Reynolds Lake Oconee and the Ritz-Carlton Lodge in Georgia: A Top-10 Golf Resort

Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.

Ask anyone to name the top golf resorts in the US and invariably the list includes Bandon Dunes, Kiawah, Kohler, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, and Sea Island. Chances are, if you're a devoted golf traveler you've been to all of them. But one prime golf mecca and mega-resort somehow flies under the radar. While insiders know of the merits of Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee in Georgia, others may have no idea this vast resort/real estate community offers access to five fine courses, including two that have been rated among America's 100 best. The only requirement for access is you must stay at the very fine golf-oriented Ritz-Carlton Lodge or the villas, cottages, and condos of Reynolds Plantation. Since the unaffiliated but wonderful Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore-designed Cuscowilla, arguably the best course on Lake Oconee, is also nearby, you have plenty of worthy golf for an extended getaway.

This month, we focus on the golf at Reynolds Plantation and the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, our favorite base when we're on Lake Oconee. You will recall we reviewed the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain outside of Tucson earlier this year and reveled in its authentic desert Southwest look and feel (see GOLF ODYSSEY, February 2011). It was a bold departure from the typically formulaic and placeless—but nonetheless reliable and appealing—Ritz-Carlton properties. The Reynolds Ritz pioneered the luxury chain's embrace of local color and place, an embrace we are glad to see has become the modus operandi of the chain.

Located 90 minutes from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds Plantation lords over a peaceful peninsula on stunning Lake Oconee. The 35-acre Ritz-Carlton site constitutes only a small portion of the vast holdings of the family-owned Reynolds Plantation. The genesis of the area's appeal dates back to 1979, when a Georgia Power dam project created the second-largest lake in the state. The lake's innumerable inlets and coves encompassed more than 390 miles of shoreline, which in turn spurred the Reynolds family to expand their land holdings and capitalize on the area's allure as a retirement and second-home destination.

Golf courses quickly joined lake activities as the anchor attractions of the lakeside communities. Lake Oconee's original eighteen, the Bob Cupp-designed Port Armor (now the Landing Course), opened in 1986. In 2009, it became a part of a Reynolds Plantation portfolio that numbers six courses and includes the work of Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Rees Jones, and Jim Engh. Ritz-Carlton guests (as well as those in the entirely distinct villas, cottages, and condominiums rented by Reynolds Plantation itself) enjoy access to 99 holes of golf. Only Engh's strictly private Creekside Course is off limits.

Reynolds Plantation's biggest lures for golfers are the Great Waters and Oconee courses and the Ritz-Carlton Lodge. Designed by Jack Nicklaus and Rees Jones, respectively, these eighteens are highly enjoyable and varied (and pricey) tracks that showcase stunning lake scenery. A third eighteen, Cupp's Landing Course, offers a stern challenge. It was rated second in Georgia (behind only Augusta) shortly after it opened. Those looking for custom club fitting or golf instruction will also find world-class facilities in the TaylorMade Performance Lab and the Reynolds Golf Academy. The Ritz-Carlton Lodge is a sparkling, lakefront property that emphasizes service and convenience. Almost all of your non-golfing needs—from an outstanding spa to multiple dining options notches above anything else in the area, lake activities, and kids programs—will be right at hand and walkable from your room.

The Lake Oconee realm has grown up substantially since our last review in 2002. While you still won't find memorable dining, the area now offers some boutique and antique shopping, a supermarket and chain drugstores, as well as movie theaters. At the same time, the area retains a mostly rural aspect and a quiet small town aura.

Finally, you may have heard that Reynolds Plantation in Georgia is currently facing the fallout of the lingering financial and real estate crisis. Club members recently rejected a proposal to purchase the golf courses directly from the ownership group. Proceeds would have been used to pay down $45 million in debt owed to Bank of America. What happens next is anyone's guess, but we don't expect the situation to have any affect on visitors, at least in the near-term.

