Augusta, Georgia is a golf town in which the legends of the game are remembered with a particular reverence. Each Spring, Augusta welcomes the world to the Masters tournament and the unofficial beginning of golf season. No other event or host community celebrates the game and it’s champions on a grander scale. It is in that spirit that a unique golf club called Champions Retreat was founded just outside of Augusta.
Champions Retreat is a private club with a direct connection to some of golf’s greatest ambassadors. The club was founded at the turn of the century with the idea to create a retreat near Augusta with golf courses designed by three of the most beloved Masters Champions. Today, Champions Retreat is the only golf club to feature designs by each of “The Big Three”; Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player. The club is widely known in corporate circles and among golf personalities as the premier place to stay and play during Masters week.
This Spring, there will be a new tradition in championship golf beginning in Augusta and Champions Retreat will play a major role. The week before the Masters will now include a new tournament called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in which a different crop of the world’s best golfers will compete over the fairways of Augusta. The event will be produced and hosted by the Augusta National Golf Club and the opening rounds of the tournament will be held at Champions Retreat.
I believe the Augusta National Women’s Amateur(ANWA) is already one of the most important tournaments in golf and not a single shot has even been struck. The Augusta National Golf Club is changing how it interacts with the broader game of golf and this new championship is a big part of that. The ANWA is a bold initiative and it will undoubtedly have an impact on how golf fans see the women’s game. I am fascinated that Augusta National is adding a tournament to its calendar and that they have partnered with another club to make the event a reality. This April the world will be watching as the best women amateurs in the game play in the inaugural ANWA and the majority of the competition will be at Champions Retreat.
I know the event will be a resounding success and as a father to a young daughter I’m excited to see where the tournament goes in the future. I’ll be there in April to see it all first hand and in order to better understand the setting I traveled to Champions Retreat to get to know the course and club as they prepare for the ANWA. After spending some time on site, I’m happy to report that the ingredients for something special are all in place.
A culture of comfort and camaraderie
When I arrived at Champions Retreat I was immediately struck by the old world setting. Instead of a large clubhouse, Champions Retreat has a collection of rustic buildings that create the feeling of a small village. The pro shop, locker rooms, and grill occupy the main buildings that surround a small green space and each has a wraparound porch that offers views of the club’s golf courses. The golf village at Champions Retreat will serve as the hub of all activity during the ANWA and the setting will certainly create a memorable ambiance for both players and patrons.
Everything about the setting of the club is designed to inspire members and guests to enjoy their stay. The cottages are all within short walking distance of the golf village and there is a beautifully crafted barn that serves as a gathering place and event space. During my stay I couldn’t help but feel as if I was at someone’s private estate with an invitation to make myself at home.
I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to speak at length with Cameron Wiebe, General Manager at Champions Retreat. When I asked Cameron about the culture at Champions Retreat he told me that his mission was to “lower the barrier to comfort” for anyone who comes on property. I can attest that he and his team are succeeding in that work.
Beyond the buildings in the village and the cottages, the laid back culture extends to the golf courses as well. I was thrilled to discover that the golfing members of Champions Retreat have created a culture that is built on the traditions of the game and decorated with their own tastes. For example, members are inclined to play matches not for money, but for the pride of taking their opponents golf ball. The loser of a match at Champions Retreat signs his or her golf ball and offers it to the victor as a memento of the match. Many members maintain bowls full of balls in their homes and offices to remember their victories and the friendships in which they forged.
There are also a number of rituals at Champions Retreat that the members regularly participate in. When a guest or potential new member plays the course for the first time they are invited to hit a drive over the Savannah River from the tee box of the sixth hole on the Island course. The river serves as the border between Georgia and South Carolina and this ritual offers players the chance to hit from one state into the next. There is also a large cast iron bell at the golf village that is intended to be rang only when a hole in one is recorded. Typically this signifies to all members and guests that the bar in the grill house is open until further notice. I imagine it will be a memorable scene should a competitor ring the bell during the ANWA.
