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?
The Whistling Straits & Sand Valley Experience
I’d never been to Wisconsin. Neither had my dad. It might not be on the top of mind as a golf destination, but perhaps it should be. Ever since I heard about Mike Keiser (of Bandon Dunes fame) opening his new project at Sand Valley, I was interested. As a Bandon Dunes devotee, I knew I needed to get to Sand Valley sooner rather than later. No better time than the present.
And as I started planning this little weekend excursion to the Northern Midwest, another course quickly came to mind. Whistling Straits…host of the 2020 Ryder Cup and the PGA Championships in 2004, 2010 and 2014. I’d seen the layout and watched the course on TV countless times, and pairing the Straits with Sand Valley seemed like a perfect combination for 3 days of summer Wisconsin golf. And you know what…it was.
We flew into Milwaukee, which turned out to be a shockingly easy place to navigate and rent a car for a city of its size. No shuttle ride required, which means a ton when you are lugging around travel golf bags. From there, it’s an hour-or-so drive due north to the city of Kohler. That’s where you’ll find Whistling Straits…in all her glory.
We checked into the American Club hotel, a bigger-than-it looks building that once served as the dormitories for the workers at the nearby Kohler company factory. The entire town of Kohler revolves around the history of the Kohler Manufacturing Co., famous for its plumbing products. Destination Kohler is the hospitality arm of the company and it handles the tourism activities within the village of Kohler. The town and company trace back to John Michael Kohler, an Austrian Immigrant who began the family business in 1873 by making farm equipment. Since then, the family has operated the company and created what we see today. Herbert Kohler, grandson of the founder and avid golfer, was responsible for bringing golf to the area. The Kohler name owns both courses at Whistling Straits, The Straits and The Irish, as well as two courses at Blackwolf Run, the River Course and Meadow’s Valley. Interestingly, the Kohler family also owns and operates The Old Course Hotel, which borders the Road Hole at St. Andrews. Just an incredible family and company.
The American Club opened in 1918 and the charm has survived all of these years. The rooms are spacious, decor is dark wood and antiquitous, and several great dining options are under one roof. To be honest, I was surprised at how nice everything was. Not just the hotel or the restaurants and shops on-site, but also the town itself. Every yard and garden was perfectly maintained. It felt like the whole town took a great deal of pride it itself. It made you feel good just being there.
My dad and I got in late on our first night but we still had time for dinner at the Horse and Plow, a casual tavern type restaurant with a sizable beer menu. The food was very much Wisconsin–cheesy and meaty and tasty. They had Spotted Cow beer, from New Glarus Brewing, on tap at the bar. I’d never tasted it before but apparently you can only get it in Wisconsin. It was pretty dang good and would serve as my beer of choice for the rest of the trip. It pairs well with the schnitzel. Pro tip.
We woke up and had coffee in the greenhouse, a coffee shop on-site in the back gardens of The American Club. The weather was perfect and everyone was sitting outside, enjoying the morning sun. We had a few hours before our round at Whistling Straights and we used it walking around the town of Kohler. This is something I highly recommend. The American Club is surrounded on two sides by Victorian-style neighborhoods. Street after street of American charm. And the stroll can take you to a nearby shopping center that is built around Wood Lake. There’s additional restaurants, shops and activities to enjoy here…including yoga on the lake and the Kohler Swing Studio and Golf Shop, full of local course merchandise. Also, this is the location of The Inn on Woodlake, another lodging option within the Kohler family.
We got back to the hotel and enjoyed the full breakfast buffet at the Wisconsin room inside the American Club. Once our legs were sufficiently stretched and our bellies full, we grabbed our clubs and waited for the shuttle to Whistling Straits, which runs on the top of the hour every hour.
Whistling Straits is a Pete Dye designed monster that tips out at 7,790 yards with a rating of 77.2 and a slope of 152. Par is a traditional 72 but that’s just a number. The course plays tough. The clubhouse was built in an Irish castle style, with Celtic cross windows that peer over the majestic (and somewhat frightening) 18th hole. Three flag poles frame the front entrance with the American, Irish, and Ryder Cup Flags waving proudly. There was to be no mistake that this course was a tribute to Irish links golf. The inside of the clubhouse is full of memories from the 2004, 2010, 2015 PGA Championships, the 2007 US Senior Open, and with reminders all around that the 2020 Ryder Cup is on its way as well. The pro shop is professional and first-class. Everything you’d want, they have.
