Why Sea Island is the sleepy spot so many tour pros call home
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The first thing you have to know about the "Sea Island Mafia" is that they don't actually live on Sea Island. The moniker stems from their proximity to Sea Island Golf Club, the home of this week's RSM Classic. But as you see from the dateline on this story, the Sea Island Golf Club is actually on St. Simons Island, which is also where all the players live. "Sea Island" is an actual place, just a hop and a skip up the coast, but it's not where the action takes place.
The second thing you have to know is that almost everyone here hates the name "Sea Island Mafia" because of the connotations. Use it—especially around Davis Love III—at your own risk.
The third thing you have to know is that St. Simons Island is home to more professional golfers per capita than anywhere on the planet, and is second to Jupiter, Fla., for the most overall. They're drawn by the proximity to elite golf courses, to the beautiful landscape and to the quaint town, but most of all, they're drawn to each other.
This week at the RSM Classic, an even dozen of them are in the field, with the itinerant Matt Kuchar—who just sold his home here—as an honorary 13th. The fourth thing you have to know is that to date, none of them have won the RSM, which began in 2010, and there's an informal "Sea Island" curse that grows in prominence each year.
All of which leads to a few important questions: Who are they, why are they here and what is life really like in a place where the players eat, sleep and breathe golf?
It would be achingly obvious to say that the main focus of life on St. Simons Island is golf, so before we get there, let's be clear on the fact that for all of them, there is life outside of golf. It can vary person to person—Harris English has a fondness for wandering down to Patton Kizzire's house, less than a block away, to watch Atlanta Braves games while others, like Kizzire, Brian Harman, Hudson Swafford and more get together to hunt on a plot of land in Camden County. (Grayson Sigg says he's still waiting for the invite from Harman and Kizzire to come along.) Keith Mitchell likes to fish (redfish, tarpon and Atlantic tripletail) as does Kizzire, who, when asked where he fished with everyone, looked as if he’d just been posed the world's dumbest question. It might have been, considering he was standing on a golf course with the word "Seaside" in the title.
"In the water," he said.
At the center of this social life, just as at the center of golf life, is the man they call "Uncle Davis."
"Davis … Davis does everything," Mitchell said. "I would say that."
There are social gatherings, too. Andrew Novak, a younger member who played at the RSM Classic after earning his PGA Tour card via the Korn Ferry Tour, went on a monologue in which he listed what must have been every restaurant in the barrier islands. A common favorite is Southern Soul Barbecue, where Love told me that he and Zach Johnson—the consigliere to his godfather, if we're hammering the mafia theme—have been seen together in line.
"They go, 'what are you guys doing here?'" he said. "We live here!"
"Uncle Davis" has become the de facto mayor of the Sea Island area, helping as a mentor for many of the younger pros who decide to move there.
Love had another interesting run-in this year before the tournament began when he and his son Dru were in a time pinch and decided to go to Jimmy John's for lunch. They walked in, and the other customer inside was three-time Major League Baseball all-star Adam Wainwright, who was there with his daughter. When they left, Dru Love marveled.
"The two most famous people on this island were just standing together at Jimmy John's," he said.
"And that's what freaks people out," said Davis.
The biggest attraction on St. Simons Island, though, is the simple fact that everybody else is there. The presence of dozens of other golfers means that you can always compete against a fellow pro, re-creating tournament pressure. So even in so-called "civilian life," in weeks away from tour, you can live a golf-centered existence.
"The guys that you're hanging out with are on the same schedule as you," Mitchell said. "There's not much nightlife, there's not as much trouble to get into. You just surround yourself with people that are doing the same thing you're doing, and it becomes second nature. If I lived in a big city, most of my friends would be in an office from nine to five and then going to happy hour. And that's not very good for golf."
Among the reasons tour pros like living in the Sea Island area is the number of top-level courses at their disposal, including Ocean Forest Golf Club.
Courtesy of Evan Schiller
The University of Georgia connection is strong, from Mitchell to English to Swafford to Harman to Sigg … well, the list is exhaustive, to the point that when a Georgia alum like Kevin Kisner doesn't live here, it's a surprise. Almost all of them share the same management agency, Sportfive, which now has a special location on St. Simons Island. They're not the only ones who have moved, either—as Love noted, the list of figures who have migrated here with the players now includes trainers, instructors, caddies, and even a sports psychologist.
"It's a tour feel all the time," he said. "I think that really helps the kids who come in here, that they have to compete against Zach and Harris and all those guys."
Even when players don't take full advantage of the social scene—Hudson Swafford has a 3-year-old, with another on the way, which means he's "not really hanging out with too many people"—they always see each other on the courses. Most of the major ones in the area merited a mention from someone, from Frederica to Ocean Forest to Brunswick Country Club to Sea Palms, but the most common meeting place is Sea Island, where the RSM Classic is held. There, they can take advantage of the world-class gym, the driving range, the putting bays and various other facilities that make it the central hub for practice on the island. It's also, of course, where they can get a money game on any given Monday through Wednesday.
'If I lived in a big city, most of my friends would be in an office from nine to five and then going to happy hour. And that's not very good for golf.'—Keith Mitchell
At this point, there are plenty of up-and-coming younger players on St. Simons Island who are either new to the PGA Tour, or still playing developmental tours. Novak mentioned his core social group, including Harrison Shih, Ben Griffin, and Austin Morrison, who have recently played on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, the Korn Ferry Tour and the Forme Tour, respectively. They form their own social group, a strata below the established players, and fill out the social and professional milieu of the island.
In all, this is a consummate golf community, and everybody was adamant that simply living here made them a better player. How could it not, when it allows each of them to become hyper-focused on their dream, and provides a competitive atmosphere where they can improve by leaps and bounds even off tour?
"Everybody takes pretty good care of everybody," Harman said, and while those words apply socially to this unique community, they're even more relevant on the all-consuming subject of golf itself. If you're a professional golfer, you live on St. Simons Island for one reason, and to hear these residents tell it, it's a very good reason.