Ohoopee Sunrise

The Match Club

Peeling back the layers of Ohoopee, the revolutionary course where no one gives a damn what you shot
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

Par-4 No. 15 

Standard routing—Hill-Thomas down two dots to Walrath-Cunningham

I faced a nasty, curling downhill 4-footer on a green I’d never set foot on before. My opponent had a dead-straight, uphill 3-foot putt on a surface he’d known since before there was grass on it. 

Our gracious host walked up to the green, assessed the putts, factored in my thus-far shaky stroke and kindly offered, “Good, good?”

Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would have raked my ball and hustled to the next tee; match play is about turning any kindness into your advantage. But I paused, and we briefly made eye contact under the simmering Georgia sun. Perhaps it was the sticky late-April heat. Perhaps it was the almost unnerving quiet of being one of just a few people on the course that afternoon. Perhaps it was the feeling that anything can happen in a place this special. Something clicked—snapped?—in my mind: Match play is often won by taking risks; fortune, it’s said, favors the bold. Besides, bailing would be an offense to the entire ethos of this place. 

“Hell no,” I barked. “You gotta make that thing.”

The horrified look on my publisher’s face was justified, but this was the Ohoopee Match Club. My opponent, Michael Walrath, created it to produce precisely these adrenaline-pumping moments.

“Fine,” he said, shaking his head with a steely smile. “You’re away. Good luck.”

“What’s an Ohoopee?”

An odd but fair question, and I got it more than once in the lead-up to my visit. Opened in October 2018 to intentionally very little fanfare, it remains mostly a mystery, even to my well-informed colleagues within the golf industry.

One such insider pulled the club’s website up on his phone and we were met with a tantalizingly gorgeous slideshow of big skies, a rolling golf course sprung from scrub and sand, and exactly zero information other than a generic info@ email address and a place we’d never heard of: Cobbtown, Georgia. I would come to learn that this—along with everything else at Ohoopee—was not an accident. (Later, after piping another drive, Walrath wryly cracked, “You like our website?”)

I didn’t know much about the course, but was certain about three things: 1) It was designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, which meant excellent architecture; 2) tee times at Ohoopee are not available on GolfNow.com, seeing that it’s a private club raised from the sand by Walrath; and 3) Walrath had personally invited us to come experience his creation, so all schedules were immediately cleared.

Ohoopee is 75 miles west of Savannah, and after a humid night of tequila and shrimp-and-grits tacos in the state’s oldest city, my publisher, Brendon Thomas, and Linksoul’s co-founder, Geoff Cunningham, jumped on I-16 to find Cobbtown. We batted around theories of what Ohoopee would look like. What sort of glittering palace had been built away from prying eyes in Vidalia onion country? How fancy was this personal Camelot? Did we bring enough cash? Oh shit, what if this place is pants-only? 

The approach only heightened the drama. The charms and tragedies of rural Georgia were on full display, with breathtaking natural scenery dotted by rusted-out shacks and failed businesses. Soon we began a dirt-road odyssey highlighted by a right turn onto Roscoe Sikes Road, followed by a quick left onto Glenn Sikes Road.

Finally, in a thicket of pines, we came upon a humble wooden sign with an onion logo and an arrow pointing to the right.

We followed it through a simple guard shack that looked like it had been there for decades; suddenly, acres of space opened up before us. The terrain was beautifully rough—Thomas remarked at how similar it looked to the savannahs in his native South Africa—but we saw no golf course, and certainly no palace. We rounded a curve and came upon a series of low-slung buildings blending tastefully into the landscape.

A staff member waved us in to park in a circular driveway near a modern barn facing the driving range that housed maintenance equipment, pushcarts and a small pro shop, in the shadow of a clubhouse that evoked a rustic hunting cabin. Impressive, but nowhere near ostentatious.

The staff member welcomed us warmly with a thick Southern accent, and I asked where to park the car. Somewhere far out of the way, I presumed.

“Here’s fine,” she said.

“Like, right here?”

“Of course. Make yourselves comfortable.”

The car never moved until we left.