A round at Whistling Straits will cost you north of $400 but twilight and super twilight rates are available for nearly half off. And the sun doesn’t go down in Wisconsin in July until 8:30 pm. So the smart play is to book a late afternoon round at a major discount. That being said, this course is a bucket lister. It ranks as the #3 public course in America in Gold Digest’s latest rankings. Sometimes you just have to pay up for one of those. And the rest of the courses out at Kohler are much more reasonably priced to complete your visit. We played on the 4th of July and honestly, the course wasn’t overly crowded at all.
Upstairs in the Straits clubhouse is the Irish Pub, a neat bar/lunch spot that opens at 11. My dad and I had a pre-round meal ahead of our late afternoon tee-time. The bratwurst sandwich was outstanding and just thinking about it now, my mouth is watering as I write this. Do yourself a favor and make this a must-order item. We sat next to a window overlooking that 18th fairway, preparing ourselves for what lay ahead.
We hired a caddie for this round, and I’m thankful we did. The course is as difficult as you’ve probably heard. In fact, I’d put it up there with the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island as the toughest track I’ve ever played. The wind will inevitably be blowing off Lake Michigan, which is a big deal since 14 or so holes are on the water. And thousands, literally thousands of bunkers surround this course. Pete Dye even put bunkers parallel and eye level with many of the tee boxes, certainly not in play but just a subtle reminder that there is danger to be found around every turn.
But as difficult as this course plays, it is equally beautiful. We were blessed with a clear day and the water on the lake was as blue as the Caribbean. That isn’t an exaggeration. The course felt like we were playing alongside the ocean and only the absence of seagulls and saltwater in the air reminded us that we were, in fact, in Wisconsin.
The course meanders along the shore with the internal holes often sitting a few feet higher than the coastline. The views from there hide the holes in between and create a shoreline feeling even though you are a couple hundred yards from the water. Its a brilliant architectural design by Dye. The four par 3s all resemble one another…a long carry over beach, sand and tall grass with the lake either on your right or left. Two holes play north, and two play south, making the wind different for each pair. And while my description might sound repetitious, obvious, and dull, the par 3s at Straits were probably my favorite set of “short” holes on any course I’ve ever played. The holes are similar but that’s a great thing because they are all gorgeous and perfect. Obviously, each green complex is unique and the distances on each hole vary (188, 221, 163, 249!) but the theme remains the same…you stand on the tee, admire the view, figure out the wind, build up your courage and swing. I wish I could play them again right now.
Some of the internal holes are also quite scenic. It’s tough to beat the tall grass waving in the wind as a backdrop to all that green space and all those bunkers. The par-5 fifth hole is a bit too quirky for my tastes. A double bending, 600-yard hole that forces the longer hitters to either hit driver over a pond on the right to a narrow fairway, or hitting something less than a driver straight away, making it a guaranteed three-shot hole. But even that hole is beautiful.
But the best hole on the course is 18. Nicknamed “Dyeabolical” as a hat tip to the designer, the par 4 plays 520 yards from the tips. And it’s so much better from back there. A creek splits the fairway in two towards the hole and, though scenic in front of the clubhouse, 18 is the hardest finishing hole I’ve ever played. You have to keep your ball right and hope long iron is enough to find the sloping green in regulation. I was fortunate enough to walk off the green with a four on the scorecard…something I will always remember.
We finished off our day at Whistling with dinner on the back patio of the clubhouse. The restaurant there is high quality and several tables were full of non-golfing patrons who came just for the food. My dad and I were exhausted. Walking Whistling Straits (no carts allowed) is a tiring experience…both mentally and physically. But a glass of wine and a nice cut of meat was just what the Irish doctor ordered. A great finish to a truly world-class round of golf.
