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Vegas, baby: A first look at the new Wynn Golf Course

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Last week, golf returned to the Las Vegas Strip as the Wynn Golf Course made its debut. In fact, it was a grand re-opening of a course that had hosted top pros and celebrities for years before closing in 2017, with the land earmarked for development. Other land was found, and now the track is back and better than ever.

Tom Fazio was chosen as the architect for the re-imaging of the course. It now plays as a par-70 with three par 3s and two par 5s on each nine (that’s two Full Houses, if you are a poker type) and a total yardage that stretches from 4,810 to 6,722 with a choice of four tees. The course plays a lot longer than the number, so wisdom dictates that you choose one tee box forward if you want to score.

Those that have played the old design will see that the changes begin on the first hole, which has been rerouted from its original design to dogleg right instead of left. All told, there are eight brand new holes and ten that have been re-worked. Highlights include a 486-yard par 4 (no. 16) and a par 5 (no. 11) that tops out at nearly 600 yards. The signature 18th hole has been transformed from a par 4 to a par 3, which can be stretched to 249 yards, culminating on a green framed by a 35-foot-tall by 100-foot-wide waterfall for a truly Las Vegas-style finish.

More than 400,000 cubic yards of earth and 300 trees were relocated to accommodate wider landing areas, contours, and elevation changes to fairways throughout, as well as bunker alterations that make for easier access and egress. Each hole received an approximate 300-square-foot green expansion as well as a redesign and recontour to create new hole locations, while resort golfers will appreciate that green surrounds were made more receptive with the addition of collection areas shaped to feed balls toward putting surfaces instead of away from them. That’ll also get you around the course and back to the tables in a reasonable amount of time.

#18 at Wynn Golf Course

Visually, the course is a knockout. As you would expect for opening day, the conditions were immaculate, but the management is committed to daily perfection. There is a kind of surreal feeling as you play in a combination of lush greenery while you use the Wynn Tower and other landmarks as your aimpoint on the horizon. Full disclosure; I love Fazio designs and this one was the man at his best. Generous fairways to get the hole started, and approaches that are challenging without being absurdly difficult.

“We are so excited about the return of the Wynn Golf Club,” said Fazio. “The quality of the Wynn golf experience matches the ultra-high level that everyone expects from a Wynn resort. The playability of the course is second to none and the challenge of play for all golfers is exceptional.”

Fazio is right; as a hotel, the Wynn is, like, a 7-star experience, and they did their best to extend that to the golf course. You’ll find a top-notch caddie program featuring several PGA members, new on-course culinary program, lithium-powered golf carts (with lights and a horn!), expansive pro shop, and a luxury clubhouse.

The Wynn Golf experience does not come cheap; green fees are $550 in-season not including caddy. But in the context of a city where you can lose $600 in less time than it takes to say, “Six hundred dollars,” it might be the best value proposition that many visitors get during their stay. And by the way, if you ace 18, you can win up to $25K.

Golfers with a room reservation at Wynn Las Vegas or Encore can secure tee times 90 days in advance. Non-resort guests can reserve tee times 30 days in advance.

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Williams has a reputation as a savvy broadcaster, and as an incisive interviewer and writer. An avid golfer himself, Williams has covered the game of golf and the golf lifestyle including courses, restaurants, travel and sports marketing for publications all over the world. He is currently working with a wide range of outlets in traditional and electronic media, and has produced and hosted “Sticks and Stones” on the Fox Radio network, a critically acclaimed show that combined coverage of the golf world with interviews of the Washington power elite. His work on Newschannel8’s “Capital Golf Weekly” and “SportsTalk” have established him as one of the area’s most trusted sources for golf reporting. Williams has also made numerous radio appearances on “The John Thompson Show,” and a host of other local productions. He is a sought-after speaker and panel moderator, he has recently launched a new partnership with The O Team to create original golf-themed programming and events. Williams is a member of the United States Golf Association and the Golf Writers Association of America.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Michael

    Oct 23, 2019 at 1:11 am

    Full disclosure: Fazio courses are notorious for being uneconomical to maintain and built on an undisciplined budget. A black eye on the golf design profession. This is lollypop and unicorn golf.

    • John

      Oct 23, 2019 at 12:04 pm

      Wynn golf club has its own well and can water day and night. Other costs don’t matter as its casino funded. It’s a money no object course. Brian Hawthorne runs it and I don’t think he is budget restricted.
      When Steve Wynn was still with the company, he lived at the resort with his villa facing that big waterfall on 18. They’d keep it on long after sundown. The Country Club Restairant has an outdoor seating area also facing that big waterfall. It’s a beautiful course designed with privacy in mind. They have raised hills along the roughs so you don’t even see other golfers.

  2. Speedy

    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:24 pm

    No to Vegas. Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach, here I come.

  3. Jim Duncan

    Oct 21, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Who goes to Vegas to play golf?

    • D

      Oct 22, 2019 at 12:34 pm

      All the rest of us, apparently. You won’t be invited

  4. HDTVMAN

    Oct 21, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    I’d pay $100 TOPS! One of the most beautiful and perfectly manicured courses in the area is the Jack Nicklaus Signature Coyote Springs, 90 minutes north of Las Vegas. I’ve played it three times and absolutely LOVE IT!

    • Jose Pinatas

      Oct 22, 2019 at 9:50 am

      Agree. And usually less than 1/5th the cost. It is however over an hour from the Strip.

  5. Jose Pinatas

    Oct 21, 2019 at 4:35 pm

    The play will be predominantly Asian males. This fee is crumbs compared to what the high rolling Asian culture drops on golf in their overseas market.

    • John

      Oct 22, 2019 at 12:01 pm

      Completely incorrect. As a former employee, that course does over a million dollars each month between casino guests and paying guests. And it’s a mix of EVERYBODY that plays it. While green fees have gone up $50 as according to the article, it’s $350 for locals with ID. And for that you get a golfing experience. It’s really a red carpet golf day. Even both coolers on the cart are stocked full of sodas, water, and gatorades which are complimentary. The hot dog from the shack at the turn is the best I’ve ever had.

      Everybody from every ethnicity plays the course. You’re narrow minded and probably wouldn’t play it, but it’s one of my favorite courses to play. And I play it 1 or 2 times each year. I’m happy it’s back!

      • Jose Pinatas

        Oct 22, 2019 at 4:10 pm

        Your right I’m too narrow minded and too cheap to play it. I’ll play elsewhere when I’m in Vegas for the week. Boulder Creek, Coyote Springs, Mountain Falls, Wolf Creek, and Primm. I’d rather play golf for a week athe the same cost on other nice area courses. You stick to your 1 round and have a free pop every hole.

        • John

          Oct 23, 2019 at 12:24 am

          Yup. You are not the type of guest they are looking for.
          You would probably be more comfortable at Black Mountain, Desert Willow, or Stallion Mountain.

      • Dangers my middle name

        Oct 22, 2019 at 4:12 pm

        Casino Royale has good ft. long hot dogs for $2.

  6. JasonHolmes

    Oct 21, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    So its now more expensive than Shadow Creek?

    Thats just silly.

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The Scottsdale Experience

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The greater Phoenix area has some phenomenal golf. And a lot of it, too.  They say that there are over 200 golf courses in and around Phoenix and Scottsdale. Of course, not all golf is created equal. But still, you visit this part of the country, and you can find somewhere to play without much problem. And the weather will probably be good. It’s why so many snow-bird golfers decide to retire to Arizona.

My wife, kiddo, and I spent the weekend in Scottsdale. I’ve been blessed to travel to a lot of different places for golf but I am not sure there is a finer overall golf venue to visit with your family. We stayed at the Fairmont Princess, and I was able to play three first-class courses: TPC Scottsdale, Grayhawk Raptor, and We-Ko-Pa Saguaro. Each course provided a different style of desert golf…something I didn’t know was even possible before this trip.

It also happened to be Christmas season, and the Fairmont Princess goes all out for the holidays. It might be hard to imagine a winter wonderland in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, but they pull it off. Absolute Christmas heaven for an 18-month-old boy and his parents.

Here’s how our weekend went…

Day 1: TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course

We all know TPC Scottdale as the host of the Waste Management Phoenix Open every year on the PGA Tour. Yep, it’s the party tournament with the stadium grandstands around the famous 16th par-three hole. It’s one of the most popular stops on tour for fans and golfers alike, and I was stoked to see if the course itself provides similar excitement.

TPC Scottsdale Stadium Clubhouse

The clubhouse is grand and nearby to the Fairmont hotel, where most of the players stay during tournament week. In fact, the great little par-three fourth hole runs parallel to some of the Fairmont villas. The fifth teebox backs up to the Fairmont grounds and borders a cool walking path along the course. The hotel makes for a neat backdrop for many holes on the front nine.

The pro shop here is solid. It’s large and has all the major brands. I think that is a common theme in Scottsdale, though. The retail world is a big deal here and that extends beyond the pro shops. I was joined by a single for my round at TPC Scottsdale, a doctor from El Paso. He and his wife were in town just for the weekend as well. He told me they drive to Scottsdale once a year. “I play golf and my wife shops. We have to drive so she can fill the car with everything she buys,” he said. I found out later the shopping really was world-class. But I played a bit quicker after that, not knowing where my wife was and how much money she was spending.

TPC Stadium #1 Tee

  

The Stadium Course was in perfect shape. The track is a Tom Wieskopf  and Jay Morrish-designed, 7,266-yard par 71 that was built in 1987 as a site for the then Phoenix Open. It was easily the best conditioned of the three courses I played in Scottsdale. Winter is high traffic season for Arizona, as most travelers fly in from the north to escape the cold weather back home. Temperatures each morning were in the 40s, but it warmed up to a comfortable high in the 60s after lunch each day, usually with clear skies. My round at TPC was cloudy, but we avoided rain from earlier in the week. The course was lush and the greens were as good as any I’ve ever played anywhere. The ball was rolling so pure on them. I’m willing to bet they keep them that perfect year-round.

TPC Scottsdale also has a second course, The Champions Course, that was built in 2007 and it offers a more inexpensive alternative with similarly stellar conditions. Both sites offer dynamic pricing, with green fees fluctuating throughout the month, week and even time of day. But in December, tee times for the Stadium Course can run you anywhere from $94.00 to $250.00 depending on when you want to go out. Prices for the Champions Course seem to hover around the $100.00 mark all day long.

   

TPC Scottsdale was a subtle introduction to desert golf for me. While the fairways were definitely surrounded by desert plants and sandy, hardpan surfaces, the course still didn’t quite feel like a true desert course. There was certainly cactus everywhere but the course is also surrounded by residential adobe houses and, of course, the ever-present Fairmont Princess resort. It was classy desert golf. Nothing wrong with that at all, but you aren’t out in the middle of the Sonoran. There is still a constant presence of civilization and the plants that lined the fairway were spaced out enough to still play your next shot. Not a ton of lost balls on this course.

   

It takes over two months to assemble the stadium grandstands around the par-three 16th, and construction was well along the way in December. In fact, the bones of the stadium were large enough to see the structure from many points on the course. That gives a looming feeling of excitement throughout the entire round. I can only imagine how it must feel for the pros to know that a stadium of 20,000 screaming fans await you at the end of your round, spending all day in the same seat just to see you hit a 150-yard shot.

Fans form an early morning line at the entrance of the Waste Management Open and then run almost a full mile to the stadium to stake their claim on a seat. And if you get up during the day without someone holding your spot, you might lose it. It’s a rowdy crowd, too, as fans are encouraged to make some noise during the golf. There really isn’t another place like it on tour. Even in December, standing on the tee inside the empty structure, you could feel the pressure. It’s a really fun experience and worth the price of admission.

TPC 16 Green to Tee

Like any good Weiskopf/Morrish design, the Stadium Course offers a drive-able par 4. The fact that it is the 17th hole here only adds to the end-of-round drama for the PGA Tour event. In 2001, Andrew Magee made a miraculous hole in one on this hole, the first-ever ace on a par 4 in PGA Tour history.

Overall, TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course is a solid but not overly spectacular layout. What makes the course special is the first-class conditioning on the fairways and greens, the history of the tour event and the obvious thrill of playing the Stadium Course. The finishing four holes make the course worth the trip, with 16 and 17 being the absolute highlights of the round. Even hole 18 provides a beautiful finish back towards the clubhouse. If you can play this course anytime between December and February, you’ll get the added treat of weaving through the grandstands and seeing how the course will look for the professionals. That is an underrated experience.

Me and my buddy Jeff

View of TPC Stadium #4 Green from our hotel room

I ended the round with a meal on site at Toro, the clubhouse restaurant and rum bar. They are known for their sushi but also offer a solid burger and a stunning view overlooking the 18th green. I noticed that the nearly full restaurant was patronized by mostly non-golfers, so this must be a real deal lunch option for the community of Scottsdale. I thought it was a great spot and the atmosphere was good fun with golf course vibes.

Toro Restaurant

Back at the Fairmont, the family had our first night at Christmas at the Princess. I know this is a golf article, but I’m telling you guys….this is just another reason to bring the family to Scottsdale in November/December. The Fairmont is a HUGE property with 750 guest rooms and several restaurants on-site—but there isn’t a tree or building that isn’t completely covered in Christmas lights. They managed to over-decorate in a classy manner but I’m pretty sure the scene would still make Clark Griswold proud. I’m a big fan of overdoing it at Christmas, so this was right up my alley.

Fairmont Princess Main Lobby

Mr. Christmas

Christmas at the Princess felt like a holiday-themed Disneyland. There were hot chocolate stands—you can order it “naughty” with alcohol or “nice” for the kids, Christmas characters walking around in costume for pictures, a ferris wheel and carousel in ‘Smoresland,’ a Christmas train ride around the property, an ice skating rink with fireside lounge chairs, and of course pictures with Santa. My son will be 18 months this Christmas, and he was in heaven with all the lights and characters. And quite honestly, my wife and I were in constant awe of this place as well. Everything is just so impressive. The Fairmont in Scottsdale is perfect for families but even more so this time of year. We saw families with kids of all ages, but there were also couples there for a holiday-themed date night. If you go in the winter, that doesn’t mean forget your swimsuit—the Fairmont has heated pools including an adults-only pool if that’s your style.

