Reynolds Lake Oconee's Great Waters course reopens after Jack Nicklaus renovation

Russell Kirk/Golf Links

Reynolds Lake Oconee's Great Waters course reopens after Jack Nicklaus renovation

Architecture

Reynolds Lake Oconee's Great Waters course reopens after Jack Nicklaus renovation

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LAKE OCONEE, Ga. – Playing the Great Waters course Thursday at Reynolds Lake Oconee, we were stopped on seven various holes as residents asked my foursome what we thought of their newly renovated Jack Nicklaus course.

After 18 months of work on the track, which opened in 1992 and is ranked No. 2 in Georgia on Golfweek’s Best Course You Can Play list of public-access courses, they were chomping at the bit to get their first tee times this weekend and wanted a little heads-up on what might be in store.

They can rest easy knowing Nicklaus’ design team maintained everything they loved before the renovation while opening up new playing lines and even better views of Lake Oconee, on which nine of the holes sit.

No. 14 at Great Waters (Evan Schiller)

Not to call the project a tap-in by any means, but the bones of the golf course were in great shape. And the newly improved conditions should provide a warm Southern welcome for years to come, as property managers and owner MetLife have committed to a years-long series of continuous improvements to the massive, luxury-oriented property that includes five resort-access courses, one private course and a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“The golf course wasn’t broken to start with,” Nicklaus said on Friday during an opening ceremony on the 18th tee next to the lake. “It was just the plumbing was broken, and we had to fix the plumbing. When you fix the plumbing, you get a chance to put a little lipstick on the outside of it.”

The course routing wasn’t dramatically altered, as it already played through wide corridors of homes, but more than a thousand trees were removed to open the views and improve turf conditions and playability.

All the greens were rebuilt with TifEagle Bermuda grass, the entire course was re-grassed and a new irrigation system was installed. The fairways are now Zeon zoysia, and the rough is TifTuf Bermuda. All the bunkers were reworked.

The back tees were stretched to 7,436 yards, but perhaps more importantly, Nicklaus said, a new set of forward tees were built at about 4,500 yards to encourage older members and new players to take their shot.

With the setting, especially on the back nine with its eight water holes, there wasn’t any need to improve what was out there in view, just to open those views with fewer trees. The 20-mile-long lake was created with the addition of a dam in 1979, and the project created frequent fingers rolling downhill to the water. Nicklaus utilized these to great effect in the original design, and several greens and hills were reconfigured in this renovation to take even better advantage of the views and water.

It’s rare for golf course architects to be given so much prime real estate even on waterfront parcels.

Jack Nicklaus at Great Waters (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

“This was a wonderful opportunity to do a pretty spectacular golf course on a pretty spectacular piece of property,” Nicklaus said of the original design. “The Reynolds people saw the vision and had the vison to understand that with 90 miles of waterfront, a little bit of that waterfront could go to golf to really create a golf course and situation that would be well worth the investment.

“Obviously, you could have had 90 miles of housing on the water, and nobody ever would have come here to play golf. They would have just come for the water.”

Several holes stand out, especially on the back nine, with the 11th a frequent favorite. It’s a short par 4 playing steeply downhill, 351 yards off the back and 311 off the middle tees. Longer hitters can challenge the green, which is protected on the left by a finger of lake. The straight hole is perched on a hillside that allows for a drive well to the right to catch slopes toward the green, while a drive down the middle must skirt the lake.

No. 11 at Great Waters (Evan Schiller)

 

The 543-yard, par-5 18th plays alongside then around or over the lake, depending on the player’s daring. In this renovation, Nicklaus added two right-side fairway bunkers in the landing are for the tee shot, pinching the fairway left toward the lake. This prevents the longest hitters from having a freebie tee shot up the right. The lake is there and presents its challenges to players trying to reach the green in two shots, but it offers plenty of room to play around the water without ever needing to cross too much of it.

“I tried to keep the water sort of, you might say, at bay,” Nicklaus said of the whole layout. “You try to keep it in play but not in play. Visually, yes, but don’t make every shot penal on the water. We tried to give it balance on that. I think we did a reasonably good job of that.”

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