My overall takeaway: Whistling Straits is a must-play for the true golf fan. High handicappers will struggle mightily, but the experience of simply being there is worth the money once in your life. And when you pair it with the fantastic accommodations at nearby Kohler and the American Club, this place is a must visit. I’m excited to come back and see the other three courses someday….and maybe try to tame The Straits again.
Now it was time to get some sleep and then head to Sand Valley in the morning.
SAND VALLEY RESORT
The drive to Sand Valley is a bit longer this time…taking us every bit of 2 1/2 hours. But, we got to see a ton of the countryside along the way. Each road was lined with black and white dairy cows and red barns and silos. Of course, dairy farming is the state’s claim to fame and they don’t let you forget it. Cheese shops and advertisements are around every corner. My personal favorite was, of course, the “Mousehouse Cheesehaus.”
It was neat to see the state transition from cornfields and farming to pine woods and sandy soil the further we headed west. And as the pine trees grew thicker and thicker, I knew we were getting closer to the spot Mike Keiser picked out for his next great golf mecca.
Sand Valley is home to three (so far) golf courses, each one full of uniqueness and fun. The first course, Sand Valley, was built in 2017 by the design team of Coore/Crenshaw and immediately won “Best New Course of the Year” by Golf Magazine. Not to be outdone, that same award was given one year later to Mammoth Dunes, the David McLay Kidd designed course which sits just behind the main clubhouse and bar. Coore/Crenshaw were back again in May of 2018 to open The Sandbox, a 17-hole par-3 course. And you guessed it…the short course took home the “Best New Short Course of 2018” Award. Three new courses. Three awards. All within the friendly confines of Sand Valley Golf Resort.
The Sand Valley clubhouse and lodging are built in a modern farmhouse style, complete with the sleek and attractive necessities only. The rooms are spacious, the windows are large and the golf is just off the back patio. Sand Valley has several different room options but they all are within walking distance of the main clubhouse. And within that clubhouse, you’ll find the pro shop, the caddie shack, Aldo’s restaurant and the Mammoth Bar. Our room was large and on the second floor of the main building’s lodging. Our window overlooked the No. 1 teebox at Mammoth Dunes and the putting green behind the lodge, which had action on both days from 6 am to 9 pm.
Summer green fee rates are $215 for Mammoth and Sand Valley, but your second round of the day is 50 percent off. Sandbox costs $65. That’s not exactly cheap, but if you don’t mind walking 36 each day (I recommend it) then the price per hole goes down dramatically. And with the limited alternative options at Sand Valley Resort, playing as much golf as possible seems to be the thing to do. There is, obviously, the bar and restaurant to spend your time…and grass tennis courts are available as well if that’s your thing. But lets face it, we come for the golf. Might as well take advantage of that discounted rate for round 2 and get a couple rounds in per day.
The town of Rome, Wisconsin is near the resort and I heard several golfers make plans to travel there for dinner on some nights. As Sand Valley continues to grow, I am sure more dining options will become available but for now, you are left with only Aldo’s and Mammoth Bar as your traditional dining options. Craig’s Porch, on the top of the hill near Sand Valley’s first tee, does serve breakfast and tacos at lunch as well. But it is more or less a halfway snack house with really good tacos and an even better view.
Our first round of the visit to Sand Valley was at Mammoth Dunes. The first tee is steps off the Mammoth Bar patio and putting green, providing entertainment for all to view. The first hole really paints the picture of what to expect with this course, too. The fairway is monstrous and inviting, a slight bend up the hill surrounded by impressive sand dunes and little else. Wiry fescue does provide some natural backdrop between fairway and pine trees, but if you aren’t finding the short grass of these ginormous fairways at Mammoth, you might need to invest in a new driver. Keiser and McLay Kidd share the desire to return public golf to its Scottish roots…beautiful landscapes and strategic, yet fair golf courses. Mammoth Dunes is incredibly beautiful…and also incredibly fun.
The sheer scale of Mammoth Dunes can be a bit overwhelming. The fairways are so large, you’re tempted to swing as hard as you can and send it. But there is a course within the course at Mammoth. The ground contours are as important here as any course I’ve played, and each hole provides you with options to take the tight, aggressive line, or the safe play to a not so good angle to the green. The greens are just as big as the fairways, which only helps the confidence grow. Especially after playing a course like Whistling Straits.