We had dinner at La Hacienda, there at the Fairmont, and it was excellent. You can’t go to Arizona and not partake in the margarita selection, right? Well…we did. Also, the Carnitas Hacienda is apparently the signature dish and it was legit. So much flavor. Our first night’s restaurant couldn’t have been better. It was exactly what I had in mind when I thought about a hardy meal after a long day of chilly Arizona golf. I highly recommend.

El Hacienda Restaurant

Lobster Taco Appetizers…sooooo good

Desert Ice Skating…only at the Princess

Will’s favorite tree

Day 2: Grayhawk Raptor Course

My second round was Grayhawk, host site for the upcoming 2020-2022 NCAA Championships. Grayhawk Golf Club is also famous for being Phil Mickelson’s home away from home. Mickelson was one of the club’s original ambassadors, and he has sported the club’s logo on his bag for a while now. The restaurant on site is actually named Phil’s Grill after Lefty, and it is where I enjoyed my post-round meal. Solid spot for a beer overlooking the Raptor course and practice facility.

Phil’s Grill Restaurant at Grayhawk

Grayhawk is home to two separate but truly equal golf courses: the Raptor and the Talon. I only had the opportunity to play the Raptor, but I did take a cart ride around the Talon and can attest that both courses house some truly unique golf holes. Grayhawk was established in 1994 but the club already has a ‘special’ kind of atmosphere for such a young place. The locker room is full of nameplates belonging to the best in the game and the amount of memorabilia, most of which belonging to Mickelson, make the club feel more established than it should in only 25 years of existence. The place feels historical.  But the courses definitely back up the clubhouse swagger.

Grayhawk Talon Course

Grayhawk Talon Course

This is true desert golf. An errant tee shot here and you’re in the real junk…cactus and other natural plants that can impede your swing, swallow your ball and probably pierce your skin. I love it. The Raptor is a Tom Fazio design that stretches out to 7,090 yards and a par of 72. A bit further out of town than TPC Scottsdale but still in the city, the topography changes a bit to more rolling hills and wilder terrain. The desert tee shots can play tricks on your eyes, though. I’m not sure if it’s the McDowell Mountains in the distance or the natural swale of the landscape, but many of the tee shots looked like the landing areas were smaller than they actually were. When I would get to my second shot, I often realized that the fairway was much bigger than it appeared from the tee.

 

A weekend round at either the Raptor or the Talon could cost you north of $200, but what can you expect for Mickelson’s place. They do offer several different rates throughout the day and week, and a special 36-hole rate if you want to knock out both courses in one day. And it’s obviously cheaper on a weekday. For the money though, you are certain to get a quality round of golf. This course is just plain fun to play and is real deal desert golf. This is what I expected when I started planning an Arizona golf vacation.

The par three 8th hole at Raptor is the best hole I played all weekend. It’s one of those rare holes that makes you say ‘oh wow’ when you step up to the tee. The green is guarded by a team of elevated bunkers, protecting most of the putting surface and only exposing its top right tier to the tee box. The flag is just tall enough to peak above the top of those bunkers, giving the brave something to shoot for.

The shot is a mid iron and a miss right will still hit the large green complex. What you can’t see from the tee box is that a miss left will usually use the contours of the hill to kick your ball right, also on to the green. Its deceptively easy. My kind of shot.

8th tee box at Grayhawk Raptor

8th Green at Raptor looking back at tee

The course finishes strong with a get-able par 5 back towards the clubhouse. This hole will hopefully provide a ton of drama for college golf over the next three years at the NCAA Championships.

Ultimately, I walked away from Grayhawk thinking that if I lived in Scottsdale, this would probably be my hang. The clubhouse is legit with great food options…even an extra bar/restaurant down near the Talon driving range keeps you satisfied no matter where your game takes you. They pipe music on speakers at the range while you warm up, too. Like I said…it’s a cool place to hang out. And the courses are what I was looking for in a desert track. Not perfectly manicured. Rugged. Lush green fairways contrasted with true desert sand and foliage. It’s going to be a beautiful course to watch on television for the NCAA tournament.

Add all of that to the Phil Mickelson aura that surrounds the place, and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn cool spot.

After the round, I met back up with the family for more time lounging around the Fairmont Princess. We ended up taking the Holiday Train ride around the property so the kiddo could look at all the Christmas lights. Then we settled in for an early dinner at Bourbon Steak, the premier dining option at the Princess.

