Extending to over ten thousand acres, the Reynolds Lake Oconee property – formerly known as Reynolds Plantation – is an old family hunting and fishing retreat that now operates as an enormous residential and resort development just over an hour’s drive east of Atlanta.
The Oconee River was dammed in 1979 to create a massive reservoir, around which the Linger Longer development company sold plots of land for housing, constructing six golf courses during the 1980s and 1990s to attract potential buyers to build along the 90 miles of Lake Oconee shoreline. A 251-room Ritz-Carlton lakeside resort and spa appeared in 2002.
Bob Cupp designed the first two Reynolds courses (Reynolds Landing and Plantation) and they opened for play in the late 1980s. The 18-hole Great Waters layout was next to be unveiled by Jack Nicklaus in 1992, followed by a 27-hole Tom Fazio track (The National) five years later. Rees Jones added the Oconee course in 2002, with the Jim Engh-designed private Creek Club making its debut in 2007.
Host to the Anderson Consulting World Championship of Golf from 1995 to 1997, the Great Waters course is routed close to the sparkling waters of the lake (where almost all the holes on the back nine are situated) and the 186-yard inlet-crossing 14th is regarded as one of the best par threes in the Peach State.
All the greens and bunkers were upgraded in 2009, restoring the shapes and sizes to the original Golden Bear specifications. A major improvement involved the changeover of turf on all the putting surfaces, which were converted from bentgrass to Bermuda.
Great Waters will be renovated again in June
2018, led by Nicklaus Design associate Chad Goetz. New greens, bunkers, tees
and water features will be installed. According to Rabun Neal, president of
Reynolds Lake Oconee: “Our desire is to keep the course true to Mr. Nicklaus’s
original vision while modernizing the course where appropriate - and prudent -
and adding length where available.” Great Waters will re-open in autumn 2019 and
we expect the acclaimed Nicklaus Signature layout to rise in our 2020 rankings.
When Great Waters first opened it showed a side of Jack Nicklaus as a golf course designer that was quite refreshing. Up to that point a good number of Golden Bear efforts were courses that required a heavy lift for those who could loft irons high into the air like the great man did countless times in winning 18 major championships. The layout just went through an upgrade in 2018 and the overall balancing act of challenge and playability has been smartly done.
There's sufficient width so varying handicap levels can manage the journey. And, the approaches into the green do provide for different strategic options.
While the outward nine works its way through a wooded area the usage of a meandering creek is especially done well. The par-4 5th is one of the best holes at the complex but often gets lost because so much attention is paid to the holes nearest to the lake. At 422 yards you need to avoid the creek down the left side and then as it swings in front of the green. There was no need to add a bunch of clutter because the qualities the hole has are more than enough.
The inward half is much close to the Lake and the short par-4 11th is the type of hole that Nicklaus really has opted to include on many of his efforts post Great Waters. There's plenty of risk / reward and the green is brilliantly angled with bunkers and different contours to contend with on one's approach. When the pin is flush to the far left it takes a deft touch with a wedge to get near the pin.
The inward half moves in all sort of directions -- the change of pace is always present and the different shots you'll need to hit is quite diversified without being dependent on excessive length as its main deterrent.
The ending holes provide for a quality closing -- a healthy combination of par-4, par-3 and par-5 to conclude the round. The closing par-5 allows for the boldest of plays but will only reward when the highest level of execution is summoned.
All in all, Great Waters fits the bill properly -- a quality test but no way is it a boorish slog. The routing uses the land for what it provides and does not get into the bombardment of man-made features which Jack often used in many of his earliest efforts. While the course did receive plenty of attention when it first opened -- I believe many now may not realize just how good the course still is today.
Given the dollars invested into the entire property -- I believe it's fair to say Reynolds sits only behind the likes of Pinehurst as the best overall resort north of Florida, south of DC and east of the Mississippi.
M. James Ward