The course at Ocean Forest Golf Club was co-designed by Rees Jones and Greg Muirhead in 1995. It’s built on a wonderful parcel of Georgia land and it closely resembles a true seaside links. Some holes are routed alongside the Hampton River and the closing holes run down to the Atlantic Ocean. There are some spectacular views to drink and the fickle wind is an ever-present hazard.
With natural sand dunes and vast expanses of saltwater marsh, Ocean Forest is a challenging course that calls for each club in the bag. The doglegged par four 16th heralds the start of a great stretch of closing holes, playing through a narrow corridor of trees. If you pass the driving test, your approach shot will need to be from the top drawer in order to find the small green, which is heavily bunkered. The best hole is perhaps saved until last. This cracking par four plays tantalisingly alongside the Atlantic gradually leading you back to the welcoming clubhouse.
Ocean Forest will be remembered warmly by the Great Britain & Ireland team who secured a 15 points to 9 victory over team USA in the 2001 Walker Cup match.
Ocean Forest is located on the end of a barrier island where the Hampton River meets the Atlantic Ocean and the area is blessed with pine trees, sand dunes, oak trees, marshes, wetlands and a river estuary. The principles Rees Jones used to design the course are:
1. Small greens. The average green size is 5,300 square feet. The notable exception is the par three 17th green, which has an 11,000 square foot green
2. Greens with low profiles, in order to maintain playability in high winds
3. Slopes around the greens which direct missed shots away from the hole
To quote Jones, "I learned from Brookline that you don't need extraordinary length if you have small greens. When the targets are smaller, the penalty for missing them is magnified because there is a greater likelihood that they will be missed." Jones' term for the green designs at Ocean Forest is 'straight back', which means that there are no greenside features to throw wayward shots back toward the hole or stop balls that have been played too long. The greatest dangers at Ocean Forest are behind the greens. What makes the course unique is that it is essentially a links course, but without one of the central features of a links course, which is the ability to bump and run shots up to the green. The way Jones designed the greens, you have to pitch the ball onto them, which requires you to hit the ball high, as opposed to bumping it up. The approaches to most greens are narrow, with bunkers on both sides, making it a demanding course, particularly if the wind is blowing.
The 10th hole was my favorite on the course. Jones calls ten "the most thought provoking, risk-laden hole." The tee shot on this 545-yard par five demands a shot hit to a fairway which is set at an angle, over marsh grasses. It is a classic risk-reward shot. The further to the right you can successfully hit, the closer to the green you are. A shot hit short of the fairway is gone. There is a beautiful marsh along the entire right side of the hole. The green is treacherous, well protected by bunkers and has a lateral hazard on the right and to the rear.
Ocean Forest has all the essential elements of greatness present, but there is just something I can't put my finger on that keeps me from becoming a big fan.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs