What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.
Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.
Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.
Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.
“I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said. “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.”
Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.
“I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said. “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course. Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.”
Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.
Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.
When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.
The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.
The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.
The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.
No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.
No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?
No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.
No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.
No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.
No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.
No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.
A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.
The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.
An interview with Bill Coore
With the impending completion of the final course at Bandon Dunes, the Sheep Ranch, the golf architecture world focuses on the incredible trace that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw fit into a piece of land that confounded experts.
It is appropriate to revisit a 2016 interview with Bill Coore on his background in golf and his thoughts on golf course architecture and the game.
The interview is reprinted from our Ronald Montesano’s website, BuffaloGolfer.Com, with permission of the interviewer.
If you’ve never been on a golf trip, I bet you’re tempted to go to Myrtle Beach or someplace like that. If you do, you’ll have fun and you might stumble onto a course designed by Mike Strantz, a terrific designer. If you want to see some great, great golf course architecture, you might end up in Bandon (Oregon) Pinehurst (North Carolina) or Inverness (Nova Scotia), any place you can find a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw golf course. Soon you’ll be able to play one at Sand Valley (Wisconsin), and there are many others. Bill Coore spoke to us from a site that he was then assessing, near Charlottesville, Virginia. He SPOKE with us for AN HOUR, as he was mucking through the woods and grasslands of the site. No interview subject has ever given us that much time (over on hour on the phone) and we are humbled.
RM: Tell us about yourself and your history with golf, prior to embarking on your chosen career.
BC: I grew up in rural North Carolina, in Davidson county. I was introduced to golf by my neighbor, Donald Jarrett. He loved to play golf and he would go on weekends and play local public courses in the area. I would caddie for Mr. Jarrett some when I was a kid and he would say, every once in a while “Here, hit one.” He had some old clubs that he let me use and I’d make up some golf holes in his yard or in the corn field, just hitting shots. It wasn’t a formal way, but it was a fun way to be introduced to the game. When I would caddie for him, he would show me the proper way to do things, the rules, etiquette, conduct? I was fortunate in that way. I didn’t grow up in a family with a club membership. I learned what I still think of as proper golf from Mr. Jarrett.
We actually formed a golf team at my high school, my senior year. We talked the baseball coach into letting us play a golf schedule, even though it coincided with the baseball schedule. I went to college at Wake Forest, and played a bit of golf there. And that got the process started, of why do I like this and not that? Why do I like this course? Why do I like Old Town (Winston-Salem, N.C.) so much? I did my own assessment, of why I liked certain courses and not others. I took a serious interest in golf, and from there, a serious interest in golf courses.
RM: How did an interest in golf course architecture lead you to choose a career in the field?
BC: I was fortunate enough, being in North Carolina, which has some very good courses. The Pinehurst courses, in the 1960s, were very affordable, very accessible, particularly in the summer, their off season. Mr. Jarrett would go there once in a while and I would caddie for him, and we would go there once in a while to play golf. I got to experience playing golf there, on Pinehurst #2, and all the other courses there. There is no question that that experience, of being introduced to golf at Pinehurst, and then when I was at Wake Forest, at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, a Perry Maxwell course, helped me. Pinehurst #2 is basically flat and Old Town is quite hilly, so there were two extremes of land forms and visuals. I just was so fortunate to play those on a regular basis. You don’t appreciate how good they really are, and when you see other courses built or being built, it’s the beginning of an awareness where you gravitate toward a certain style of golf course architecture more than others, and perhaps it was dictated to some degree by my game. I was never a long player, I depended a great deal on short game, finesse, and the ability to run the ball on the ground a lot. And Pinehurst #2, a championship golf course of the highest caliber, would allow you to do that. And a lot of the other, so-called, championship courses, that were already built or being built, just didn’t allow that to happen. I got to the point where I thought, Number two allows me to play my game and it would allow the longest player on tour to play his game, and although we might play from far different spots, we both had the ability to succeed. And that came upon me quite early on. And the man who taught me to play golf, Mr. Jarrett, we were playing our little public course that we had played many times, with a little par three down the hill with a creek that stuck out on a peninsula, with a creek in front, on the right, and behind, and a little hillside to the left. And I would invariably aim at the flag and come up in the creek. (At this point, our phone call dropped, and then my recording app dropped, but the gist was to use the hillside to feed the ball to the green, another revelation for Mr. Coore.) Playing golf at Old Town and at Pinehurst #2 was the foundation for my understanding of what exceptional golf and golf course architecture were all about.
