siding and tin roofs gave them the feel of stables. Just beyond them was the lodge, and it had a similar look. I later learned that in addition to being the place where visitors to Ohoopee did most of their eating and drinking, that building also contained a dozen “dormie rooms,” which can be used as singles or doubles. A back terrace with sweeping views of the first tee and 18th green and the lake beyond No. 1 looked like it would be a terrific place to kick back. So did the rocking chairs and fire pit there, and the country music that wafted out of a pair of speakers.
The field for the Bernard Darwin Matches was comprised of 40 players, and it was an eclectic mix of personalities and handicaps. Several were longtime raters for the most highly regarded top-100 course lists. Some played a bit of competitive amateur golf. Hanse was there as well. I was surprised for a moment to see Web.com Tour professional Zac Blair. But then I remembered his interest in course design – and his hopes to build a layout of his own in his home state of Utah, at a place he wants to call the Buck Club. So, his presence made sense, as did that of another aficionado of architecture, Will Collins, who currently competes on the PGA Tour Latinamérica.
After warming up on the practice facility, which abuts the pro shop and includes a massive range, an expansive short-game area and a practice green designed to resemble the fabled Himalayas of St. Andrews, we headed out for our first round, on the big course. Thankfully, Ohoopee is walking only, though carts are available for those who must have one, and everyone in my foursome took a caddie.
I liked the layout right away. The opening hole is a perfect sort of throat clearer, with a big, wide fairway and an ample green that gives golfers a very good shot at par. Then comes a pair of five-pars, and after that a short four that could have been lifted from Pine Valley, what with its bunkers and waste areas as well as the groups of pines that grew alongside it and the changes in elevation.
It only got better from there, and though I was not scoring particularly well, I was not the least bit dismayed, because my partner and I were playing a match. Somehow, we managed to eke out a 1-up win, and after an hour at the 19th hole, the missed shots of the round were distant memories.
“I find the concept of match play very liberating when it comes to designing a golf course.” — course designer Gil Hanse
That evening, after drinks and dinner, Hanse spoke about the course. He described the land as being the best piece of property he and Wagner had ever had the pleasure of working on – and added that his biggest concern was not messing it up (though the language he used to make that point was much more colorful). “I find the concept of match play very liberating when it comes to designing a golf course,” he said. “Match play is the purest and most traditional form of golf, and you can bring more risk-and-reward into play, more do-or-die. And if you are not able to pull off the heroic shot, well, it’s no big deal. You just move on to the next hole.”
Hanse also spoke to the addition of the Whisky Routing. “For a lot of people, 36 holes in one day is too much,” he says. “But doing this, and having something that is a par-69 and just 5,800 yards long gives golfers an excellent option for a game in the afternoon.”
Indeed, it does, and our matches on Day Two were staged on that same track. It started with the same first hole, then moved to No. 6, playing shorter and off a different tee and from there to the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th, which were also different distances. Next up were the holes that bore the letters, A, B, C, D, and E, and from there we headed home, playing variations of Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. I relished the different look and feel of this setup and loved that I employed short irons on my approach shots here far more often than I had the day before.
Walking in that afternoon, I could not help but think what Walrath had told me when we first talked about Ohoopee. “We think golf should be fun, and that the most important part of any golf game or golf trip is who you get to spent time with,” he said, adding that the concept of developing a place like Ohoopee had been “percolating” in his head for years.
He is certainly right about that, and I found the Ohoopee Match Club to be fun in every respect of the word, and a terrific place to play.
May more places like it come on-line.
Top photo: The fearsomeness of the bunker at No. 14 is offset by the beauty of flowers. Photo: Andy Johnson
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