My dad and I had been waiting for years for me to graduate college so that we could take a once in a lifetime trip to the home of golf. Unfortunately, COVID had other ideas for our summer plans, but we were determined to make the best of it. We hope we can finally make that trip to Scotland next year.
Our destination: Sea Island, Georgia and the prestigious Sea Island Golf Club. The club hosts the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic each fall and is home to plenty of Tour pros who have been affectionately dubbed the Sea Island mafia.
The ultimate travel day
Our trip started early with a 5:15 am flight to Jacksonville, which surprisingly was the closest airport, located just 90 minutes from Sea Island. The early flight gave us plenty of time for golf in the afternoon. I was hoping to play the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship, but there was some sticker shock when I learned that the greens fees are $600 per person.
That meant we needed to “settle” for the Valley Course. That course was no slouch—it has played host to several Korn Ferry Tour events, including the 2020 Korn Ferry Challenge won by Luke List.
As you might expect from a facility with a course that costs $600 per round to play, the experience was top-notch. The course had several parking spots reserved for Tour players, and we saw what I assumed to be an LPGA Tour player—her shirt had many more logos than the average golfer—grinding on the practice putting green with an instructor.
As for the golf course, it was one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever played. I bought a yardage book in the pro shop—you know you’re at a special place when they have a yardage book available for regular golfers—and found myself burying my head in it like I was the best player in the world.
We started on the back nine, and the first thing I noticed was water, and a lot of it. We started on the back nine and the 10th hole is a medium length par 4 with water all the way down the right. I quickly realized how different Bermuda grass is than the bent grass we play up north when I flew a nine iron 140 yards (usual 9 iron distance for me is 120) and had a 50-foot putt.
The unique feature I appreciated was the moguls that often lined the side of fairways. Seven of the nine holes on the back side had water running all the way down one side or the other, which made the Valley course one of the tightest golf courses I’ve ever played.
The other side of the holes with water often had moguls that made up the rough on that side. These were both a blessing and a curse, the hills helped keep errant shots in play but also gave you many uneven lies in Bermuda rough that is inconsistent.
Bermuda rough is a bit of a tease, sometimes I walk up to the ball and it looks like it’s sitting up on a tee, but the ball comes out dead and ends up way short. Other times I see the same lie and the ball flies 20 yards past where I want it to go—like what happened on 10.
Unfortunately, a severe thunderstorm rolled in and we only got to play the back nine. Even without seeing the front side, the Valley course was one of the most difficult tests of golf I’ve ever played. But it was a very fun test, one that forces you to think about every aspect of every shot. It’s a course that I would love to play a lot to try to master.
A few people I talked to said they like the Valley course more than the Stadium course, and after playing the Valley I see why.
Sea Island Retreat
We arrived at Sea Island after a short 30-minute drive from Brunswick, Georgia, where we stayed our first night after driving to the area from Jacksonville. In typical Santo family fashion—not much else besides golf matters on trips like these—we went straight to the golf course before even checking into our hotel for a round on the Retreat course.
The Retreat course was a perfect warm up knowing we would be playing two other courses that are tough enough to challenge the best players in the world. Davis Love III redesigned the course in 2001 hoping to blend the preferences from the previous design and new original features designed to make the course more playable.
The new design added 300 yards of length that made the course even more open. The course felt like it achieved exactly what Love III set out to do with his re-design, building what played as a typical resort course while implementing some of the features from the Seaside and Plantation courses.
The main feature we quickly noticed were the massive bunkers that were often placed far below the level of the greens and looked like a bigger southern US version of the pot bunkers you see every year at The Open Championship.
Overall, the course was in perfect condition and got us acclimated to the type of conditions you face in the sweltering Georgia heat.
Sea Island Seaside
The Retreat course is at a separate location from the Seaside and Plantation courses, so we got our first look at the “real” Sea Island Golf Club when we arrived for our first tee time on the Seaside course.
The experience began at the driving range. The driving range is just as carefully maintained as the golf courses, had a wonderful view of the ocean and chipping and putting greens where it seemed like you were hitting shots into the sea.