The five resort courses at Reynolds Plantation all play out of separate clubhouses in three distinct gated enclaves (Reynolds Plantation, Great Waters, and the Landing) that are up to 15 minutes away from the Ritz-Carlton Lodge. The marquee track and the only one within walking distance of the hotel is Rees Jones's Oconee Course (Rating: A-). Jones has created a highly aesthetic eighteen that rambles through woodlands and concludes with a rousing stretch that wraps around the lake. It is playable for golfers of all abilities, yet full of as much challenge as a low handicapper could want. Most holes begin from elevated tees and play downhill before rising again to an elevated green. Ample mounding helps contain tee shots and lends added margin for error in the landing areas; those who play to the high side of the embankments can expect friendly kicks toward more level turf. Matted pine straw amidst the trees makes it easy to spot wayward balls and play recovery shots. The greens are large and fit the topography quite naturally. Green surrounds are closely mown to permit putting from well off the green surfaces.

The Oconee Course, with its varied and secluded holes, is one of the more enjoyable Rees Jones designs we've played. The finishing holes are especially notable. From the back sets of tees, 15 is an all-carry one-shotter over a portion of the lake. Sixteen, an uphill par four, moves away from the water. A rock-bordered creek charts all the way up the left side of the fairway before winding past the front of the putting surface. Seventeen, a strong par five, finishes at another inlet of the lake. The home hole, the longest par four on Oconee, provides a cape-style challenge for those playing from the back markers. Tee shots must carry a lake channel. Two bunkers on the right side of the fairway may induce players to take a bolder line than they can muster.

Up until a few years ago, forecaddies were mandatory at the Oconee Course. Now they are optional here and at all the other Reynolds courses. Currently, there are about a dozen on staff. The caddie corps is managed by Caddiemaster. We enjoyed a very nice round with Palmer, who spends half the year at Kiawah's private Cassique and River Courses.

Few Jack Nicklaus designs are more fun to play than Great Waters (Rating: A-). The layout first put Reynolds Plantation on the map when it opened in 1992. Nine holes, including 11 through 18, border the lake, and six greens are perched right at the water's edge. The course hosted the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf (now the Accenture Match Play Championship) from 1995 to 1997.

Great Waters is a tale of two nines. The front side plays amidst tree-lined fairways. The side's most intriguing test is the long par-four 5th. Tee shots must cross a creek while also avoiding the overhanging limbs of a large tree. An ideally shaped drive takes advantage of the right-to-left contours and finishes near the creek that trails up the left side of the fairway before crossing moat-like in front of the green and hugging the right side of the putting surface.

After the inland 10th hole, a tree-lined test with houses set back along the margins, Great Waters begins a glorious stretch along the lake. Eleven is a short par four to a well-bunkered peninsula green. The two par threes (14 and 17) feature all-carry tee shots over inlets of the lake. On 18, a par-five that plays between 387 and 540 yards from four sets of markers, the fairway borders the lake one last time. Since the swath of fairway is so wide, the only time consternation should factor into the swing is on the final approach to a green tucked near the water.

Nicklaus Design recently returned to rebuild the bunkers and putting surfaces of Great Waters. The formerly bentgrass greens now feature Miniverde Bermuda grass. Nicklaus's team also flattened out some of the dips around the greens that were prone to collect water. The course now plays a little easier and drains much better than before.

Tom Fazio's National Course (Rating: B+) opened as an 18-hole layout in 1997 and expanded to 27 holes in 2000. It's quintessential Fazio—very attractive and pleasant to play as it winds through rolling and hilly terrain framed by tall pines. The routing, which is fairly generous off the tee and in harmony with the sloping contours of the hillsides, features an abundance of fairway and greenside bunkers. Many are large, deep, and stunning. Their strategic placement often frames the holes as they pose the chief threat to par.

Each day, two of the three nines comprise the daily routing, while the third nine is closed for maintenance. On this visit, we played our two favorite nines, Bluff and Cove. The Bluff nine, which touches the lake at times, begins with two straightaway inland par fours before an uphill dogleg right tucks back near an inlet of the lake. The signature par-three 4th extends hard by the water. This test is not nearly as tough as the downhill 7th, which stretches between 149 and 213 yards from five sets of markers and features a creek on the right.