Par-5.5 No. 3

Standard routing—Hill-Walrath level with Thomas-Cunningham

The first tee at Ohoopee is massive and disorienting. There are no tee markers, no yardages, certainly no grand entrance. We just strolled down from the clubhouse and looked dumbly at our host for guidance. Walrath explained that since this was a match-play club, whoever has the honors on each tee box decides where to play from—just put a peg in the ground and go. 

We embarrassed ourselves further when Walrath asked what game we wanted to play. During our time in the car, we indulged in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from our favorite authors to the benefits of the God drug to late-stage capitalism. Despite “match club” being right there in the name of our destination, not once did we discuss games to play. Or what kind of stakes were appropriate when playing with a man who is in a tax bracket it would take binoculars for us to see. And so three well-educated men who have played golf their entire lives responded to Walrath’s simple question with more bumfuzzled silence.

As he proved throughout our stay, Walrath was accommodating, patient and a ton more fun than you would expect from someone coming from the hard-edge world of tech entrepreneurship. He suggested Sixes with dots for low individual and low team scores. This meant we would split up into two-man teams for six holes, then reassign partners for the next six and once more for the final six. Man with the most dots wins. Perfect. (I will not shame our visiting trio any further by disclosing the amount of money wagered on each dot. Let’s just say Walrath was not intimidated by the figure.)

The par-4 first, a rollercoaster with the property’s only lake off to the left, is an immediate statement of intent from Hanse, Wagner and Walrath. Just like all 23 holes on the course, there is no rough; trips off the fairways are visits back to the property’s natural landscape. And the width combined with the terrain allows a variety of options to play into the green for the second shot. The second hole is a 500-plus-yard par 4.5—the first of six half-pars on the Standard routing—that takes on the lake itself, asking players how much they want to bite off. It’s no easy handshake start; Ohoopee demands your attention from the very beginning.

There’s no time for careful reflection on the subtleties of the architecture; you know it’s fantastic, but holy hell, which tree do I aim at to make sure I give myself the right distance in? It’s the exact sensation that Hanse, Wagner and Walrath were trying to create.

“Everybody today talks a lot about strategic course design with choices and options; the penal school of architecture, where a course just beats the hell out of you, is pretty much dead,” Hanse later told me. “But there was a school that’s not heavily recognized anymore but still out there: the heroic school. That school has risk and reward, but the risks are so bold that, generally speaking for stroke play, people are not willing to take them on. So they play safer, more conservative. But with [a match-play course], we could create a set of risks and problems that were heightened, more do-or-die, because we were never worried about someone writing a 10 on their scorecard. Every decision is strictly based on the match, and if it goes bad, you’re picking up and moving on to the next hole.”

By the third tee, I had already earned us a dot for low score and picked up once. The juices were sufficiently flowing. Walrath and my caddie warned me about this par 5.5 with just one massive bunker in the fairway’s center roughly 400 yards out. We played it at about 550 yards—no markers on tee areas means yardages always vary, sometimes by nearly 100 yards—but I was told it played short because the firm fairway tilted downhill toward the hole, especially after the bunker. They kept reminding me: Over the green is dead. Unfortunately for Walrath, who was my partner for the opening six holes, I’m not a great listener. So, after a solid drive, I took 3-wood and promptly rocketed one right over the green.

Walrath and my caddie were right. I picked up on that hole too. 

At Ohoopee, no one cares what you shot. It’s become enough of a mantra for the staff that it’s printed on the coasters at the understated, well-stocked bar in the clubhouse—the golf equivalent of the “no one cares about your fantasy football team” trope. It’s become something of a winking joke around the club, but it’s a core principle for Walrath.

“I’m not kidding,” he told me. “People can get so wrapped up in their scores that it takes away from the enjoyment of a round.”

He was explaining the foundations of the club, which is a proudly flagrant rebuke of the concept of par. There is no slope or rating on the scorecards. There is no computer to record a score for your handicap. 

“He had the resources to build what he did, which is impressive enough,” Hanse says of Walrath. “But he also had the vision and the philosophy to create something completely different with the match-play aspect of it.”

Walrath grew up middle class in Connecticut and fell in love with the game on the grubby mats of Sunset Hills, a nine-hole public course in Brookfield. He spent countless summer hours there, scrounging for balls and inventing new games with his friends.

