2002: A golf playland in the Georgia hills

By Chris Hodenfield

Lake Oconee, Ga.

In America we’re accustomed to seeing some gleaming piece of fabulousness constructed where once was acres of nothingness. Disneyland was built on an orange grove, Las Vegas was built on desert scrub and Adam Sandler’s career was built on his wit. So what are we to make of Lake Oconee, which is now being trumpeted as a “golfer’s paradise,” a dream destination, even though it is located in the rambling hills of middle Georgia, in what was not long ago one of the state’s poorest counties?

The Georgia hills should be the ideal playland for a golf course, actually, when you think of the outpost that represents the ideal for a lot of high rollers, Augusta National. When the Reynolds Plantation people draped their four shining courses around the pine hills and shorelines of Lake Oconee, they certainly had the Augusta National ideal in mind. When you stand on a tee box almost anywhere on their newest showpiece, the Rees Jones-designed Oconee course, and see the snow-white bunkers garlanding the rolling hills, you can only think of that hilly major site just 90 miles to the east. Every April, when the azaleas are blooming and Masters fever is in the air, a sort of golf frenzy echoes through Lake Oconee’s pines.

At other times, it is such a resolutely quiet place you can hear the blood squirting in your temples. The night sky has the kind of depth you never see near a city. For Atlantans 90 minutes to the west whose lives are now defined by the city’s vicious traffic, this is Elysium. Here, after all, is a destination that boasts a castle like the Ritz-Carlton and, outside the gates, offers not so much as a supermarket.

As a golf haven, Lake Oconee’s reputation now rests on two contrasting developments – the lavish Reynolds Plantation and its 8,000 acres of polished splendor, and the more elementary Cuscowilla with its purist air and naturalistic Crenshaw-Coore course. Both developments were built with housing and private clubs in mind, but both are accessible by ambitious travelers intent on seeing a place that hasn’t yet been turned into a commercial madhouse.

For the traveling golfer in America, staying one step ahead of congestion is part of the game. Presently, the only towns near Lake Oconee, Greensboro and Madison, are charming little antebellum hamlets with red-brick squares and antique shops. And we all know how swiftly places like that can get deluged by franchises. Some locals already are worried. One realtor, who went by the name of “I-don’t-want-my-frikin-name-in-your-magazine,” stated categorically that in 15 years Lake Oconee is sure to resemble Hilton Head, the beachside getaway for Atlantans that rose in almost a single generation from a sleepy, one-stoplight, two-course burg into its present boomtown condition.

Just 25 years ago, this place didn’t even possess a lake. Then in 1979, Georgia Power dammed up a few creeks at the edge of Oconee National Forest and produced the second largest lake in the state. Sitting very pretty all of a sudden were two investor brothers, Mercer and Jamie Reynolds, who possessed 10,000 acres of neighboring land haned down from a grandfather who invented a process for producing vegetable oil. Georgia Power still controls the lake, so it’s very clean. Catching bass from these waters is almost unfairly easy. Lakeside frontage at the various developments starts around a quarter-million a lot. And although Georgia is in the midst of the worst four-year stretch of drought in a century, you wouldn’t know it standing on these shores.

The golf merriment surrounding the lake is also pretty cool. The prize winner for sheer fun is the Reynolds Plantation’s Great Waters course, a cheerful Jack Nicklaus design (yes, I said “cheerful”) that features nine holes tumbling alongside the water. Its sister courses are all stalwart and strong, too. For a more traditional, old-timey air, go to the first of the four courses built, in 1989, the Bob Cupp-designed Plantation. The National, a typically picturesque Tom Fazio design, seems to be the course favored by low-handicappers seeking a rugged test from the tips. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton, which fronts the lake and offers the usual array of spas, pools and imperial design, pays $175 for a round at these three courses.

Go to the newest attention-getter, the Oconee, which opened at the beginning of the year, the fee goes to $250. It is not the sort of course Rees Jones puts together for a U.S. Open. Most shots off the tee, in fact, are very agreeable for slaphappy spray-hitters. Almost every green, however, demands that you fly the ball in over some gorgeous hazard. Those lavish bunkers lose a bit of their beauty after you’ve visited a dozen or so of them. That must be why they send along mandatory forecaddies.

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore had other ideas when they designed the amazing Cuscowilla. Crafty players who play the ball low are allowed to roll the ball into the greens on this course. Since it opened five years ago, Cuscowilla has struck a nerve among traditionalists. After the magnificence of the Reynolds Plantation properties, Cuscowilla seems almost austere, but its beauty promptly throws a hold around your neck. The bunkers are gently shrouded and lined with a red, river-bottom sand. The lake and the houses are visible only here and there.

Even the housing is more elemental. The private club subsidizes its costs with some pine guest cottages and lakeside villas; prices range between $125 and $280. Green fees are $110, which includes forecaddie and cart. As at Reynolds Plantation, the caddie program is quite good. Walking is encouraged at Cuscowilla. For non-guests, the greens fee is $150.

Cucscowilla is by no means a full-service hotel; you have to drive a few miles to JR’s Diner just to get breakfast. (Cuscowilla does have a fine, adventurous restaurant called Waterside.) It is, however, a place to be valued by serious golf fiends who prefer a bit of isolation.

At present the various clubs around Lake Oconee are bound by a fraternal air. The first course to actually be built on the lake, Port Armor, is a twisty Bob Cupp layout with a lot of lakeside views and an agreeable shiftiness in aspect, demanding you turn the ball this way and that. The semi-private course charges $59 weekdays, $69 on weekends.

Another strong course is the Harbor Club, a Tom Weiskopf-Jay Morrish design that serves a private club. Until the membership is filled, the club allows play ($89 greens fee, or $49 for Lake Oconee guests). It’s a friendly environ, testing enough for Tour qualifiers or, from the forward tees, swell enough for the senior members.

With all this golf finery, Lake Oconee has a carload of appeal for the far-from-the-madding crowd set. Those in search of honky-tonks should go elsewhere—or drive 40 minutes to the college towns of Athens or Milledgeville, and who wants to drive that far after you’ve been honky-tonked?

If it’s sweet Georgia golf among the basking pine bowers, however, here is the place to set ‘em up.

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