Mammoth offers tremendous playability and options. It’s one of those courses I would be happy to play every day for the rest of my life. Fairways and greens, sure…but options, aggressive angles when desired and always the chance for recovery after a miss. Golf as it was meant to be, indeed.
There’s a hot dog/sandwich stand after the 10th hole…serving beer, water, and liquor as well. And after the climb to 10 green, it was a welcome sight. The course offers more undulation than I imagined it would. There are some tremendous elevation changes on the front 9 that provide remarkable views all the way back to the clubhouse. The course offers six different tee boxes, ranging from 6,988 yards from the tips all the way to 4,055 yards from the royal blue tees. It’s a par 73 from all tees, with three par 5s on the back nine, including the gorgeous 536-yard finishing hole to the green just below the patio tables of Aldo’s Farm & Table Restaurant.
The par-3 13th hole might be the best on the course. Only 130 yards from the back tees, the entire hole carries over one of the most dramatic dune complexes on the course. The green, as you might expect, is large but tricky, giving protection to any pin placement on the surface. A tree creates a fear of the miss left. It’s one of those holes that widen your eyes as soon as you step on the tee.
The finishing stretch at Mammoth Dunes has some good opportunities to score. The 14th hole is only 325 yards from the elevated back tees, but the hole plays much shorter than that. Aim your ball well right of the green and allow the shape of the fairway to funnel your ball towards the hole. I hit my best drive of the week here but luckily missed right of my target. I walked up to the green and the group on the next tee box were applauding me. My “miss” right ended up 15 feet from the hole for eagle. Looking back towards the tee box, the hole shape really reveals itself. I am not sure it’s possible to be too far right on the fairway on this hole, as everything is going to funnel towards the green. You just need to know where to hit it…or get lucky like I did. Oh, and I missed the putt.
SAND VALLEY GOLF
I knew Sand Valley was going to be a different test than Mammoth Dunes. Having played several Coore/Crenshaw designs in the past, I was well aware that the “send it” mentality wasn’t going to work on this course. The fairways, while still bigger than most, are littered with dangerous slopes, pot bunkers and awkward distances that require thinking off the tee rather than reaching for the one wood on every hole.
The first tee is a long walk or a short shuttle ride from the main clubhouse, up the hill toward’s Craig’s Porch, the cabin bar/restaurant/starter’s shack. From the porch’s patio, you can see half the holes on Sand Valley, as well as a beautiful view back down towards Mammoth Dunes and the main clubhouse. The tacos at Craig’s Porch are $1.50 and the beers are $2.00. Life is good at Sand Valley.
The course itself plays 6,938 yards from the tips and is a par 72 (35/37) layout with three par 3s on the front and three par 5s on the back. The first hole is a short par 4 at 335 yards where longer hitters can vie for the green in one. Smart play is to lay your spoon out on the right for the best angle into this green with a wedge. Danger all down the left side and and a push with the big dog will get you in trouble through the slight dogleg left fairway. And that, in a nutshell, is Sand Valley. Pick the right club off the tee first…and then make sure you hit it to the right spot.
The second hole is no different. A 431-yard par 4 with an intersection midway through the fairway created by large bunkers and an elevated second half of the hole. Driver will get you in trouble with a very narrow landing zone. But iron off the tee creates a very long approach uphill. Choose wisely. Coore/Crenshaw make you think.
The green complexes at Sand Valley are still very much epic in size. Even on this course, which I believe is the tougher of the two Sand Valley layouts, the playability and fairness is still ever-present. Not a ton of lost balls on the property. Greens can be hit in regulation from pretty much anywhere on the hole. The bunkers are prevalent but playable. The true test is in the angles and I have a feeling it would be a much better track the second and third time you play it because you can begin to see what the choices the architects were wanting you to grapple with on each hole. If I had more time at Sand Valley, I would devote my extra rounds to this course rather than Mammoth Dunes. Use Mammoth as your “fun” round and Sand Valley as your true test of golf.