RM: What sort of preparation/training did you do post-college for golf course architecture? Was your undergraduate degree helpful?
BC: My undergraduate degree was in Classical Greek. Most people would likely say I can’t imagine how that could be applicable in any way, but I might disagree somewhat and say, it was helpful because it taught me discipline. Translations of classical Greek in the classroom and preparation for the classroom are quite tedious, very detail oriented, and it takes great patience and attention. I happen to believe that those are attributes that work well in the golf architecture business: attention to detail, patience, and persistence at times. Though it would seem that they don’t have any connection, I would think that the discipline gained, that process, when I was at Wake Forest, was very helpful. I don’t have any technical training. I spent a couple of years in the Army after graduating from Wake Forest. When I was getting ready to get out of the Army, I saw the work that Pete Dye was doing at a public course called Oak Hollow (in High Point, N.C.). It was different, in the Harbor Town mode. It was shorter, it was finesse, it was quirky, with the railroad ties and pot bunkers. It was things you didn’t see and it just fascinated me. I managed to badger Mr. Dye to the point where he just gave up after telling me No so many times. He offered me a job, working as a laborer, and then as an equipment operator on another course he was starting to build in North Carolina, called The Cardinal golf club (in Greensboro.) All my experience and background, my preparation in golf course architecture, doesn’t really relate directly to what I studied in university. It was a process of acknowledging an interest and then starting at the bottom. Mr. and Mrs. Dye were both kind enough to allow that to happen. It was just one of those extraordinary, fortuitous occurrences, just like when Mr. Jarrett took me to play golf, stumbling into Pete Dye building a golf course, not knowing who Pete Dye was. There’s nothing glamorous about any of it, the labor, wearing hip waders, cutting trees three feet deep in water. It was just a process and it all led to today.
RM: How did you and Ben Crenshaw meet, and what led the two of you to believe that a partnership would be both manageable and fruitful?
BC: I had started a design company. I had been given an opportunity to design a course in south Texas with one of the guys who still works with us, in 1980. It was a place with extraordinarily limited funds, so they were desperate enough to give me a chance to work on it. We built nine holes and then skipped a year, and then built the next nine. This takes us to 1984. I had been asked a number of times, You’re designing some golf courses that are pretty good (at this time there were only two) and why don’t you have a partnership with a well-known tour player? It was just not something I had given much thought to, to be perfectly candid. One day, a potential client, also on a site in south Texas, asked me a question: I’d like you to come down and look at another site. It was never going to be a golf course; it was impossible for it to be a golf course. Right along the gulf, it went under water at high tide, and it was salt water at that. The man took it upon himself, in the course of the conversation, he said Why don’t you work with someone? It was 1984 and Ben had just won the Masters, and I had read some articles, and in those articles, it was mentioned several times about his interest in golf course architecture. And I could tell by the comments, that he knew something, that he had studied. When the potential client kept pressing the issue, I said, Well, I guess if it was going to be anyone, it would be Ben Crenshaw. He got in touch with Ben’s business manager and mentioned something about this project. He’s the one who actually got us together. Ben had heard of the golf course we had already done, close by, and he came to look at this other site. The project manager introduced me to him. We never worked on that golf course, of course, and we had no intention of working together, but we started talking about golf architecture over the next year, off and on, and we became friend first. At some point, we said, well, maybe we should try one of these things together. We both felt comfortable enough with each other, both personally and philosophically, regarding golf course architecture. It was no great plan, it wasn’t something that was programmed from the beginning, or something that I had given serious thought to, or something Ben had given serious thought to. Again, it was simply another one of those fortuitous things that happens. That was thirty years ago, and then in December of 1985, we formed our partnership. This past December was the 30th anniversary of our partnership.
RM: Does each of you (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) have easily-defined roles in the partnership? If so, can you tell us what they are?
BC: I think the answer to the first part of the question is No, we don’t have easily-defined roles. There are some things, given the amount of time that we can spend on the site, that gravitate more toward one or the other. The routings, just because I have the freedom of time, over Ben and his playing career, have come a bit more in my domain, but in no way exclusively. Take the Austin Golf Club, for example, it’s totally Ben’s routing. We’ve collaborated on almost all of them, but if you had to say that one of us concentrates on a certain aspect more than the other guy, well, Ben has certainly taught me so much about the details of the land forms that affect the best players in the world and how they think, and how small details can influence the best players in the world. Little slopes here, little contours or hollows there, tilts of the green, angles, the way the wind blows, wind directions. Ben is so extraordinarily perceptive. You could say that if you’re trying to categorize us, it might be those two things, but basically, we overlap. We use each other as sounding boards and we talk to each other about the concepts of the courses, the routings, we go walk them together and make adjustments together. We talk about the concepts of the holes, the bunkering schemes, the greens, and the contouring of the putting surfaces. We bounce ideas off each other, as well as listing them to the guys who work with us, who are extraordinary. In many ways, we’ve both become editors. We do the routing and then we are adamant with the guys that we work with that nothing is set in stone. If something neat begins to happen, go with it. Every one of our guys has the freedom to abandon the original concept at any point, if they think that something better could materialize. In that regard, sometimes, we give a main concept, they work on it, and sometimes you walk back up there and a green complex or a bunker has been roughed in, and you think, well that’s not exactly what we talked about, but it’s better! We’ve always tried to maintain flexibility in the process.
RM: Please describe your process for assessing a piece of land and determining a routing.
BC: When we’re called to look at a piece of land, the first thing we do is go walk the property. We try to get a sense if the land, in its actual state, looks and feels like golf. We try to get a sense of whether you could lay a golf course on that landscape, without huge amounts of alteration to the land forms. If so, we’re very comfortable with that. We’ve done courses where you’ve had to do major alterations, but it’s not our preference. After walking the property (sometimes it can take two or three weeks) if we determine that this property can yield a course to attain the owner’s goals, with us working on it? There are some sites that we have looked at, where someone else could do a great job, but we would spend a lot of money and not do a very good job. We’ve looked at other sites and thought that other architects would be way better at it than we would be. And there are some sites that we look at and say, well, no one could ever do a good job on this. And finally, there are sites you look at and say, this is right in our comfort zone. We try to understand our limitations. The worst thing that can be done is to spend a lot of money and build a bad golf course. The owner needs someone who can sit across the table or stand on the grounds and say, I can do this. I’ve seen some sites where I’ve not known what to do, and Ben hasn’t known what to do, and [another major architect] has built beautiful golf courses on those sites.
RM: You have established a successful working relationship with Mike Keiser. How did that come about and what makes both sides click together?
BC: It was like we won the lottery. Mike Keiser was a founding member at Sand Hills in Nebraska (a course designed by Coore & Crenshaw, recognized as the best new course of the 2nd half of the 20th century), so we had met Mike, but neither one of us really knew Mike. He called me on the phone and he said Bill, I’d like to talk to you and Ben about doing the third course at Bandon. I’m going to be very candid with you: it’s not on the ocean, a lot of it’s going to be interior, back in the woods, most people will probably perceive it as an inferior piece of property to what Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are on. We had seen what he had done out there with David Kidd (the original Bandon Dunes course), with Tom Doak and Jim Urbina (the Pacific Dunes course) and it was fantastic. We wanted to look at the site at the very least. We went out and looked at it and the results of studying it for a fairly long time, and after various conversations about where the golf course should be, it ended up being Bandon Trails. We knew that it had some difficult spots; there is a big ridge that runs through it that we had to work around.
Ben and I felt that All we want to do here is build a golf course that complements the other two somehow. We don’t want to build a golf course that nobody wants to play, but we think we can do something hopefully good enough that people will appreciate it. He gave us the chance to do that and in that process, he became not only an extraordinary client, but a very, very good friend. Mike Keiser has incredible insight from the standpoint of, as he calls it, the retail golfer, what the paying customer looks for, and the experience they hope to have, as well as an affection for seaside or sand-based golf. We got to work at Bandon Trails, Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania) and then more recently, up at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, and last the par-three course, the Preserve at Bandon, so Mike has been so generous to us, that I would never know how to thank him. He has given us opportunities that anyone in this profession would be thrilled for. In my mind, he is the patron saint of modern-day architecture. He affords people in our business opportunities that we could have never dreamed of, spectacular sites to work with, and the freedom to work with them. I’ve enjoyed every walkabout, whether it’s to assess a new property or a course under construction, like the first course at Sand Valley, in Wisconsin (designed by Coore and Crenshaw, that will open for play in 2017.)