One of the first words I would use to describe the Seaside course is intimidating. It’s a links style course that feels as if trouble lurks around every corner. I love playing courses that you see on Tour every year, it gives you a much better idea of exactly what the best players in the world are playing as they work their way around the golf course.
The butterflies stepping onto the first tee are difficult to describe. You know you’re on one of the nicest golf courses in the world, but one designed to challenge the best players in the world, so you’re never sure if you are about to get your teeth kicked in for the next four hours.
In my opinion, what makes a golf course great is that Tour players can go to the back tees and be challenged, and that regular golfers can play the right tees and have a good time while hitting some of the same shots you see on TV every year.
The Seaside certainly accomplished that. My dad and I are not long hitters, but we had a blast playing from the white tees, which measure about 6000 yards. Pace of play was constantly stressed, but we consider ourselves fast players and finished in about four hours even though we stopped to take a few pictures and I deliberately played slower just to enjoy the round more.
Our caddie Seth added a lot to the experience. He gave me at least a chance at making putts by helping me with the reads on the grainy Bermuda greens I don’t play often and told plenty of entertaining stories.
We stood on the championship tee at the 360 yard 8th hole and were immediately intimidated by the forced carry over water if you wanted to cut the corner. Seth casually told a story about Jason Kokrak driving that green with a 3 wood, a completely unfathomable task from that distance, but that’s why these guys play for millions.
The course was tough, and I added an additional challenge by playing from the championship tee on any hole that was a reasonable distance for me, just to give myself a little taste of Tour life. Hitting driver on a par 3 happens to me more often than I’d like to admit, and trying to hit driver on a 230-yard par 3 gave me even more of a perspective of how good these Tour players are. It’s fun to bomb driver on any course, but something about being by the ocean makes it more fun than usual.
At times, it felt as if there was nowhere to miss, as the margin for error was so small and every green had runoffs and bunkers guarding them that made every short game shot feel like a major challenge.
It’s the kind of course I would want to play a lot to try to master its little intricacies. Playing the course for the first time, it was difficult to figure out where the landing areas were. In true links style, there were plenty of blind shots. But when we drove up to the ball, the landing areas were far more generous than they appeared.
Overall, the Seaside Course was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a golf course.
Sea Island Plantation
The third course we attacked on our trip was the Plantation course. The track doesn’t have as much notoriety as the Seaside course, but its profile has expanded since it has been included in the RSM Classic.
Davis Love III and Mark Love redesigned the Plantation course last year. The Loves switched a few things around and changed part of the strategy needed to work your way around the golf course.
Like Seaside, the Plantation course’s difficulty stems from its visually intimidating nature. At times it appears like there’s nowhere to hit the ball, but in reality there are generous landing areas that allow players to take it deep if they’re on their game.
“With the re-do we removed a lot of the hazards, bunkers and so forth out of the way,” Golf Performance Center director Craig Allan said. “And it gives you an opportunity to play one side of the golf course or the other and again.”
The new design added more bulkheads along the hazards to widen the fairways slightly while keeping a lot of the original features like sleepers in the bunkers and tight run offs on the edges of the greens.
By far the most challenging feature of the Plantation course was the severely sloping greens. There are no easy putts on the course. The greens are quite generous, but the slopes mean a three-putt is just waiting to happen on any green from any distance.
The “redan” green on the third hole is one of the most interesting features of the golf course. If you get your ball feeding down the slope from right to left, you can get your ball close even without landing it in a great spot. But if your ball stays up on the right side, you’re in for the most difficult putt on the golf course.
The Seaside course is one of the toughest tests of golf you’ll ever play, but the Plantation takes the best features of the Seaside course and transforms it into a more playable golf course. Without question I would love another chance to take on all three courses.
Tour player for a day
Another highlight of the trip that went beyond the golf course was getting some instruction at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center. For a golf nerd like me, getting to use some of the state of the art technology they have along with working with some of the best instructors in the world made for an unforgettable experience.