And finally, the short course. The other Coore/Crenshaw design on site, the Sandbox is simply 17 holes of uninterrupted fun. And that is evident as soon as you walk to the first tee, a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the main clubhouse, and see a giant canoe filled with ice and $2 beer waiting for you. You only need three or four clubs, as the shortest holes are 50 yards and the longest is 150. Most players grab their wedges and a putter and then use the Seamus carry bags that are provided to you on the first tee.
The Sandbox allows tee times right up until sunset, with many golfers using it as a third round of the day. You can get around the course in less than two hours and the beer canoe is accessible about five times during your round. It’s a great place to unwind, hit some fun shots and get a few swings in before sunset and dinner at Aldo’s. The greens also are just as tricky as the ones you’ll find on both courses, so it’s a pretty solid place to tune your short game, too.
This was our last round of the trip. In fact, my last full swing was a 100-yard sand wedge to 12 feet on 17 at the Sandbox. I didn’t even attempt the putt. The ball was purely struck and it was a ton of fun watching it land close to the hole and stay there. And that’s what golf at Sand Valley is supposed to be…fun. It’s not just about scoring well or making birdies…even though that’s always fun, too. It’s about enjoying the walk. Drinking a beer and then hitting your shot. Taking a look around at the beauty of the land and being thankful for a wonderful game. Golf, as it was meant to be, is about enjoyment. And if you are a true golf fan, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself at Sand Valley.
Three days of golf in Wisconsin and we played one of the toughest, most beautiful courses in the world at Whistling Straits. Then we followed that up with three rounds of pure enjoyment golf at Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes and the Sandbox. If I didn’t believe it before, I believe it now…Wisconsin is a golfer’s paradise.
If you want to hear more about my experience, have questions, or want help planning an experience of your own, tweet at me here @FWTXGolfer or message me on Instagram here! I look forward to hearing from you!
The Pinehurst Experience
We have all heard stories about Pinehurst. Friends have returned home to talk about its greatness. The Ryder Cup history, the U.S. Open tournaments, the cradle of American golf, and Payne Stewart’s fist held high in the air. And while the Village of Pinehurst and the ten golf courses that complete it are the primary reason to make the trip to North Carolina, we really go for the stories. To hear them and to create them. And eventually, to be able to tell them ourselves.
The story of my family’s Pinehurst Experience is one we will remember forever.
We left Texas for North Carolina with no real expectations. My wife, Shannon, and our 11-month-old baby boy William joined me. As did my mom, Tammy, and my dad, John. None of us had been before. And, quite honestly, none of us were expecting such a perfect weekend. I wasn’t sure if this type of golf intensive trip would be a good fit for my wife and mom, both non-golfers. But there was plenty for them to do each day. I was so excited to hear how much they enjoyed their time.
We flew into Raleigh and took a rental car the remaining 70-minute drive to the Pinehurst resort. Pinehurst offers several different hotel options, but we booked our rooms in the historic Carolina Hotel. It’s the one you see in all the pictures. Built in 1901, the hotel is the definition of Carolina class. The wood floors under elegant carpet creak every few steps, reminding you that this place has held the weight of the best golfers the world has ever seen for over a century. And of course, the Ryder Cup Bar just off the hotel lobby is an immediate hat tip to the history of Pinehurst.
We arrived just after 1:30 in the afternoon, giving us enough time to check into our rooms and then head out to our first round of golf. The front desk provides you with a personalized Pinehurst bag tag which lists every tee time you have scheduled for the week. This allows for your clubs to be sent from course to course ahead of your round so you aren’t having to deal with carrying your bag around the resort. It’s seamless and convenient.
My dad and I had four rounds scheduled. First at the par-3 track, The Cradle, followed by Pinehurst No. 4, Pinehurst No. 2, and the Pinehurst No.8.
Shuttle buses run like clockwork all over the resort town and their affable drivers are willing to take you just about anywhere. The longest we ever had to wait for one was probably five minutes. Our clubs were waiting for us at the Clubhouse, the hub of the Pinehurst golfing community. The Clubhouse features an enormous pro-shop, locker rooms, caddie shack, The Deuce Restaurant (which overlooks the 18th green at Pinehurst No.2) and is the headquarters for courses one through five.