No joke, this was the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a simple 8 ounce filet with the restaurants three signature sauces on the side…but I didn’t need any of them. The meat was so tender I could honestly cut it with the side of my fork. And we had a cauliflower soup to start that was so good even my 18 month old son couldn’t get enough of it. I was tired from all the golf and my wife was tired from all the shopping. Yikes.

Cauliflower Soup…a hit with babies

Day 3: We-Ko-Pa Saguaro Course

My final day began with a visit to the Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Princess for some assisted golf stretching. This was a new experience for me but I gotta say…I kind of dig it. It was a mix between a yoga session and a massage, with a focus on golf swing flexibility. By the time I got to the course, I didn’t feel like I needed to warm up at all. Strange, but I think it might be a valuable thing to do before a round if you have the time. If nothing else, I learned a few stretches that I will absolutely utilize pre-round from now on.

My last round of the weekend was early morning at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. I was playing the Saguaro course, a Coore/Crenshaw-designed track and one of two 18 hole courses on property. And I may have saved the best for last.

 

We-Ko-Pa Saguaro is just my kind of golf. If you’ve read any of my previous experience articles, you know that I am a HUGE fan of Coore/Crenshaw layouts. I think they’ve just got it figured out and this course is no different. If you take away the desert landscape, which here is much more untamed than at Grayhawk and TPC, the course just feels like a CC design. Fairway elevation changes, deceptive breaks and green contours, and seamless transitions from green to tee box routing.

Add that to the fact that the golf club is about 30 minutes outside of town, up in the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. So the landscape is open and the mountains just feel closer. The course doesn’t have any houses on it at all, which is unusual for Arizona golf. So this is a truly more natural experience. The Sonoran Desert is certainly vibrant here. The trouble right and left of these fairways is real-deal desert. Not a lot of relief to be found.

The Coore/Crenshaw strategic characteristics are still present in the design. Much like Bandon Trails, Sand Valley and Streamsong Red, there is nothing hidden from the golfer. The choices are all right in front of you. Fairway bunkers sit conveniently in middle fairway landing zones. Greens have visible false fronts and tabletop sides. You can see the options and it’s up to you to execute the shot. So simple and yet so many designs today feature blind shots and punitive hidden hazards. You won’t be frustrated by that here at Saguaro. This golf is meant to be thought about and enjoyed.

The greens are fair and run smooth. There aren’t many flat putts out here, but that feels like it’s because the course is at the foothills of the nearby mountain range. Saguaro feels natural…like the course has been there for ages and has always just been a part of the desert landscape. And the course is incredibly walkable, if that is your thing. I decided to hoof it for this round and I feel like I really got a taste of the desert landscape that way. Saguaro plays to 6,966 yards from the tips and is a par 71.

Green fees can reach $200 in the high season here. But summer and shoulder rates are much lower, which is true of all Scottsdale golf. But please do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on We-Ko-Pa. It’s a bit outside of town, but it was my favorite round of the trip. It probably helps that the weather was perfect, but I feel like that happens more often than not in Arizona.

We-Ko-Pa is a part of a resort and casino, so they offer several different stay-and0play options. It’s not a bad option if you’re looking to gamble and stay a bit outside of town.

18 Tee at We-Ko-Pa Saguaro

To end the round, I was surprised by my wife and baby boy on the 18th fairway. The young man already has some golfing skills and loves nothing more than a golf cart ride. It was such a blast to see him out on We-Ko-Pa, looking at the giant cactus and desert mountains. We might be looking at a future Arizona State golf team member here.

18 Green Handshake

Finally, we headed into downtown Scottsdale. The Kierland shopping center was fancy and well decorated, with more Christmas lights on every palm tree. And of course, a shopping mall Santa for photos. It also had every store you’ve ever heard of; it was definitely the hub for Scottsdale shopping. It felt fancy and upscale, but there wasn’t anything too high browed that would turn you away if you showed up in sweaty golf clothes with your Christmas shopping, margarita filled wife. Ask me how I know. We had our last dinner of the trip at The Mission—a trendy two-story Latin themed spot. We had a really good meal here and that may start to sound like a broken record at this point. But Scottsdale appears to have the food and beverage game figured out. I can only imagine the amazing dining options we missed, but I feel like we enjoyed some great dinner spots. I would recommend them all.

 

So, to summarize…

Like a great golf course, Scottsdale gives you options. It would take a full calendar year to play all the great golf in the area, and the food options are even more plentiful. Everyone I met that lived here seemed genuinely happy and proud of their community. It seems like a great place to call home and now I can attest that it is a phenomenal place to visit with your family. Especially around the holidays. Merry Christmas, readers!

