The best part of any golf trip is all the golf – of course – followed by more golf, with a high chance of still more golf tomorrow. More shots, more greens, more of everything. Wake up before the sun, launch the day off the first tee, keep swinging until the cart attendants round you up in the dark.
If the courses are of high quality, even better. Should they be ranked among the best in their state, greater still.
But few resorts offer seemingly endless great golf within their confines. One or two courses are the norm, then players are forced to book elsewhere for that more-golf-all-the-time fanaticism. Only a handful of properties include enough golf to keep players swinging on highly rated and fresh-to-them courses for days on end. It’s not overly difficult to jump around from resort to resort if golfers plan well in advance, but there’s much to be said for the ease of use in finding one golf vacation spot with great holes stretching for days.
Examples in the U.S. include Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, home to five top-ranked 18-hole courses. Pinehurst and its smorgasbord of golf holes – anchored by the famed No. 2 – with five courses ranked inside the top 15 public-access layouts in North Carolina. Destination Kohler in Wisconsin and its four highly ranked courses that include Whistling Straits.
And Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, home to five of the top 15 public-access courses in Georgia on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list.
A massive Central Georgia property sprawling across some 12,000 acres on the shores of its namesake lake about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta, Reynolds Lake Oconee offers five courses open to guests of the on-property Ritz-Carlton hotel or cottages operated by the community, and club members have access to a sixth layout. That makes it 42,336 yards of golf in all, more than 24 miles.
And after leaving the luxurious lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, none of it feels like a resort. That’s by design, and it’s a good thing.
Despite having the AAA Four Diamond/ Forbes Four-Star hotel and 50-plus multi-bedroom cottages, Reynolds Lake Oconee is at its core a residential community with more than 4,000 members. In recent years, 88 percent of total rounds on the courses consists of member-related play, leaving just 12 percent of tee times for short-term guests of the hotel and cottages, with no regular outside daily-fee play. That means players can be rewarded with a private-club experience on the five courses open to guests.
Unlike many resorts, tee times are never rushed, going off in 12-minute intervals that help maintain pace of play instead of the industry’s frequent 9- to 10-minute intervals that can bog down a course. Reynolds’ practice ranges are uncrowded, the clubhouses never overrun, the courses typically in pristine condition. Throw in the Kingdom – an elite TaylorMade fitting and instruction center on property not far from the Ritz – and players have more golf options than would fit in a two-day trip.
It’s an old cliché from 1980s golf marketing to call daily-fee players a “member for the day,” but Reynolds actually delivers such a relaxed experience. The courses are operated for their members, and the hotel and resort guests are given a taste of that life.
“We’re always going to be more club than resort,” said Dave Short, senior vice president of marketing, sales and strategic planning for Reynolds Lake Oconee. “You know, high-density resort play, it’s just not what our members are here for. We’re not in that game. We just happen to have in the center of our club one of the best hotels in the country.”
Owned by MetLife Inc. since 2012, the resort community is home to some 4,000 members and features everything from forested houses that start around $700,000 all the way into the realm of lakefront mansions on multi-acre lots that cost more than $9 million, Short said. About 40 percent of real estate transactions involve buyers from the Atlanta area, and Short said the other 60 percent represent a vast geographic range as the resort has trended younger in recent years with active professionals embracing a work-from-home ethos.
It can be a huge change for big-city folks moving to what once was middle-of-nowhere rural Georgia, but Short said MetLife’s continuing capital improvements – new restaurants, leisure amenities, marinas and more – have made it a most-inviting lifestyle swap. “Our members will tell you,” Short said, “we’re 40 minutes from a Walmart but only five minutes from a Ritz-Carlton.”
And, seemingly, never even that far away from the next tee box.
The six total courses stretch across the property: Great Waters designed by Jack Nicklaus and recently renovated; The Oconee by Rees Jones and closest to the Ritz-Carlton; The National with 27 rolling holes by Tom Fazio; a members’ favorite at The Preserve by Bob Cupp; The Landing by Cupp, just up the road from the main property; plus the members-only and quirky Creek Club by Jim Engh.
Each of the five public-access layouts plays at times along the shore of the massive Lake Oconee, a massive reservoir constructed by Georgia Power in 1979 with 374 miles of shoreline. Great Waters features the most holes along the lake and receives much of the attention, ranking No. 2 among all public-access layouts in Georgia. But each of the layouts has received restorations and renovations since MetLife took over the property, and to focus only on the highest-ranked Great Waters – or The Oconee based on its easy proximity to the Ritz – would be a mistake.
“For a hotel guest, it’s easy to walk out the front door and go over to The Oconee, so that’s pretty popular, and Great Waters is very popular with guests because of its notoriety and profile as a Nicklaus Signature course,” said Short, a single-digit handicapper. “But once you get beyond those two, you can find a lot to like about The National, you can find a lot to like about The Creek if you know a member who can get you there, and I think The Landing is one that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition. It’s an extraordinary golf course.”
Short spent an afternoon chasing birdies and telling jokes at the Creek Club with this writer during my recent sampling of all six courses in three days – that’s a lot of golf, and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest such a trip because to focus only on golf is to miss too much else of what the resort offers. But golf is what I do, and following are my takes on the resort’s five public-access courses.
Designer: Jack Nicklaus (1992)
Golfweek’s Best ranking: No. 2 in Georgia on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for public-access layouts; No. 82 on the list of top 100 public-access layouts in the U.S.
Renovated by Nicklaus in 2019, Great Waters sits on a peninsula in Lake Oconee a few miles from the Ritz. Most of the front nine wanders through rolling forest before playing downhill to the lake on the par-4 ninth. The shoreline takes it to a whole other level on the back nine, with the final eight holes situated at least in part along the lake, making it one of the most spectacularly photogenic courses in the Southeast. Houses — supersize mansions, in many cases — line many of the fairways but are set well back from the golf holes, leaving plenty of room to swing away. Condo golf, this is not.