Years later, he would invent the software for an open-auction marketplace for web publishers and advertising networks; in 2007, he sold his company to Yahoo for enough money to build a golf paradise and then some. From there he blossomed into a tech mogul, angel investor and, among many other pursuits, owner of the legendary Surf Lodge hotel on Long Island.

Now in his mid-40s, his passion for golf has only intensified—he plays to a 1-handicap—but as he gained access to more-exclusive clubs, his understanding of the game evolved.

“When I first got out to some of the famous clubs, I was still grinding for a number,” he said. “But some of the older guys I was playing with were mostly out there to enjoy themselves. It made me look at the game differently.”

With the long-term plan to own a club of his own, Walrath began taking voracious mental notes as he played all over the world, on everything from the club’s atmosphere to the level of service to the quality of the golf course to the little quirks that make a club stand out. But one theme became clear: Scores come and go, but people always remember the thrill of a memorable match and the camaraderie of being part of a team.

He shrugged his shoulders as if it was so obvious that everyone should see it: “Why not always play like that?”

Par-4 No. B

Whiskey routing—Hill-Cunningham down one dot to Thomas-Walrath

After the Ice Age, the glaciers covering North America began to retreat. Their path created a kind of geological miracle that left untold tons of sand along the banks and surrounding area of what is now the Ohoopee River. “It’s, like, 80 feet deep,” Hanse says with a chuckle.

Walrath lights up when he tells us a story from when he and Hanse were first walking the property and Walrath asked him to take him through the process of how he and Wagner would build the bunkers. As a curious fan of golf-course architecture, Walrath wanted to know how it was done. As a new golf-course owner, he was also interested in how much it was going to cost. Hanse didn’t say anything; he just kicked his boot into the surface, revealing a patch of sand.

“There’s a bunker,” Hanse said.

The two connected when Walrath got serious about finding a site for his golf club. Both Long Island natives, they initially looked there but decided against purchasing and refurbishing an existing club. Walrath began exploring some sites in Georgia, sending Hanse Google Maps images and brochures of available tracts. Hanse warned him that the red clay at those sites would make designing something special a tall order. 

Ohoopee Course
Photo: Andy Johnson

Finally, Hanse remembered a site he had worked on in 2007. A developer tried to create a high-end racing-themed housing community with facilities for everything from motocross to Formula One, with a small airport, an equestrian center, hunting, fishing and two golf courses, dubbed Victory Lane. John Travolta and country singer Alan Jackson were reportedly interested in homes. But it quickly ran out of gas in 2008’s downturn; a Google Earth outline of one of the racetracks was all that remained. 

“I told him I didn’t know if the land was still available,” Hanse recalled, “but it was one of the best pieces of ground we’ve ever seen for a golf course, so he should go check it out. He did, and I think within about 12 hours of being on site he had it under contract.”

With more than 3,000 acres at their disposal, Walrath, Hanse and Wagner set about finding the golf course within the land. Some decisions were easy: The lake would feature in several holes. Some were trickier: On the sixth hole of the Standard routing, they moved the initial green location roughly 30 yards farther back after cutting some scrub away to reveal a natural amphitheater. (Smart decision: It went from a great hole to perhaps the most memorable on the property.)

Walrath was involved throughout.

“He was the perfect owner,” says Hanse. “He was engaged and enthused about everything that was going on. But he was willing to listen and allow us to take the lead, then he would react to what we had built.…And he’s a very good player, so we were able to field test with him. Not only that, he’s just a cool guy.”

Cool enough to green-light a Whiskey routing. Perhaps the most confounding challenge of the design process was marrying the size of the property with getting to the best land for golf holes with a walking-only course.

“We knew we wanted to get out to where the [additional holes] were,” Hanse says. “Jim [Wagner] was the one who figured out how to cross the routing back over No. 10 to create a kind of counterclockwise loop, and then you jumped into No. 11 as a short par 4. That was just ingenious.”

In the end, it added up to five additional holes (lettered A through E) and the feeling that Ohoopee has two separate courses. The Whiskey is shorter and has some of the wildest greens on the course; during our visit, we spent an extra 20 minutes just riding our Titleists along the stomach-turning slopes of hole A’s putting surface.