If you want help planning your next golf experience or just have any questions about some of mine, reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram and shoot me a message. And feel free to check out my other golf experience articles. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Courses

Jack’s back! A first look at Reynolds Great Waters reopening

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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.

2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLC 63

2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLC 63

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.

Golden Bear Tees

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.

Great Waters #11

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.”

Great Waters #18

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.”

Jack Nicklaus

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.

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The Streamsong Experience

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Streamsong Resort is in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know that was possible in Florida, but a flight into Tampa Bay and then an hour or so drive to the center of the state gets you there. The middle of nowhere. Swamp and sand. Dunes and gators. One windmill and three world-class tests of golf. The remoteness is actually a great thing because it separates you from everything else going on in your world. You stand on a tee box, look around and see golf. Only golf. If that’s your focus, Streamsong fits the bill.

I was there in mid-October for a golf trip with three of my best friends. I had seen all the pictures on instagram and read several articles, so I was really looking forward to seeing these courses in person.  I knew very little about the lodging or restaurant accommodations, however. I did not leave disappointed.

We flew into Florida from Fort Worth, Houston, Dallas, and Nashville and shared an Uber from the Tampa airport to the resort. The ride cost about $120 but the resort does offer a more expensive shuttle service option, which we utilized on our way back to the airport. Due to the remoteness of the resort, calling for an Uber is somewhat difficult for the return trip to Tampa.

Streamsong Black

We arrived on property with only minutes to spare for our 2 p.m. tee time on Streamsong Black so our Uber driver dropped us off at the clubhouse. The Streamsong property is essentially three buildings separated by swamp and dunes-land: the main lodge, the Red/Blue Course Clubhouse and the Black Course Clubhouse. A shuttle bus service runs regularly between the three, getting you where you need to go swiftly and easy.

The Black Course clubhouse is modern and predominately walled with large windows and metal posts, providing incredible views both inside and out. The building comes equipped with a nice sized pro shop, stocked mostly with gear with the Black Course logo. Bone Valley Tavern, the on-site restaurant, is a gastropub with plenty of TV screens for game watching. The bar is huge and well-stocked. The views of the course and sunset complete “BVT” as an ideal post-round dinner spot. And that is exactly what we did when we walked off the Black.

Black Course proshop

Black Course Clubhouse

Streamsong is primarily for walking golfers, but carts are available upon request. However, in order to get a cart, they require the use of a forecaddie as well. Cart rentals will run you $35 per man and a fore-caddie is $100 for the foursome. We decided to walk each round of our trip, but if I were to suggest the services of a fore-caddie or caddie for any round, it would be for Steamsong Black.

The rounds at Streamsong aren’t cheap by any standard, but the particular time of year can certainly make or break a budget weekend trip. In October, they weren’t overly crowded, either. We saw plenty of other golfers but didn’t spend much time waiting on shots. And, the pro shop staff was more than accommodating if we wanted to push back our tee times a bit. Honestly, everyone we met that worked at Streamsong was incredibly friendly and professional.

The Black is a par 73 design by Gil Hanse and the newest of the three resort courses, having only opened in 2017. Everything on this course is big. The fairways, the bunkers, the green complexes, the undulation–all big. I would say that the greens are tricked up, but I was told that the preferred language at the resort is to say that the Black greens “have character.” A caddie could do wonders for you and if you do decide to splurge for one, again, I’d do it here on Black.

The large features do present some breathtaking views. Golf here is beautiful.

Several holes require blind shots into those large greens, which can be frustrating if this is your first time playing the course. Blind shots into greens with character might turn good shots into bad ones once you walk up and see the end result. We only played this course one time, but I imagine a second loop around would’ve been a completely different experience.

The windmill, which is the course logo, can be seen from pretty much everywhere on the course. It’s a cool reminder that you’re at Streamsong playing one of the top courses in the nation. A welcomed reminder for me as I struggled most of the day to figure out exactly where I should be hitting my ball on this links-style track. The greens here run a little slow but that makes sense due to the severity of their slope. Any faster and they would be downright not fun. But that’s links golf.

The Black course is the longest of the three at Streamsong, playing 7,331 yards from the tips with more room to stretch it out if they wanted. Length is the obvious advantage here but course knowledge is perhaps even more important. If you can read these greens and find your two putts, you will have a tremendous leg up on your playing partners. With that said, the fairways are HUGE. Which is actually fun as hell. Grip it and rip it on every tee box.

The par-5 closing hole is absolutely fantastic. If you can find a way to play the Black in the afternoon, maybe for your discounted replay round of the day, the walk down the final fairway as the sun is dropping–magic. A good drive will leave you with a challenging but doable long iron or metal into this green under regulation. It’s a carry over water, which is rare on the Black, but the glass clubhouse serves as an inviting backdrop for the approach. Birdie 18 and then head to the tavern for a cold beer and to watch the sun go down. Ain’t nothing better.