I hadn’t had a golf lesson since high school, so I was eager to get an evaluation of where my swing was at. I underwent the famous spinal fusion surgery—yes, the same one Tiger had, but mine was much worse—in 2013, and in the years since my swing has been a patchwork job trying to put the pieces together with limited mobility and flexibility.
My game is simple, I drive the ball short but straight, my iron play is by far the weakest part of the game, chipping is my strength, and my putting is inconsistent.
The swing changes I was given were simple, we made my grip a bit weaker and re-routed my takeaway to get the club more inside and on plane on the way back, then less over the top on the way through. This gave me a bit more power, I was making solid contact before, but my shots would fall weakly to the right and go far shorter than my normal iron distances.
The most eye-opening part of the experience was the putting lesson. I have been searching for answers to my putting woes more than ever this season. I lengthened my putter to 36 inches to make putting easier on my back and benched my Scotty Cameron Newport 2 I had used since I was 14 years old for a different Scotty model that was a wider blade shape with a plus sign alignment aid. I also tried out a Cleveland Frontline mallet, but I felt the too much of the weight was towards the front of the putter.
I figured the wider blade was essentially a middle ground between the two so I had been using that putter for most of this season. Turns out, my putter could not have been a worse fit for my stroke.
It took instructor David Angelotti about 30 seconds to figure out that my putter was way too long and immediately placed a 34-inch Odyssey two ball blade in my hands. We then addressed major issues in my setup—there’s nothing more humbling than realizing your 20-handicap dad is a far better putter than you—before he gave me a couple drills to work on the technical aspects of my stroke.
We then went about choosing a putter that fit my new stroke and settled on a new shape—the Odyssey Triple Track Ten—it was the easiest sale Angelotti will make all year.
With plenty of Tour players calling Sea Island home, the facility had every piece of technology necessary for them to compete on the world stage. It’s not just for professionals—we also saw several division 1 college players grinding away on the range.
But the best part is that regular people like us had access to that exact same technology. The next player to swing in the bay I used for my lesson was world number 10 Harris English.
“No matter whether you're a top 10 player in the world, or you're somebody who plays 10 times a year, that doesn't matter to us, what matters to us is how can we help you. And that's ultimately our goal,” Allan said.
The 19th hole
For some players, the cold beer or two after the round with friends or family is the best part of golf. I’m not a huge fan of beer, but I am known amongst my friends and family as a hard cider connoisseur. Hard seltzer has taken over a lot of cider’s popularity, but my favorite cider companies keep making new flavors attempting to grab some of the market share.
Hard cider options were limited in Georgia, but I did enjoy the Atlanta Cider Company’s Tiki Haze flavor. I am not a fan of some summer seasonal ciders, I find the combination of summer fruits they use to be a bit odd. I was not expecting to like the Tiki Haze, but I was pleasantly surprised by its flavor. It wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet and had the right touch of fruity flavor.
There is nothing I love more than good breakfast food. French toast is one of my favorites, and Sea Island Golf Club had an excellent French Toast. Peaches are my favorite fruit, and to my surprise it was difficult to find peaches in the peach state. Few restaurants had the peach cobbler I craved, but I did find French Toast with peaches, and it was delicious.
Breakfast wasn’t the only excellent meal we had in Sea Island. Reservations were slightly hard to come by, so we went off property for dinner a couple times. Bennie’s Red Barn was one of our favorites. It looked rundown from the outside, but the interior was beautiful and it felt like a southern staple eating in a literal barn. The steaks were delicious as well.
We didn’t stay at the Cloister—the fanciest hotel on the property and the only Forbes five-star hotel in Georgia—but we did enjoy a nice Italian meal and took in the beautiful grounds afterwards. A perfect nightcap after a long day of golf.
Makin’ music in Music City
I spend a lot of time around the game of golf. I write about golf for a living and play golf 3-4 days per week during the summer. But one of my main passions outside of golf has always been country music.
I know it sounds weird for a kid from Boston to be obsessed with country music, and I don’t quite know how exactly it happened, but it did. My love for music first blossomed when I was a freshman in high school and went to my first concert, from then on I was hooked.