It’s approximately a three-minute shuttle ride from the Carolina Hotel and could easily be a nice walk if you’ve got time and good weather. It also backs up to the Thistle Dhu putting course, a 15,000 square foot putting green, complete with 18 marked holes, scorecard and beer holders on every tee. It’s a great place to spend 30 minutes. And it’s kid friendly, too.
We didn’t have much time but we were hungry. The bartender at the Deuce told us to make a quick burger, hot dog or sandwich at their buffet, which was perfect. We were able to get a hardy meal for $15 and give us a boost for the rest of the day. The view overlooking 18 green on No. 2 was incredible and I could’ve been just fine staying there to watch the golfers come off one of the best tracks in golf.
But we headed to the Cradle, a nine-hole par three course designed by Gil Hanse in 2017. The longest hole tops out at 127 yards downhill, so a full bag is not necessary. I carried my putter and my pitching, sand and gap wedge to the first tee. The starter provided me with a carry bag and scorecard. The Cradle has been described as “the most fun 10 acres in golf” and that might be true. There are 16 speakers disguised as rocks playing music throughout the course, blasting Steve Winwood, Garth Brooks, the Rolling Stones and everything in between. Green fees at the Cradle are $50 and that gets you all day access. Kids under 17 play for free. In fact, we ended up being joined by four other golfers, one of whom was a 4 1/2 year old named Parker who had a better swing than me. We still got around the course in about an hour, including a couple of stops for drinks.
Positioned on a high part of the course behind the 3rd and 8th green sits the Pine Cone, a teardrop style camper that has been converted into a full bar. It has to be one of the coolest places to have a drink in all of golf. And with the music playing and a wedge in your hand on every shot, it’s impossible to have a bad time. Play the Cradle a couple of rounds. Have a few beers. Be happy.
The family met us for a drink back at the Deuce patio overlooking 18 of No. 2 and then we headed into town for dinner. The Village of Pinehurst itself is a cute little community, full of cafes, pubs, inns and shops. We were told to check out the Pine Crest Inn and to eat at Mr. B’s Lounge, a dark old bar full of golf history. Payne Stewart’s name is still prominently displayed on the wall where he signed it back in 1999. It was just yet another cool glimpse into the history of the golf town.
Breakfast the next morning (and then every morning thereafter) was at the Carolina Dining Room within our hotel. The family enjoyed a full breakfast buffet in an elegant dining room setting. The biscuits and gravy were out-of-this-world good. And the service, like everything else at the Carolina Hotel, was exquisite.
The girls had a couple of trips to the spa planned while the boys played golf. Shannon had a massage in the early afternoon while my mom watched baby Will. The next day, they flipped and my mom enjoyed some time relaxing herself. The pool at the Carolina hotel was also a huge hit with the family (especially William). They also loved going into town and shopping at the boutiques, which was only a 6 minute walk from our hotel.
I’ve experienced places like Bandon Dunes, which is a fantastic buddy golf trip location. And make no mistake, Pinehurst can be that, too. I saw countless groups of guys having a great time. But I realized that Pinehurst is an absolutely wonderful place to visit for entire families, whether they all play golf or not. And everywhere we went was kid friendly and welcoming. Just an absolute pleasure.
Pinehurst offers several options that include meal plans/stay and play packages. And I am telling you right now, it’s an experience you and your entire family will cherish.
Pinehurst No. 4
Back at the clubhouse on day two, our clubs were yet again waiting for our arrival, this time on a cart pointed towards the driving range. We hit a few balls on the spacious practice, large enough to handle the type of traffic for all five courses the clubhouse facilitates.
Pinehurst No. 4 is a new renovation from Gil Hanse and, quite honestly, a great introduction to Pinehurst golf. The fairways are lined with “waste hazard” bunkers and pine needles, which both allow for grounding of the club and removing loose impediments. Whatever you are imagining in your head when you think of Pinehurst….that’s likely Pinehurst No. 4.
No. 4 plays 6,961 yards from the men’s blue tees. There is a tee box further back that plays at 7,227 yards, but the markers are not typically set up for regular play. Honestly, that’s a shame because standing on a few of those back tee boxes, I could tell the course would be even better from back there. It’s still a tough course from the blue tees, playing to a par 72. The elevation changes make some holes play much longer than the scorecard indicates.