It’s a big ballpark with — by typical Nicklaus standards — usually reasonable greens and surrounds. A few of the putting surfaces feature extreme slopes and demand much of approach shots — looking at you, Nos. 13 and 15 — but in general good shots are rewarded and it’s possible to scramble.
My favorite hole on the course – maybe on the whole property, for that matter – is No. 11. The short, tumbling par 4 features a fairway carved into the lake with a green that sits seemingly just out of reach, 351 yards from the back tees. Players can hit anything from a driver to a 5-iron off the tee, depending on risk aversion. The green, with its surrounding bunkers, juts into the water atop a small knoll. It’s a perfect example of a golf hole where you think you should make a birdie but easily can walk off with a double bogey or worse. Combine that with the downhill view across the lake, perhaps the most dramatic of any par 4 at all of Reynolds, and it’s a hole you will want to play again and again.
Designer: Rees Jones (2002)
Golfweek’s Best: No. 4 in Georgia on the Best Courses You Can Play list
The only thing easy about The Oconee is the stroll over from the Ritz. Built onto rolling terrain that plays through trees before descending to the lake for five of the 18 holes, The Oconee can be a brute, especially for mid- to high-handicappers. Even with its sometimes generous fairways, it’s a round of long shots off the tee past severe bunkers, forced carries to elevated greens protected by more sand, and extremely challenging short-game areas – Rees Jones isn’t known for building pushovers. It all adds up to a big test on beautiful terrain, but don’t expect to shoot your lowest number of the week on The Oconee.
After taking players on a tour of tree-lined fairways with homes set well back for most of the layout, The Oconee saves one of its sternest and most scenic tests for last, a 481-yard par-4 finisher that plays diagonally across a finger of the lake and onward to a green perched above the shore. As with so much of The Oconee, it’s pretty to look at and hard to par.
None of this is to suggest anyone should skip The Oconee. Just be ready for it. Pars feel great on this course, and bogeys or worse are just part of the deal.
Designer: Tom Fazio (1997)
Golfweek’s Best: No. 10 in Georgia on the Best Courses You Can Play list
The National features three nines: Bluff, Ridge and Cove. I tackled the Ridge and Bluff, and I was rewarded with a range of treats, from a very upland-Carolina feel on the Ridge to long lake views on the Bluff.
Elevation changes and Fazio’s greens are the stars of the Ridge and Bluff nines – solid shots are rewarded with reasonable putts, but falloffs and tight surrounds challenge marginal approach efforts and the ensuing chips or pitches. The most scenic hole among the 18 I played was the par-3 fourth on Bluff, with its mid-iron tee shot to a green tight along the shoreline with views for miles. All in all, a very solid morning of golf.
Designer: Bob Cupp (1988)
Golfweek’s Best: No. 12 in Georgia on the Best Courses You Can Play list
Easily the most playable track at Reynolds, The Preserve is a members’ favorite that relies on rolling terrain instead of severe hazards to provide interest. If you’re going 36 holes a day, make the Preserve an afternoon round, a chance to salve golfing wounds inflicted by the Oconee or Great Waters.
None of that is to say it’s not a fun track. Who doesn’t love the chance to make some pars and maybe a few birdies? While it doesn’t necessarily coddle poor efforts, this 18 provides the resort’s best chance to enjoy relaxed golf without getting too beat up. The most recent renovation made sure of that, as many bunkers were removed in favor of grassed chipping areas to help keep more players in the game.
The Preserve also features the Quick Six layout, a par-3 course with each hole under 130 yards that can be played in less than an hour. The Quick Six utilizes existing greens on The Preserve, but new tee boxes were constructed just for the short course, including one in the middle of a lake. For players looking for a very relaxed golf fix after playing one of the big 18s, the Quick Six – in combination with a cocktail and just a handful of clubs – is a perfect opportunity available at various times each week.
Designer: Bob Cupp (1986)
Golfweek’s Best: No. 13 in Georgia on the Best Courses You Can Play list
I normally agree with the international pool of 800-plus Golfweek’s Best raters, for the most part seeing the reasoning in how courses are ranked against each other. But in this case, I think the raters got it wrong. The Landing should be among the top two or three courses at Reynolds, and if I won the lottery and joined Reynolds as a member, this might be the course I played most.
First, some history: Opened as Port Armor Golf Club, it was the first course built on Lake Oconee after the reservoir was constructed. Reynolds bought and renamed the layout in 2005, then renovated it in 2013.
Simply put, The Landing is a great mix of rolling elevation, lakeside stunners and strategic shotmaking that never seems out of reach. The front nine tumbles down a hill before reaching Lake Oconee on Nos. 4 and 5. The fifth, in particular, is a beauty: a mid-length par 4 cape hole that curves leftward to a green perched tight to the shore, close enough to make this single-digit handicapper focus on playing defense with my 9-iron approach. It’s more of the same on the back, with holes climbing a hill before rolling back to the lakeside finisher.
This layout never seems too hard, just interesting. Make a good swing, maybe earn a birdie putt. Fire one off at a careless angle, pay the price. The greens and their surrounds are never dull, but rarely extreme. It’s really good golf, fun shot after fun shot. It doesn’t have the same volume of views as Great Waters or the difficulty of The Oconee, but in Reynolds’ 24 miles of solid and frequently inspired golf holes, this layout easily stands alongside the best so far as playability and enjoyment.
I’ll make sure to put in a good word with the Golfweek’s Best raters.