RM: Give us a sense of where you see golf course architecture heading in the next 25 years, and what you hope your firm’s role will be.
BC: We hope that golf architecture evolves in a fashion that maintains people’s interest in the game. That may be in the form of shorter courses, courses with less than 18 holes. I grew up on a nine-hole course and most of the public courses around me were nine-hole courses. Certainly, Ben and I are not dismissive of courses with less than 18 holes, or of shorter courses. If there are ways to make golf more accessible and more enjoyable for people, that’s fantastic. You only have to look at the two, non-18 hole courses at Bandon, to understand this. The one we did, the Preserve, is absolutely chock full of people, all the time, playing it over and over. It’s tremendous fun. It doesn’t require excessive strength or excessive skill to enjoy. The Punch Bowl, which Tom Doak did out there, is a giant putting course. Now, do you call that a golf course? Well, I guess it depends on your definition, but you could certainly spend all day out there, or an hour. That’s just as much golf as any of the big courses at Bandon. Those are just two examples of things that could happen. The world is so fast-paced, and families have so much going on, that it’s almost unreasonable to ask people to go spend the entire day at a golf course. Any type of golf course architecture that provides interesting golf and which can be experienced in a shorter period of time, be it three hours or an hour, is the way that golf out to go.
RM: What question haven’t we (or anyone) asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please. This was a challenge for me and Bill. It ended up being more of an idea than a question, and here it is:
BC: Any question that would allow us to express how talented the guys who work with us are.
I said earlier that Ben and I often fulfill the role of editors rather than authors. The fellows that work with us are so often referred to as shapers or bulldozer operators; they are that but so much more. There are several of them that have done their own designs. Dave Axland and Dan Proctor did Wild Horse (Nebraska.) Dave Zinkand who worked with us for twelve years, has redesigned Desert Forest (Arizona.) These fellows have all done their own designs, and yet they come out and work with us on equipment, help us build bunkers. Rod Whitman, the Canadian architect, has three or four of the top ten courses in Canada. He has worked on greens, bunkers, fairways and tees on our golf courses for years. Our list of about ten guys who are so extraordinarily talented, there’s not one of them who could not go out on his own, if circumstances presented themselves, and design one heck of a golf course, that we would all be proud of. They are just extraordinary: Jimbo Wright, Jeff Craig, Jeff Bradley, the premier bunker guy in America. It’s fun to see them, to see the talent, and to be a part of it.
Jack’s back! A first look at Reynolds Great Waters reopening
I was happy to accept a recent invitation to attend the grand reopening of the Great Waters course at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Over the last five years, I have come to know Reynolds Lake Oconee quite well. It is a gated community that is cozied up next to a man-made lake halfway between Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia (fun fact: almost all of the lakes in Georgia are man-made) and is populated by a lot of people who have that increasingly rare ability to be well-off and well-behaved, which makes it a really pleasant place to reside.
Reynolds Lake Oconee also has a Ritz-Carlton hotel for those that want to soak up some southern-style luxury; one of the things that I like most about RLO is that the place is golf-centric without having that “golf monastery” feel of some of the newer multi-course golf destinations. It is a prime location for Masters ticket holders to stay during tournament week, and I have been there a couple of times myself for their version of Monday after the Masters.
Over the years, Reynolds Lake Oconee has very quietly become one of the country’s great golf destinations, kind of a Georgia peach-flavored version of Pinehurst. The property boasts six championship golf courses, including designs by Nicklaus, Bob Cupp, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones. Great Waters (Nicklaus) and The Oconee (Jones) are ranked it the Top 100 public courses in America, with Great Waters at #2 in the state. And to top it off, the Kingdom of Golf by TaylorMade is located at RLO. Gearheads will know that The Kingdom is one of the highest-regarded instruction and club fitting facilities in the country. Make an appointment to try it out and you can tell your friends that you got fitted for a new driver or set of irons at the same place Jason Day and Rory McIlroy tweak their bags during Masters Week.