View back down 18 fairway

A two-acre putting course called “The Gauntlet” surrounds the Black clubhouse, offering even more post round fun with a beer in hand. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at the Bone Valley Tavern and the Thai chicken wings are no joke. One of the great things about Streamsong is that each clubhouse can serve as your all-day hangout spot for each round. If you are on the Black course in the afternoon, for instance, you can get there early to hit balls, have lunch (the lobster rolls from the snack stand on the course was incredible), play 18, get back for beers and the gauntlet, use the locker room to freshen up and then have dinner. No real need to head back to the hotel room if you don’t want to.

After dinner, we did finally make it to the main lodge for check-in. The resort hotel itself is quite large, with several restaurants on-site and a rooftop bar called Fragmentary Blue. We got into our rooms, showered and changed and then headed up for one final drink before bed. The bar was lively and they had a full array of top-shelf liquors. The rooftop patio offers great night time views of the neighboring pond, full of alligators, I’m sure.

Frag Blue Bar

Streamsong Red

Day two of our trip was a 36 hole doubleheader beginning with breakfast at P2O5, the lobby restaurant. They offer a solid breakfast buffet or full menu…much needed before a full day of walking close to 15 total miles. Then you hop on the shuttle and head for the Red/Blue Course shared clubhouse.

Hotel Restaurant in main Lobby. Solid breakfast.

Main Hotel/Lodge

The Red/Blue clubhouse is big, equipped with the main pro shop, locker room with day lockers and showers, and a surprisingly phenomenal steakhouse called Fifty-Nine. Same situation at this clubhouse, though. If you want to spend all day here away from the resort, you can easily do so. Showers on-site and all you’ve got to do is ask the pro shop for a key to a guest locker and they will hook you up.

Blue/Red Clubhouse

Blue/Red Proshop

The Red course is incredible. There’s no other way to say it. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw delivered another home run here, and for a number of different reasons. First, it’s fair. The 2012-built course plays to 7,148 yards from the back tees with several of the tee boxes elevated, offering tremendous views. In fact, there aren’t many holes out there that play longer than the scorecard indicates. The Red does present a bit more trouble (water, tall grass, etc.) than the other two courses, but the fairways are wide enough to avoid the bad stuff on every hole without much stress.

The Red absolutely provides the best scenery on property. It weaves in and out with the Blue Course, as both tracks share property lines, but the Red’s use of dunes and marsh gives you some truly phenomenal Florida golf holes. By contrast, the Black feels more desolate. The fairways on Black are surrounded by natural waste bunkering rather than tall, lush grass that waves in the wind. For my eye, give me the Red course all day long.

Number 1 Tee on Red

Length just isn’t as important on the Red Course. Though Coore/Crenshaw don’t punish long hitters, there are several holes that reward the best decision off the tee instead of the longest drive. Accuracy and smarts are prioritized here. Like so many other of their designs, the fairway bunkers often can be found right in the landing zone of a good drive. Swing hard with the big stick and try to carry it or play it smart just short? Decisions like this make golf fun.

And the best part about those decisions is that you know what the choices are when you are standing on each tee. The designers laid it all there in front of you. No blind shots to tricky greens. No hidden bunkers behind dunes. It’s all in front of you. You see the options and you decided which route to take. Brilliant. Hitting the shot is another thing entirely, but Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw didn’t hide anything from you here on the Red Course. Your first time around will be just as fun as your tenth. And I would absolutely love to play this course ten more times.

Some of the bunker complexes are ginormous. The kind of bunkers that make you say “wow, I hope I don’t hit it in there.” The land on which Streamsong is built provides some great soil and sand for these types of bunkers. But there were some green-side bunkers that were a little too “natural” for my group’s tastes, however. Weeds and pebbles present. And I get it…it’s a links course and manicured conditions just isn’t the name of the game here. Maybe I’m just soft. Still, I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed my overall experience on the Red.

Golf Digest’s most recent “Top 100 Greatest Public Courses in America” lists the Red Course at number 19. Comparatively, Streamsong Blue comes in at number 24 and the Black is ranked number 32. Not a bad little three-course weekend for you bucket-listers.

My new friend Carmen. First-class Marshall.

BBQ Stand at the Turn. Pit out back.

Blue Course 

The Blue Course is happy mix of both Red and Black, which is funny to say since it was also built in 2012. The fairways and greens aren’t quite as large as they are on the Black Course, but many of the greens are just as severe. Just a classic Tom Doak design, in fact. If you’ve played any of his other tracks, you know what I mean. His trademarks are unmistakable. Hidden pins tucked just over false fronts are a regular occurrence. A second shot course, for sure.