When I find something that I like, I go all in, it’s just my personality. From that first live show on, I went to concert after concert, making sure to never miss one performance any time one of my favorite artists came to New England.
I’ve always been good with words—hence why I write for a living—and I always said that I would be a songwriter in another life. After years of saying that, I decided to make it a part of my current life.
I bought a guitar early last year and spent hours and hours trying to learn how to play it. My school allowed students to take classes at Berklee College of Music and have the credits transfer, so I took a songwriting class and a music business class.
After about a year of vocal lessons, guitar lessons, and hours of practice, I decided to begin writing my own music. I found the process of learning to play music was just like learning to play golf. I released my first original song earlier this year, but I was unsure of myself and couldn’t go all out with recording, production, etc.
I went all out for this next song. I wrote it with Brandon Ray, one of the best songwriters in Nashville who works with some of the most successful artists in the world. We wrote a song called “Life worth Living” and I knew it was special the day we wrote it.
Brandon got a band together and recorded all the instruments which made the track come to life. Then I made the trip to Nashville to record vocals.
This recording session was certainly on another level from my last song, where I tracked the vocals in my bedroom. Brandon called me the day before to give me some details and just casually mentioned that I would be recording at the same studio where Luke Combs recorded his first record. Knowing I would be where one of my favorite albums of all-time was created certainly added to the anxiety I was already feeling.
The studio couldn’t have been farther from Music Row, it was way out of town in Mt Juliet, Tennessee and in a small house that was under construction, not exactly where you expect to find a state of the art recording studio. But this was as perfect as a studio gets.
I was intimidated walking through the door, but Brandon and vocal engineer Grant Edwards calmed me down immediately. I thought they might get frustrated working with an amateur like me, but surprisingly they didn’t.
I had been practicing for months, and I guess it showed. We scheduled the session for four hours, but I was done recording my vocal in just two and a half hours, which they said was because I was so prepared.
It was a huge confidence booster for me to work with these experienced pros and know I could hold my own. I can’t wait for the final mix to come back and I’m already looking forward to the next song.
One of the main reasons I was looking forward to this trip so much was because it felt like the culmination of five years of hard work. I did a lot of cool things in college, I lived several different places, had a lot of experience and learned a lot from each one. It felt like it took forever to graduate—I took a gap year after high school, so I was a year behind my high school class.
I am at a point in my life where it feels as if everything is starting from scratch. This trip was meant to be a vacation with some once in a lifetime experiences that would give me good memories to fall back on when life inevitably gets tough down the road.
After taking a bit of a break this summer, this fall will mark the first time that I will be working full-time and not going to school. I am looking forward to this, but it is certainly giving me plenty of anxiety. But it is a challenge that I think I’m prepared for.
My life to this point has been unique, and at times it is difficult to find people who I think understand some of the things I’ve gone through. But lately I’ve been trying to connect with the people who witnessed it all—my family.
I was eager to go on this trip with my dad because I wanted to learn more about myself and how I interacted with him. My dad comes off as quite the tough guy. He’s hard on me, but it’s clear that it’s because he wants me to succeed. I often feel that he is too tough on me, that I understand the things he’s telling me and that he doesn’t need to constantly remind me.
Our personalities often clash, but what better way to bond with your dad than a golf trip. Playing these beautiful courses, it was the first time in my life that I genuinely did not care about my score—a major milestone for me.
It’s no secret that I have plenty of anxiety about just about everything. But as we headed back home, my dad revealed one of his anxieties—that he likes to get to the airport with so much time to spare that there is zero chance he will ever miss a flight. It seems like something so small, and it is, but it was the first time in my life my dad had revealed something that bothered him.
My dad seemed bulletproof up to that point, even a recent diagnosis of skin cancer didn’t faze him. But I finally made a revelation that he is indeed vulnerable just like the rest of us.
It’s pretty much impossible to achieve every goal you set for yourself, but for one week I did. So I feel like I’m ready for the “real world”.