The Island, the Bluff, and the Creek
Champions Retreat has many splendid amenities, but the main reason for visiting the club will always be the golf. The story of how the club came to be has become a legend of sort for those who know the place. In 1999, Gary Player approached his good friends and fellow Masters champions Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus with the idea of creating a new club near Augusta. This conversation at the champions dinner led to each of them and their respective design companies coming together for a one of a kind project.
As the story goes, Player devised a blind draw process for who would get which pieces of land to design their nine holes over. Player drew up three index cards to denote the varied features of the property. Arnold Palmer pulled the first card as the most senior member of the group. His card read “the island.” Jack Nicklaus went second and drew a card that read “the bluff” and finally Gary Player was left holding a card indicating “the creek.” Each team had their land and set forward to design a course that spoke to their varied approaches to the game.
The three courses share similarities, but they are also decidedly different from each other. During the ANWA the competition will take place over the Island and Bluff courses. That decision was made largely due to logistics and should not be viewed as any indication as to preference of the designs. I played both the Island and the Bluff courses to experience what the players will see during the ANWA and I was impressed by the routing.
The composite of these course creates a layout that will take players across the property in an adventurous fashion. The Island course will serve as the front nine and the Bluff as the back. Players will venture from the golf village down towards the confluence of the Savannah and Little Rivers where they will play over the small island that is created there. Palmer’s Island course features fabulous views of the rivers that run through the property. These will be the holes that many will remember from watching the ANWA on television.
The Island course returns to the golf village and players will move over to the Bluff and its pine covered hills. The Bluff course has a rolling topography and the Nicklaus team created nine beautiful holes that climb and dive over and down through the wooded landscape. This is the course that most resembles the Augusta National Golf Club. Player will be challenged here with uneven lies and testy greens as they come down the stretch in search of a score good enough to make the cut for the final round.
Players competing in the ANWA will finish their rounds on the final hole of the Bluff course which ends adjacent to the golf village. As I walked up this hole, I was delighted to imagine the area filled with patrons and surrounded by the excitement of the inaugural ANWA. Those who earn their way into the event will surely walk away with a collection of special memories at Champions Retreat and a select few will exit the courses knowing that they have punched their card to the final at Augusta National.
Welcoming the ANWA
Champions Retreat has built a strong reputation for providing world class hospitality to its members and guests. The club is home to a fine collection of cabins and amenities that fill up each year during the Masters and now the club will have an opportunity to showcase their hospitable nature on a grand scale when the ANWA begins in April.
Every golf fan knows of Augusta National and their reputation for precise execution and for them to choose Champions Retreat as its partner for the ANWA is quite the endorsement. The event is large in its scale and ambition yet it is clear that the aim is to create a intimate environment for the competition to unfold in. In that effort, Champions Retreat will be the perfect paring to Augusta National.
The format for the event will undoubtedly create some drama for both players and patrons. The field will be comprised of 72 competitors and after 36 holes at Champions Retreat only the top 30 will advance to the final round at Augusta National Golf Club. There will be no ties for the final 30 spots so it is highly likely that a playoff will occur to determine who gets to move on. The team at Champions Retreat is paying special attention to insure the staging of the tournament and its early rounds is as perfect as possible.
Players will be greeted by a world class staff and a first rate environment for golf. The team at Champions Retreat is preparing an ideal setting for this important new championship to be held. Although competitors will be playing with the hopes of reaching Augusta National for the final, most will only have their time competing at Champions Retreat to remember the event by. Cameron Wiebe and his staff are well aware of this and they are on a mission to make sure every moment at Champions Retreat is unforgettable.
The Augusta National Women’s Amateur may be the most intriguing new golf event in the world. As time draws nearer to the opening shots, golfing enthusiasts are starting to turn their attention to this ground breaking tournament. Champions Retreat will take center stage as golf fans will be watching closely to see which players earn the right to play at Augusta National. Because of the ANWA, Champions Retreat will soon be known as an integral part of an important and unfolding chapter in the history of golf. After a few days on the property, I am convinced that the club will flourish in that reality.
Be sure to tune in this April for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur as the event is broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC. The tournament takes place April 3-6, 2019.
If you are interested in learning more about why I believe this event is so important for golf, you might enjoy a previous piece I wrote about my perspective as the father of a young daughter. See Winnie Could Win at Augusta for more.