Tom Fazio is an artist and many of his golf courses look like a beautiful series of 18 paintings. Balancing beauty while maintaining a championship experience is never an easy feat and one that Fazio has mastered over the years all across the United States.
The Vineyard course at Keowee is a great example where tremendous creativity by Fazio and team led to a golf course that many other architects would have been unable to utilize Lake Keowee as Fazio did for many holes to offer multiple majestic views while still delivering a playable, championship golf experience.
To keep things in context, The Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards is mainly a residential retirement community. As such, Fazio was not hired to build a course that beats up golfers and could one day host a US Open or PGA Championship; he was hired to build a beautiful course that was playable for the every day retiree and their families and guests yet could still challenge the highly skilled player. Finding this balance is what separates mediocre architects from those who are exceptional at their craft.
Based on the mandate to Fazio, he hit a home run with The Cliffs at Vineyard Keowee. The course is a great balance of beauty and playability, with plenty of challenge the further back you play the course. The angles that Fazio created here by utilizing varying tee boxes offer a totally different experience from the back tees versus the player friendly forward set of tees. Specifically, it’s the angles that make all the difference.
Overall, this course is a lot of fun to play, and meanders around Lake Keowee throughout round with different pockets of the course playing inland on both nine’s. There is a great deal of elevation change reminding you that you are in the mountains and this level of elevation change may be a bit much for some. Personally, I thought it kept things interesting and felt after my experience that this is just the type of course you could play every day and have lots of enjoyment. Several holes could be an air brushed painting when you stand on the tee box and gaze into the distance. Off the tee this is one of the most playable Fazio designs I have ever see and the greens are well protected by a plethora of bunkers that are strategically placed.
Moving on to some of the individual hole highlights. The first tee is one of the highest points on the course and the tee shot plays straight downhill to a seemingly wide open fairway shaped by trees in the distance, to the left and to the right. Incredibly, you are just 50 yards from the clubhouse and parking lot here but you are completely isolated due to trees all around you creating a setting as if you are on a one-hole golf course. It’s amazing that Fazio was able to create this effect on the first tee in light of its proximity to all of those potential distractions. After arriving at your tee shot which most likely will find the fairway you have an uphill semi-blind approach shot to a green that slopes diagonally. I’ll tell you right now that these are some of the best rolling greens in all of South Carolina, in the middle of the hot summer, they are able to keep that at a smooth 12 on the stimpmeter. It’s a real treat to putt on greens this fast and pure. To that end, you must be very careful on downhill putts or a 3-putt can easily sneak up on you. This is a fun opening hole.
After a solid par 3 and another par 4, we arrive at the downhill, majestic par-5 4th hole that plays a whopping 625 yards from the back tees. By all standards this is a true 3-shot par 5. Even though the hole plays downhill, no matter how long a drive you hit to this wide open fairway, you have a downhill lie over water to a green that is specifically designed to approach it with a wedge in hand. Being the stubborn golfer I am, after a huge drive of 320 yards, I convinced myself that a crushed 3 wood was worth taking the risk to see how things would shake out going for this green in 2 shot. I hit the rocks in front of the green and bounced back into the water. To put this in perspective, the 3-wood I attempted from 292 yards was the single best shot I struck all day and still, it was not reachable in two. Had I cleared the water, I would have had little chance of keeping a ball on this green that angles sharply in two tiers from right to left, not inviting for a ball rocketing towards it from such a long distance. While it looked obvious to me, I thought it made sense to get a feel for how the hole would play as an attempted two-shot version versus a traditional 3-shotter. I hit another mid-iron and laid up to about 100 yards. That worked out much better as you can see over your wedge shot that the gorgeous green semi-surrounded by Lake Keowee is much more inviting from a short distance. This is a hole that can cause you some headaches and it’s right up there as one of the hardest on the course, the elevated green really can cause some trouble and a par this hole is an excellent score.
The 5th is an absolutely beautiful golf hole. A mid-length par 4 at only 380 yards from the back tees offers a generous landing area off the tee (like almost every drive the entire round) and requires a precise approach shot to a hard sloping sectional green from back to front. When facing a front pin placement as I did, the putting can be quite slick from above the pin. The entire right side of the hole is Lake Keowee and the backdrop of this green is the lake wrapping around creating a peaceful and lovely setting.
The 6th is worth talking about as it’s a unique par-3. Standing on the tee from 193 yards this hole is flat out intimidating; you can see on the tee that is a large but dome shaped green. There is hardly any room over the green and anything short rolls back leaving a steep and uphill pitch shot that is awkwardly difficult to get close. You have the lake running along the right side and water well short of the green as well. It’s a beautiful looking hole but one in which nearly any golfer would take a par and run to the 7th. The green is relative straight forward running from back to front with a moderate pitch but the tee ball just looks intimidating and it’s just long enough that if you drop your guard you can easily make a double bogey here. Keep in mind, this hole is a great example of a more than fair hole where optics can play tricks on you into thinking the hole is harder than it is. You just have to hit a solid shot, but there is plenty of room for forgiveness here.
