Savannah is no golf mecca. It’s a party town, where St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween supplant national holidays. It’s a foodie’s delight, with fine dining of renown and local favorites for every taste. It has a demonstrably hip vibe, thanks to the Savannah College of Art and Design, which dominates downtown.
That’s not to say golf has no place in Savannah’s tourist equation. Indeed, The Club at Savannah Harbor is a peaceful respite from the party scene—and one of the most highly-regarded layouts in Georgia. Moreover, a thorough greens renovation that was completed in early September has elevated the Bob Cupp design back to the standard it maintained from 2003-13 as the host venue for the PGA Tour Champions’ Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf event.
“It’s a wonderful golf course,” two-time U.S Open champion Andy North told PGATour.com in 2011. “If the wind blows it can be difficult. If the wind doesn’t blow you can make some birdies.”
Savannah Harbor, affiliated with the Westin Resort & Spa and managed by Troon Golf, experienced a rough patch in 2018 through mid-2021, hit by a double whammy of acquisition by a hotel group that had little interest in the golf operations and budget cuts during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a three-month stretch in 2021, before the property was purchased by current owner Brookfield Asset Management, course superintendent Lynn Childress maintained the course with a staff of three—including himself. Just keeping the grounds playable was a feat, and Childress further proved his agronomical chops this past summer by supervising the successful renovation of all 18 greens, thanks to a cash infusion from Brookfield, which also owns PGA National in Florida. The project included restoration of Cupp’s original green sizes and contours, as well as installation of new irrigation on each hole. The putting surfaces are Certified TifEagle Bermuda grass.
Cupp’s artistry is evident throughout the property, with a variety of holes that meander through the marshland on Hutchinson Island, directly across the Savannah River from downtown and visible to northbound traffic on the majestic Talmadge Bridge. There are short par 4s and long par 3s. Huge greens and small ones. A monster par 5 on the front nine, and—when the wind cooperates—a gettable five-banger on the back. The course isn’t heavily bunkered; the 104 sand hazards tend to appear in strategically located clusters.
All courses favor the straight hitter, but this one more than most. Nine months out of the year the wiry Bermuda rough is vexingly penal, devouring balls that barely stray from the fairway. During the other three winter months, it’s merely difficult.
Savannah Harbor begins with a short par 4, offering a birdie opportunity to set a positive tone—if, that is, you manage to par the next two holes, a lengthy par 4 and a stout par 3, which measure 459 and 248 yards, respectively, from the back tees.
If there’s a breather on the front side, it’s the 4th and 5th holes. The former is a short, S-shaped par 5 with a small green tucked into a tidal marsh. The layup area is framed by marsh to the left and five bunkers to the right; avoid them and you’re left with a short iron to the flag. The latter is a gentle par 4 with no obstacles except a fairway bunker left and a greenside bunker right.
Next up are the Harbor’s No. 3 and No. 1 handicap holes; they’re frequent round-wreckers. The sixth is a dogleg right, with an approach over marsh to a narrow green—with the Talmadge Bridge as a backdrop—that slopes front to back. A well-placed layup is often more prudent than attempting to hit the small target with a long iron. The seventh is named Big Duke, and with good reason. It’s a 660-yard par 5 that curls around marsh along the entire left side. Even playing from the senior tees, at 558 yards, presents its own set of challenges.
The eighth hole is the first of Savannah Harbor’s two short par 3s and the beginning of a comparatively benign four-hole stretch— although the bunkers that surround No. 9 green can be problematic—leading to the most scenic portion of the layout. No. 12 is a 468-yard par 4, featuring one of only four forced carry tee shots (three from the back tees only) over a hazard, and noteworthy for its 17,000-square-foot putting surface. Depending on weather conditions and hole locations, returning players may find themselves calculating as much as a four-club difference compared to their approach shot selection the day before.
The 13th is a narrow but lovely par 5, with the back channel of the Savannah River serving as the backdrop to a two-tiered green, where hole locations on the lower back half flirt with the marsh. No. 14, called Alligator Alley, is a classic short (324 yards at most) par 4. Yes, beware the resident gators.