#1 Tee on Blue

The first tee of Blue sits on top of a massive sand dune, immediately giving you the best view you will have of the course all day. In front lays the inviting fairway, setting the table for what to expect the rest of the day. Tee shots are easy, but don’t miss on your approach. If you look behind and to each side, you can see several holes on both the Blue and Red Courses, including the signature par three 7th hole on Blue. Just phenomenal views. And the clubhouse sits comfortably nearby, wishing you good luck with sunny reflections off its dark tinted windows.

It’s clear that Doak wanted to set the tone with that first tee shot. Leave your bag at the bottom of the hill because its a no joke hike up to the tee. The view makes it worth it, but don’t be in a rush. I absolutely had to catch my breath a bit before hitting my drive.

Hidden Flag tucked behind fairway mound. Classic Doak.

The Momma Gator

The Blue is a par 72 that plays 7,176 yards from the tips. None of these Streamsong courses are necessarily short, but the links-style of play does allow for firm fairways and lots of roll. I didn’t hit many shots with my 56* loft at all. There just isn’t much need off of the tight lies. In fact, some of the groups best shots came from 7 iron bump and runs. I gotta admit, it is fun to watch one of those shots maneuver the contours of a big, Doak green and nestle in close to the hole.

The par three 7th is a special hole. By far the most memorable hole of the Blue Course, and probably the entire Streamsong property, it is a full carry over alligator-infested water to a green that is beautifully framed by dunes and bunkers. It could play as long as 203 yards, but the elevated tee shot provides some confidence. And the hole is just so much better from back there. To get to the green, you leave your bag at the bottom of the hill and cross a long bridge with only your putter (hopefully.) Once you’ve holed out, you walk back across and up to the next tee. The feeling on that green, isolated and surrounded by hills and water, was unlike anything else on site. Like I said, it’s a special hole.

Par-3 7th green. Signature hole on property.

Many of the holes on the Blue course don’t have as much tall grass and sandy dunes as the Red, giving it more of a similar feel to the Black. It’s true links-style golf and not nearly as strategic as the Coore/Crenshaw design. While I think the Red course makes you think more on your tee shots, the Blue allows you to swing a bit more freely. The strategy comes into play with your approaches into these greens and course knowledge could definitely benefit you in that regard.

The closing hole on Blue is a long and tough par four headed back to the clubhouse. Two dunes frame the fairway and gives the hole a much grander feeling than several of the previous holes. It’s probably the best finishing hole of the three courses and I would imagine Doak is proud of it.

We finished up our round and headed into the clubhouse for dinner at Fifty-Nine, which serves a beyond good steakhouse-style menu. Shared sides, three huge NY strips and one order of chicken was just what we needed. The showers and locker rooms on site were just enough to make us feel comfortable for dinner and the service was excellent. I wouldn’t miss a chance to eat at Fifty-Nine if you are planning your Streamsong visit.

Streamsong Overall

Streamsong needs to be on your list. It has a lot of the same qualities of Bandon Dunes, but it’s much easier to get to for many of us. The golf courses are unique enough from one another to present you with different challenges and feelings each round while still giving you that satisfaction of knowing you’re on a top track in the nation. The hotel and amenities are as good here as you’ll find at any similar type golf resort. Probably even better. The food is fantastic and the rooms were large and comfortable.

Poolside hitting mat to floating green.

There are tons of things to do outside of golf (that’s not my thing…sorry) as the resort also offers fishing, clay shooting, and archery. There is also a pretty amazing lakeside swimming pool, something I haven’t seen offered at the Bandons or Sand Valleys of the world. It’s clear that Streamsong is trying to separate themselves from other buddy trip golf destinations by offering things to do other than 36 holes each day. And I can respect that. But if golf is your only focus, Streamsong checks all those boxes as well.

 

I loved the Red Course. That was easily top of the rankings for me. The blind approaches to greens with character on the Black Course frustrated me, but looking back on my round, I have began to appreciate that uniqueness of the course more and more. I would rank it second and Blue would be third. I think Blue had some of the best individual golf holes of the trip (#7 & #18) but there were times in which I think the course dragged on a bit. Definite highs and lows on Blue. But the highs are really high.

What’s funny is that my buddies ranked them differently. And adamantly so. One in our group swears up and down that Black is the best course on site but it no doubt fits his game the best. We spoke to several other resort guests and they each had their own favorites as well. There is something for every golfer at Streamsong. It is absolutely worth the visit to middle-of-nowhere, Florida.

If you want help planning your next golf experience or just have any questions about some of mine, reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram and shoot me a message. I look forward to hearing from you!

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