Beyond the architectural differences, the Whiskey holds an almost mystical appeal. Maybe it’s the routing’s place along the far edges of the property, or the wooden box containing a bottle of Woodford Reserve that greets players on hole B’s tee area. (Local rules state that one must partake no matter the time of day—even if you arrive at 10 a.m. like we did.) For us, things got truly weird when Thomas yanked one left off the tee on hole A and was greeted by a snake in the grassy savannah. Undaunted by neither his visitor nor his lie, he promptly launched a perfect approach and made birdie, sparking one of the rounds of his life. It was the first time any of us had ever heard someone yell “I spoke to the serpent!” and slither in a 20-footer.

Considering its location, the quality of the course and its assault on traditional scoring, it would be easy to say that Ohoopee is about nothing but golf. But that would be wrong. It’s also very much about the showers.

One doesn’t get to Walrath’s vaunted position without an exceptional capacity for detail, and to think that would stop after the 18th hole would be foolish. Walrath’s upbringing in the game and research at other clubs is evident throughout. With well-appointed cabins for just under 50 guests and a full-time staff, the level of service is on par with five-star resorts. But Walrath’s commitment to a more casual atmosphere also permeates that experience, with laid-back locals behind the bar pouring iced tea into mason jars just as easily as Avion Reserva 44 tequila into rocks glasses. 

To ask Walrath about Ohoopee’s name and logo is to invite a 20-minute conversation about how every aspect is an homage to the area, from its namesake Ohoopee River to the time and thought put into the three snakes forming the shape of a Vidalia onion for the logo.

Impressed with the separate putting courses at Pinehurst and Bandon Dunes, Walrath built one at Ohoopee. One major difference: His has lights. He flipped them on and we bonded with the lone other group on campus after dinner, creating yet more matches and listening to music while a fire pit raged. One guest brought Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year to celebrate his invitation to Ohoopee and happily shared it with everyone. It was hard not to appreciate the smile on Walrath’s face as we all drained bombs and that bottle. 

The future of Ohoopee has become the latest obsession for Walrath. He has purposely kept the membership at a small, manageable number of handpicked people from the worlds he inhabits, creating a unique mix of friends from home, titans of industry and a few star athletes he’s befriended. He’s keeping long-term plans close to the vest, but he knows that Ohoopee won’t be a heavily guarded enclave only for the uber-rich. 

“We’d like to do some good here,” he says.

If the showers are any indication of the good Walrath aspires to, he may just end up brokering world peace. 

Post–Ice Age Georgia gets rather hot; the ground at Ohoopee resembles an African plain for a reason. After finishing our first round, we were cooling off in the clubhouse and discussing dinner. Walrath said we should add a few minutes into our timing for the showers.

He chuckled as the confused looks from the first tee returned to our faces. We were staying in a special clutch of rooms under the clubhouse, all of which shared a dormitory-style bathroom. We each jumped in a stall and flipped on an all-encompassing torrent that landed just south of knocking us over. Even if you are not the sort of person who ranks lifetime showers (I happen to be one), it’s an unforgettable experience. And it’s no accident; in his travels, Walrath noted that one shower at a club was infinitely better than the rest, to the point where members waited specifically to use it. So why not make all of his showers that good? At dinner, he confessed that he might have made more calls about that labyrinth of specially made valves, pumps and showerheads than he did about the building of the course itself. 

Par-4 15th

Standard routing—Hill-Thomas down two dots to Walrath-Cunningham

Standing over my downhiller, the adrenaline of challenging someone who was worth enough to, ahem, buy 3,000 acres of land and build an entirely new golf club from scratch wore off and the potential stupidity of what I had done sank in. Beyond the loss of dots, what if our host didn’t take kindly to such things? What if I just got us thrown out of one of golf’s most exciting new courses? At that moment, I could have sworn the sun burned through the last cloud in the sky and focused all of its energy on the back of my neck.

None of these were ideal swing thoughts. But damned if that thing didn’t curl into the side of the hole.

Walrath stepped up to his putt and confidently hammered it home, his par matching my 5-for-4. No blood on the scorecard, but a memory that I, for one, will never forget. Walrath smiled. He knew my instinct was correct: Moments like this are why Ohoopee exists. We shared a big laugh and went off to find the next tee.