Great Waters was the first course that I had played there—five years ago I was invited to play in the Big Break Invitational. It was very cool to hang out with Tommy “Two-Gloves” Gainey, Don Donatello and the rest of the gang that I had watched on TV for years. I got to play a few holes with Tony Finau right before he jumped to the PGA Tour (you forgot he was a Big Break-er didn’t you?). I knew he was going to do OK when I saw him dismantle a short par-4 with a 290-yard 3-wood to the front of the green that led to a tap-in birdie and a big ‘ole Finau grin. Great Waters’ credentials also included hosting the WGC Match Play in its early days, as well as a slew of local and regional championships.
But after almost 30 years of play, Great Waters was in need of maintenance, repair, and upgrades to some infrastructure, so the word was that Nicklaus and the owners would do the maintenance and also take the opportunity to apply the wisdom and the advancements gained since the original launch and make some structural changes to the layout.
I flew into Atlanta and picked up my ride to Greene County, a 2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG C63, a 500-horsepower SUV coupe that made the ride to RLO infinitely more comfortable and considerably shorter than the same trip in the hotel shuttle. As I cruised the satellite radio bands and dodged state troopers on I-20, I was thinking about how Jack might have changed the course. Nicklaus is nothing if not prolific as a golf course designer; he has over 260 course designs to his name and if you include co- and re-designs that number gets to 300. But the honest truth is that while every Nicklaus course is a challenge, they can take on an air of the familiar.
It’s not all his fault; a developer from Argentina plays your track in Florida and then wants to pay you a million dollars to do roughly the same thing in Caracas, you do it. And many of the Nicklaus tracks can be extremely penal, especially for resort courses. For that reason, I have developed a shortlist of favorite Bear tracks that, in my humble opinion, got the balance of challenge, opportunity, beauty and fun exactly right. The Manele Golf Course at the Four Seasons Lanai is my absolute favorite Nicklaus course, and Great Waters was just behind it. I was hoping that Jack wasn’t going to respond to the advances that had been made in club design and the ever-expanding length of the golf ball to fortify the layout to the detriment of playability. Great Waters was great fun to play, and I selfishly wanted it to stay that way.
As I arrived at the practice facility before the opening round at Great Waters, the first thing that struck me was the practice facility itself. It was opening day for that facility too, and it was immaculate. I noticed that there were a lot of thin shots being hit because no one wanted to take a divot from the immaculate turf on the practice tee. I went to the practice green to roll a couple of putts; the TIFF Eagle surface was rolling at a speed roughly equivalent to a gym floor. Not a good sign for scoring on the potato chip greens that I remembered from my previous trip around Great Waters.
The first and most predictable difference was the length of the course. It was expanded with the addition of “Golden Bear” back tees that play a robust 7,400 yards; to put that in perspective, on the first hole, they actually had to place the Golden Bear tees on the practice green! But there were also new tees placed at 4,500 yards to increase playability, pace-of-play and birdie opportunities for the less prodigious. I was playing with three 30-somethings, so I swallowed hard and played from 6,900-plus, all but assuring that most of the birdies I’d see that day would be perched in the Georgia pines.
The opening holes are classic Georgia golf, meandering through the pines with glimpses of the lake As I went through the front nine, the changes I saw were mostly technical. Extensive tree clearing took place to reduce shade and improve overall turf quality. Speaking of turf, the grasses that were used for the renovation are state of the art, with Zeon zoysia for the fairways and TifTuf Bermuda rough, both of which should hold up well with minimal water and chemical treatment in the sweltering heat of Georgia summers.
I was hitting driver well that day and was loving the way that zoysia “tees” the ball up for approach shots. The greens complexes are all new and have also been converted to TifEagle Bermuda, a grass that performs better in the shade and holds color in the fall. That, along with the lowering of some embankments allow for wider fairways and more views of the lake. The fairway bunkers, somewhat surprisingly, had not been moved, but they were in perfect condition, as were the greenside bunkers. The greens, as expected, were table-top hard, but they will definitely soften as they mature and settle after the rebuild.
As I was making the turn, I was pleased; the course so far had been improved without fundamentally changing an already exceptional experience. But if the front nine is a sonata, the back nine is a rock anthem. Perhaps the most stunning hole is the 11th, a gorgeous 311-yard par-4 that is the dictionary definition of “risk-reward” (and the hole where Tony Finau had given me a look into his future). Lowering the hillside on the left side of the hole allows the players to see much more of the lake that frames it. Deciding to go hero mode and hit driver is a common mistake on the hole; if you dunk it in the lake on the left you’ll probably find at least a sleeve of Pro V1s left by previous victims waiting for you in the grass near your drop.
