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 (The Landing and The Preserve) 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.
Let me start by saying, Reynolds Lake Oconee is a golf trip that everybody should put in their calendars. I had heard amazing things about the region, and it exceeded my expectations. You have the 6 courses as part of this community, plus Cuscowilla nearby (also reviewed).
While I think Jack Nicklaus is arguably the greatest golfer of all time, and by all accounts, a wonderful human, I have never been a huge fan of some of his course designs. Great Waters is a huge exception to that rule.
I was lucky to get to play it after the massive renovation, and it is a great combination of eye candy, strategy, and fun shot making. You need to bring your "A game" as understanding your lines, and your yardage will become key once you head towards Lake Oconee on holes 9 - 18.
This is not a gimmick course that has water for views, while hurting strategy. It is a very playable layout, that also happens to be an extremely enjoyable experience.
Hole highlights for me were every hole from #9 - 18, along with # 2 (long par 5 down hill guarded by a pond) and #5, a long par 4, protected by a stream that weaves throughout the hole, and is the number 1 handicap.
The experience of the entire community is amazing, but somehow Great Waters outshines it.
Great Waters makes its name on almost ever list of places to play. The course (and the resort) is worthy of all the accolades. This is a Jack Nicklaus design and it is typical of his work.
To me, it seems that Nicklaus always allows the player an option to "bail out" of difficulty. That long par 4 where you can lay up short and not be in the water or the par 3 where short right won't put you in a deep bunker. I played this course during a scramble tournament so I did not get the full pleasure of my normally errant shots but the wonder of the course was nonetheless evident.
I have played 3 courses at Reynolds (and a few other non-Reynolds courses in the area like Cuscowilla) and this, by far, is the most pristine and challenging one.
The Great Waters course was opened in 1992, and hosted The Anderson Consulting World Championship of Golf from 1995 to 1997. It is generally regarded as the best of the courses at Reynolds and incorporates the lake shoreline more than the other courses. However the course has a lot more going for it than it's exposure to the lake.
Nicklaus designs always place emphasis on strategic play, and Great Waters uses rocky creeks, ponds, the lake, and elevation change to provide a variety of hazards to keep the player constantly on his toes. And the setting at Great Waters is drop dead gorgeous! In season, with the azaleas and dogwoods in full colour, with blue skies and the sun shining- it would be one of the prettiest places you will ever find to play golf.
Notable holes include:
- hole 2, a rolling par 5 to a green protected by a pond and with a background of azaleas. The water keeps you honest, and the setting is very photogenic
- hole 4, a downhill par 3, with a rocky creek protecting the front of the green and azaleas in full bloom behind
- hole 5, a shortish dogleg par 4 reminscent of the great par 5's along Rae's Creek at Augusta National. The hole doglegs left with a creek winding down the left perimeter of the fairway. The creek also runs across in front of the diagonal green with a stone wall imposing on the green side. The preferred tee shot is a draw to open up the green and the miss to the right will go through into the pine straw leaving a challenging approach.
- hole 9, a short downhill par 4 toward the lake. Care needs to be taken with both the length and line of the tee sot and the shot approach needs to negotiate the lake (see picture mid article)
- hole 11, a short par 4 with an extremely wide shallow green. When the pin is on the right hand end of the green it is an unremarkable short hole in a lovely setting by the lake. When the pin is on the left hand end of the green it is a different kettle of fish! The approach becomes a real challenge and the tee shot needs to be thoughtfully placed..
- hole 14, a spectacular mid length par 3 with lake carry from tee to green. Framed by pine trees and azaleas at rear and on the left it is a memorable hole.
- hole 16, a long par 4 downhill with a tee shot through a chute of pine trees and a green sitting on a promontory with lake long and left and nicely bunkered. The approach needs to well struck and accurate.
Great Waters is both challenging and playable and one of the prettiest courses I have played. Members and residents of Reynolds Plantation are blessed to have this and 5 other quality courses at their disposal. And it is a very nice place to stay- and a good base for a trip to The Masters.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
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
James, I really enjoy your course reviews. On a trip to Reynolds a few years back, I played Great Waters, Lake Oconee and the National. I thought Great Waters' back 9 was the best 9 holes of all three courses, however, I was underwhelmed with its front and therefore would say the Oconee course was best 18 holes I played. Admittedly I am not a big fan on Nicklaus-designed courses, I'm curious if you played Oconee and, if so, your thoughts.
Look forward to reading your past and future reviews.
Forgive my late reply to your note.
You indicated you played Great Waters a few years back. Jack Nicklaus and his team have truly updated the course since your visit. The details are sharper, and the strategic qualities have been enhanced. The gap that previously existed between the outward and inward sides has been narrowed. The front side does not have the close proximity to the Lake and therefore the "eye candy" dimension is less so.
However, the par-4 5th is one of the best holes at the complex. The creek's intersection with the line of play is superb. The long par-4 7th is balanced with the equally demanding par-3 8th. The 9th ends the side in a quality fashion.
Nicklaus added a few tees so the golf course does have sufficient elasticity for the broad range of players. The key is choosing the appropriate tee box for one's skill level.
I have played the Oconee layout and like what Rees Jones did there. There are a few holes where the shot requirements are fairly similar, but the land movements make for an enjoyable and testing layout,
The final hole ends the day in grand fashion -- teeing off over water and ending with a devilish green with the lake in the background. I have provided a fuller review on this site where the course is listed.
Nicklaus designs have clearly evolved over the course of time. Early on the Golden Bear went with layouts that emphasized the wherewithal to hit the ball in the air -- sometimes quite high to get to the select landing spots. They also included big bunkers and greens. The difficulty quotient was clearly first and foremost.
Jack has somewhat mellowed with his more recent efforts, and you see a more nuanced approach to the variety of holes created.
One thing you do find at Great Waters is an interesting short par-4 -- at the 11th. Far too often Jack's designs have failed to really provide for the kind of hole you see here.
Curious to know -- what Nicklaus courses you have played that you find compelling.
Overall, I see Reynolds as the best multi-course complex -- save for Pinehurst, in the Southeast that one can access.