The easiest hole on the course, the par-3 15th, gives way to a strong finish. The green isn’t visible from the tee box at the 459-yard, par 4-16th,, a swooping dogleg left where—like so many holes before it—missing the fairway can be costly. Opt for the extra club at No. 17, a 214-yard par 3 over water (and sun-bathing gators), featuring a green that slopes back to front. The finishing hole is another big par 4, 457 yards and slightly uphill.
It’s worth noting a unique feature of the 18th and 9th holes that has nothing to do with the golf course. The Port of Savannah, just upriver from downtown, ranks among the top-5 (depending on criteria) busiest container ports in America. Everyone has experienced the weird sensation of anticipated movement when stepping onto an escalator that isn’t moving. Something similar happens when cargo ships, stacked high with containers, pass behind the Westin Hotel, producing the effect of a moving skyline. One can’t help being distracted when the phenomena occurs while readying to hit approach shots on the aforementioned holes. It’s best to marvel at the supply chain in action and wait for the ship to pass before pulling the trigger.
The cargo ship traffic is part of the allure of Savannah’s riverfront, but fighting the crowds on River Street is no way to enjoy post-round food and libations. There are simply too many places to eat and have fun away from the tourist havoc.
You can get a feel for River Street by taking the ferry from the Westin; thankfully, if you suffer from claustrophobia, many of the drinking and dining suggestions below are within walking distance from the ferry dock, while others are no more than 20 minutes from the hotel via Uber. (BTW, Savannah is one of a handful of American cities that has an open-container alcohol policy, which means bar and restaurant patrons are allowed to consume “travelers” while strolling downtown streets.)
Local Eats and Drinks
Bar Julian, atop the Thompson Hotel on the east side of downtown Savannah, offers arguably the best views in the city. Little more than a year old and well away from the River Street crowds, Bar Julian is something of a hidden gem, but probably not for long.
If there is a River Street exception, it’s Rocks on the Roof at the Grand Bohemian Hotel. Rocks is a less intimate contender for best views, but it fills up fast.
Two Tides Brewing Company occupies a large former single-family home in Savannah’s gentrified Starland neighborhood. It’s a must stop for microbrew aficionados.
If you like dive bars, the Wormhole is favored by an eclectic mix of SCAD students and locals, with pool tables and live music. Be advised: golf attire will be conspicuously out of place.
Golf attire fits right in at Savoy Society, a trendy cocktail bar with ambiance that’s a polar opposite of the Wormhole or Pinkie’s.
For fine dining, the No. 1 “get” in town is The Grey. Chef Mashama Bailey, a native New Yorker with family connections in Savannah, honed her craft in the Big Apple, then migrated south and created this nationally celebrated restaurant in Savannah’s 1938 Art Deco Greyhound Bus depot.
Among the newest—and most highly touted—additions to Savannah’s fine dining scene is Common Thread, a locally sourced restaurant that’s housed in a Victorian mansion.
A repurposed bank, including its vintage vault, is home to Local 11 Ten, which serves modern Southern cuisine in a casual, elegant space near Forsyth Park. Its rooftop Perch bar is nestled amid the canopies of mature oak trees
Want variety and have the time? The drive to Hilton Head from Savannah is just under an hour. Or you can stay local and play Bacon Park, a municipal facility that’s approaching its 100th anniversary. It’s an intact Donald Ross layout, circa 1926. Bacon maxes out at 6,418 yards, defended by classic Ross green complexes. Being an inexpensive muni, it’s rough around the edges, but architecture aficionados will appreciate the layout.
If you have interclub connections, find a member willing to host you as a guest at Savannah Golf Club. Founded in 1794, it bills itself as the oldest club for golfers in America, although it didn’t have an 18-hole course until 1888. The current iteration is a 1927 Ross design, but with modifications, most recently by Gil Hanse in 2021.
Dave Seanor resides in Savannah, where—full disclosure—he’s a member of The Club at Savannah Harbor.