The property interweaves with Pinehurst No. 2, so the landscapes are similar. But the features of No. 4 seem grander in comparison. The exposed sand areas are full of native wire grass blend, making fairway misses playable but unpredictable. And the land-forms are much more dramatic on No. 4. I was a bit surprised to see the types of elevation changes out on this course. There is a body of water that sits low in the center of the property around holes 4, 13 and 14 which provides some incredible views. When you stand on the 6th green, you can actually see parts of 15 other golf holes. It’s arguably the most beautiful view in Pinehurst.
We teed off at 9:50 on what was an unseasonably warm day for May in North Carolina. We took a cart, though the entire course was path only to preserve the pristine conditions. If the course is cart path only still when you decide to visit, I would consider hiring a caddie for this round as we ended up walking a ton anyway.
The fairways are wide and accessible and the greens are large, though they don’t play easy at all. A little local knowledge can go a long way on the greens at Pinehurst. Holes 13 and 14, in my opinion, is the best two hole stretch on the course. The first is a short par 5 but with a narrow fairway landing area off the tee between the water on the left and waste area on the right. Longer hitters can reach the green in two but the entire shot will be over water to a diagonal sloped green. It’s a wonderful risk/reward shot that I, of course, attempted with the help of some liquid courage.
The next hole stays water with a 200-yard par three to a slightly downhill green. Miss short and left and you are wet. It’s just a wonderful hole. Plenty of room right to approach the green from the front.
All in all, Gil Hanse made his mark on Pinehurst No. 4 and created a sensational companion course for the famed No. 2. If you only have a couple of rounds at Pinehurst, make sure to include both courses.
After our round, we headed out to the newly opened Pinehurst Brewery, just around the corner from our hotel. The restaurant is housed in the old Pinehurst steam power plant, which supplied the entire town their power beginning in 1895. Now it supplies the entire town with Carolina style BBQ and great local beer.
I ordered the combo platter, which came with pulled pork, chicken, sausage, and brisket. The beer was cold and the food was tasty. The pulled pork, when paired with the vinegar based East North Carolina BBQ sauce was my favorite. And this Texan actually thought the brisket was a happy substitute for what I am used to back home. My wife had a pint of the Hawaiian Delight brew, a pineapple infused beer that gave it a cider type kick. She highly recommends.
Pinehurst No. 2
Waking up the morning of your first ever round at Pinehurst No. 2 is a pretty special experience. I watched a couple youtube videos of Payne Stewart’s final holes in 1999 to get my mind in the right place. The first tee is tucked in a corner of hedgerows and the starter house is an exact replica of the Old Course Starters Box in Scotland, built to symbolize a bond of shared ideals and common values. St. Andrews is the home of golf and Pinehurst is the guardian of its traditions in the United States. Pretty cool.
No. 2, a Donald Ross build, opened in 1907 and Ross himself describes it as “the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed.” It has been the host site for more single golf championships than any course in America, including U.S. Opens in 1999, 2005 and 2014.
My dad has never used a caddie in his entire life. Golf has never been his passion and, quite frankly, he was a bit self-conscious about a player of his skill set using a caddie for a round of golf. However, we shared one for Pinehurst No. 2 and his mind was changed completely. We got lucky, too, because our caddie, Andy Kurasz, was first class. Andy, or AK, has lived in Pinehurst since 1994 and has been a caddie for 15 years. With a bag on each shoulder, he was incredibly personable and friendly the entire round. Just as important, he knew this course like the back of his hand. If you get to play Pinehurst, ask for AK.
The greens at No. 2 might be the toughest I’ve ever played. Each one crowned like an upside down saucer, if you miss slightly on your approach in any direction, your ball will not likely hold the putting surface. No. 2 is most certainly a second shot golf course, forcing you to think about your approach shot before you tee off on each hole. And while the par 72 track plays at less than 7,000 yards from the men’s tees, it can be tipped out to nearly 7,600 yards for its Championships. With the complex approach shots and difficult greens, I can’t even imagine how tough this course would be at that length.