The 7th hole is what I refer to as a classic Fazio short par-4. At only 321 yards from the back tee, the hole may on face value seem like a pushover, rarely is any hole on a Fazio course without challenge and strategy. The 7th at Keowee Vineyards is no exception. A well placed tee shot is key as you are about to hit one of the most exciting approach shots on the entire course. The boomerang shaped green has a massive false front that requires a precise approach shot that is far enough into the green. At all costs you must error on hitting your approach shot past the pin if it’s a front/middle pin position. If the pin is in the back left section of this green the false front doesn’t come into play and the hole plays totally different. This is a great design feature as you could play the course on a Saturday and a Sunday and each day the hole will play totally different based on where they place the pin. If you drop your guard here, you will regret doing so as coming up short to this green leaves an extremely tough up and down.
Often times on Fazio designs you find a short par-4 followed up by a long one. That is exactly what happens on this course; the 8th is a 458 yard par-4. Plenty of room off the tee forces you focus all your attention on a solid approach shot that plays slightly uphill. The green has some slope to wherever the pin is you want to hit the middle of the green, take your par and head to the 9th. This is a very strong par-4.
Heading to the back 9, many of the most dramatic holes on the course are forthcoming.
One unique feature of the Vineyards back 9 is that 12 & 13 are back to back par 4s followed by 14 & 15 being back to back par 5’s and then 16 & 17 are back to back par 3s, all culminating with the memorable 18th.
The 12th and 13th holes are both dogleg right par 4’s that requite two solid shots on each to hit these greens in regulation. The 13th is more memorable than the 12th and as this is the point in the round where the course returns to utilizing Lake Keowee. Both the tee ball and the approach to the 13th are dramatic, as you must avoid the lake on your tee shot. This hole is perhaps the 2nd best example on the course of the difference between the back tees versus the other tee boxes. It’s a very challenging tee shot from the back tees as it feels more narrow than it is, but it’s easy to miss right into the lake. Part of the Fazio genius is the optical illusions; the fairway here is plenty wide. As you approach the green you are able to see that it is plenty large but running left to right at an angle, so accurate distance control is key. The 13th was for sure one of my favorites on the course.
The 14th and 15th run parallel to each other but they are so well separated by a dense tree line that you would never know it. The 14th appears to be the most narrow drive on the course and the 2nd shot here goes straight uphill to a green with a false front. The hole is not overly long at 545 yards as the tee shot goes slightly downhill but you have to crush it to have a real shot at hitting the green in two. I was lucky enough to hit two great shots here and watched my 3 wood approach reach the front of the green only to hit the false front and roll into a collection area just short leaving a very steep approach shot to a quite deep green. Once on the green the surface is fairly flat where most putts are makeable.
The 15th is a dramatic par-5 that plays downhill but actually is less reachable in 2 shot. The views from the tee are incredible as you have a huge tree line with the mountains in the backdrop and views of the lake by the greens are in sight. The approach shot here is shaped by 3 beautiful bunkers with some tall trees and the lake surrounding the green. This is just the type of picture you would frame and put on your wall. A splendid hole indeed.
The par-3 16th is just as nice as the hole before as you go back up a hill to hit towards the same lake surrounding the green. This hole plays straight downhill and at 177 yards it presents you with a good birdie opportunity if you just hit the middle of the green.
The 17th at The Cliffs Vineyard Keowee is the signature hole of all The Cliffs courses (there are 7) and I can’t really say I have ever seen a hole quite like this. At 253 yards playing slightly downhill and completely over water to a peninsula green with the entire lake surrounding 3 sides of it, even the best players in the world would be challenged here. While a smooth 4 iron would likely be the club of choice for Brooks Koepka or Bryson DeChambeau, this hole required a full 3-wood for me which fortunately found the center of the green. I must say this hole is breathtaking and clearly demonstrates some architectural creativity to build a hole like this. You cannot often say you played a hole that you will forever remember as it is rare. The 7th at Pebble Beach, The 16th at Cabot Cliffs, The 17th at TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, The 17th hole at PGA West, The 17th at St Andrews, The 12th at Augusta National, The Postage Stamp 8th at Royal Troon, The 16th at Cypress Point, The 5th at Lahinch, The 16th at Royal Portrush, and The 17th at Keowee Vineyards are all in unique company as each of these holes make you say “WOW” at least once, if not twice.
As you reach the 18th hole at 429 yards it’s hard not to expect a letup after the 3 previous holes you have played. Not to worry the 18th is a great finishing hole. The entire hole plays moderately uphill and it’s a dogleg right. After a solid drive you are faced with an uphill approach to a more than ample angled green which slopes severely from back to front and left to right. This is the most severe green on the course and with greens running a smooth 12 on the stimpmeter you had better be careful to avoid a quick 3-putt to finish your round.
What’s nice about Keowee Vineyards is that there is nothing not to like about the golf course. It will not be hosting a US Open or a PGA Championship anytime soon, but it’s exactly that playability that makes it so much fun. Please do not get me wrong, there is plenty of challenge here from the back tees and it may be one of the most fun Fazio designs I have ever played as the course works its way around the lake and inland and the back around the lake again. The views are spectacular, the conditioning of the course was excellent and the greens rolled wonderfully. Do you know how much of the time even really nice courses can feel redundant? I can assure you that is never a feeling you will have on this course as the holes go uphill, downhill, dogleg, into pockets and nooks of Lake Keowee. Keowee Vineyards is surely a course you could play and enjoy everyday without getting sick of it.
Date: August 11, 2020