Great Waters saves the best for last, as every hole except No. 10 has Lake Oconee either visible or in play, and on a perfect fall day like we had it is a lovely sight indeed. The final four holes are a chorus line of beauties that offer some of the best views in American golf, and the par-3 17th and the massive par-5 18th rank as one of the best finishing combinations in the Nicklaus portfolio. I went par/bogey on the finish, but from the distance I was playing, I couldn’t complain. On the contrary, I walked off with the same feeling that I had when I played the first time: ”I’d love to play it again tomorrow.”
The great man of Great Waters gave a press conference the day after the opening round, and he was reflective when speaking about the project in terms of his life and career.
“I think that I have learned some things over the years, and you see that [at Great Waters],” Nicklaus noted. “But the members and residents here have always wanted a property they can be proud of, and I think that’s what we gave them.”
In all, Great Waters is just as challenging and just as much fun, if not more, than before. The aesthetic changes to the course have made it more picturesque than ever, but if you want to want to score well, you’ll need to spend more time lining up your putts than your pictures.
“The thing a course designer wants to hear from golfers when they see a hole is, “Wow,” said Nicklaus.
For sure, Great Waters has provided its share of “wow” moments, and with this project completed, it is sure to be providing them for years to come.
I played nearly 150 courses last year. Here are my 6 favorite
Summer is most definitely here! After a brutal winter, many of us are looking to use the coming summer to play A LOT of golf. For those looking for recommendations, I wanted to list a couple of my favorite courses from this past year. These courses were selected from the nearly 150 different courses that I played in 2018. So why did these make the cut? Simple: playability, course condition, and overall experience.
Here’s my list, in no particular order
Much has been written about the course based on its length; almost 8000 yards from the backs but to me, the beauty of the course is the combination of breath-taking views of nearby mountains, as well as the reservoir with comes into play on several holes. Beyond the scenery, TPC Colorado offers generous landing areas and large greens. Whereas many modern greens have significant undulation, these are subtle allowing for a lot of makeable putts! Really fun to play!
Owned and operated by the outdoor life brand company, Mossy Oak is located near Starkville, MS. The course is a Hanse design that is forgiving off the tee but requires strong approach shots to a melee of different sized targets, from different distances, allowing you to hit every club in the bag. When you get the pleasure of playing here, make sure to listen to your caddy and stop in after for a bite in the clubhouse….food is wonderful!
Turning Stone Resort
This casino resort, located in upstate New York, offers golfers a great combination of upscale golf and nightlife in one location. Perfect for a guys trip, the hotel rooms are luxurious and the golf is amazing; boosting three different golf by famed designers Fazio (Atunyote), Jones (Kaluhyat) and Smith (Shenandoah). My personal favorite is the newly resigned Shenandoah; a beautiful parkland course with generous landing areas off the tees and nice big greens, but you cannot go wrong with any of the courses!
Sand Creek Station
This course has a well-deserved reputation as the best low-cost golf course in the world. At about $30 per round, you will not find a finer experience. Don’t let the price tag fool you, Sand Creek Station is meticulously maintained. The course treats people to two different sides; the front is a little more links, with the back a little more parkland. The front can be demanding off the tee, especially if the wind is up. A true gem and certainly worth the trip to play!
Half Moon Bay Links
Located just south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean with a wonderful golf experience. With generous fairways, nuanced elevation changes and a wonderful variation of holes with my favorite finishing holes in golf; a par 3 on the ocean (17th) and a reachable par 5 to finish. If you are lucky to finish around dusk, you will play up the last to the sounds of bagpipes. Brilliant end!
TPC San Antonio
Home to a PGA Tour event, TPC San Antonio boasts two excellent golf courses; the Oaks and Canyons. While the tour event is played on the Oaks, my preference is for the Canyons; I think it has more variation and is less demanding, which made it more fun to play. Family-friendly, the course is located footsteps from a Marriott with an amazing water park that will quickly become a favorite for kids of all ages!
As a keen golfer, I am always looking for new places to play. So let’s hear from you GolfWRX fans…where did I miss? Have you played these places, what did you think?
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