But the course is fair. Most fairways are lined with those famous sandy waste areas and the pine trees even wider still allow for punch outs off the pine needles. Our caddie Andy said this is the hardest course we will ever play without losing a golf ball. And he was right. We both got through it without a lost ball penalty. Andy also saved us each several strokes per side, always giving us the right target, right line, proper encouragement and reminding us to slow down our tempo and “enjoy your backswing.”
Donald Ross, who also built his home on the course, was brilliant in his routing. The course evolves naturally and uses the contours of the land to play tricks in your mind. If the fairway slopes hard right to left, like it does on the par 4 fourth, the green will slope the opposite direction, which makes putts feel like they will break a completely different way from the actual line. You need a caddie.
Home of Donald Ross
In 2010, the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw worked to restore No. 2 to the original design. Dozens of acres of turf was removed to reintroduce the hardpan natural bunkers and native grasses to the course. The No. 2 of today is essentially the course as it was in 1907. And it’s perfect.
Walking up 18 fairway is one of those special moments in golf. The clubhouse is behind the green, full of people enjoying food and drink from the Deuce, sitting on rocking chairs and enjoying the golfers approach shots. Also in view is the Payne Stewart statue, striking that famous pose after his winning putt poured in to win the U.S. Open. I hit my drive right and had to escape short of the green. My caddie simply said “That’s okay, let’s go get up and down just like Payne did.” What an incredible feeling to play a course with so much history.
Our family was waiting for us just off the back of the green. The fitting end to a perfect day on Pinehurst No. 2.
We had dinner that night at the Carolina Room in our hotel, which, as usual, was first class. A traditional steak and fish menu with an impressive wine list to accompany. But after a long day of strategic golf on one of the world’s toughest courses, I went to sleep early and dreamed of true approach shots at waving flags.
Pinehurst No. 8
My final round at Pinehurst was on the Centennial Course, Pinehurst No. 8. The Tom Fazio design was built to celebrate Pinehurst’s 100th anniversary and it has a different style and feel to both No. 2 and No. 4. Interestingly, the course was built on the site of the old Pinehurst Gun Club, where Annie Oakley used to give shooting lessons and exhibitions.
The shuttle ride takes a few extra minutes to get to No. 8’s stand alone clubhouse. And those extra minutes change the landscape dramatically. The fairways at No. 8 are lined with a cut of rough on most holes, as opposed to the natural sand areas seen on the other courses I played. And the course is tucked in to a more heavily populated forest of trees, giving this course a more secluded feel. The par 72 plays at 6694 yards, but there are many more opportunities for lost balls here. Water and marsh land comes in to play on several holes, giving off a low country course vibe.
I had a 9:00 am tee time but was able to get off at 7:30 in order to make sure we had enough time to get to the airport later that day. I played this round alone and was the first man off, which allowed me to get around the course in a little over 2 hours in a cart. It was an amazingly peaceful round. After playing No. 4 and No. 2, this was a pleasant contrast.
The par-3 8th hole is perhaps the most beautiful hole I played at Pinehurst. At 204 yards, the tee shot still requires accuracy to the left side in order to avoid the well placed natural marshland short and right. The greens at No. 8 are large but less severe than those found on No.4 and No. 2, to make up for the more difficult marshy hazards on the course.
I am glad I played No. 8. It’s a different style course than I expected to find at Pinehurst, but it complements the experience. I would recommend you include it as a part of your Pinehurst trip as well.
After the round, we had just enough time for a visit to the Village of Pinehurst for a quick bite to eat. Our rental car was already loaded up by the Carolina Hotel staff, proving once again that they do everything right at the resort. While in town, we stumbled across the Old Sport and Gallery boutique, owned and operated by former professional golfer Tom Stewart. It was an incredible collection of golf history, books, art and antiques. And speaking with Mr. Stewart for a few minutes made me wish I had another day in Pinehurst to hear his stories. This is a must visit for any golf fan.
And with that, our Pinehurst trip was over. We played incredible courses, ate wonderful food, received first-class hospitality everywhere we went and created those Pinehurst stories we’ve heard about all our lives. Now they are ours to keep and to share. I hope you visit one day soon so you can create your own stories, too.
Just remember to “enjoy your backswing.”
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