Like the Bluff nine, the Cove nine finishes with its two toughest tests. Eight, a hefty par four that maxes out at 449 yards from the tips, swings about 90 degrees to the right. Flanking traps form a narrow avenue into a green that features a false front. The 9th is another long par four. Beware the small lake that looms about 100 yards in front of the green. Long hitters who can reach the crest of the fairway will find a speed slot that can bring the water into play.

The Plantation Course (Rating: B-), a 1988 Bob Cupp creation with assistance from Fuzzy Zoeller and Hubert Green, is Reynolds Lake Oconee Georgia's original layout. Cupp's routing (he returned to update it a few years ago), the easiest and shortest at the resort, features fairways that ramble along the floors of wooded valleys. Hillsides push everything to the middle both on the fairways and on the greens. Several holes are entirely bunkerless, though usually those tests incorporate more pronounced fairway undulations to increase the possibility of an unlevel lie.

The Plantation Course is not required play during a Reynolds visit. Measuring between 5,121 yards to 6,698 yards from five sets of tee markers, it is ideal for a warm-up round, and also well suited for juniors and high handicappers. The front side is a par 37 with three par fives, while par on the back is 35 with three one shotters and two par fives. Lake Oconee doesn't exert much influence on the Plantation Course, the least scenic of the resort's courses. The first view of the lake comes on the straightaway par-five 5th hole, the longest test (464 to 540 yards) of the day. The lake looms behind and to the left of the 8th green.

Bob Cupp's Landing Course (Rating: B+), formerly known as Port Armor, is the original course on the lake and Reynolds Plantation's only daily-fee layout. It's more rugged than the other resort tracks and the toughest rated of all the courses on the lake. The Landing features a little of everything—uphill and downhill holes, blind shots, speed slots, bunkers, trees, and a mix of tight and wide open holes. The course rambles over rolling terrain and features three holes that approach the edge of the lake. Four sets of tees stretch the par-72 layout from 5,298 yards to 7,048 yards, although it tends to play longer.

The most impressive stretch comprises the final march home. On 15, a long par four (433 yards from the tips) rated the toughest hole on the back and once considered the toughest hole in all of Georgia, you won't be able to see the small lake that protrudes more than halfway across the fairway from the right side. The water is in play, and because the fairway descends once it reaches its crest, you should treat your drive as a layup. The game concludes with a par four that plays back toward the clubhouse. A channel of the lake forms the left boundary of the hole before veering in front of the green. Since water and bunkers loom short of the elevated green, be sure to take enough club to get to the putting surface.

The Landings has very nice Zoysia grass greens. Alas, during our late April visit, remnants of the harsh winter were still evident in the form of sparse or nearly bare patches of grass near the fairway edges.

Golf services at Reynolds Plantation are very good. Normally you can count on excellent conditions, although the presence of giant fans at many greens indicates it's a constant struggle. We found the forecaddies, starters, and golf shop attendants to be universally helpful. (The only glitch was when we went to use a comfort station on the Landing and couldn't open the door because no one had told us the combination.) Each course has its own driving range and practice facilities. Clubhouse dining of some sort is available everywhere but the National Course. Just keep in mind that except for the National, each course closes one day a week (Oconee and Plantation on Monday; Great Waters on Tuesday; and the Landing on Wednesday).

Reynolds is home to the original TaylorMade Performance Lab, where golfers receive an individual swing evaluation that becomes the basis for a custom club-fitting session. Should you wish to work on your game, The Reynolds Golf Academy, under highly respected master instructor Charlie King, is located behind the Oconee driving range.

Set amidst tall pines on the shores of Lake Oconee, the Ritz-Carlton Lodge & Spa (Rating: A-), a majestic fieldstone and shak siding building, exudes a Georgia ambiance that harmonizes with its setting. Inside, a warm lobby with ample plush seating continues the Georgia theme with its vaulted ceilings with timber tresses, wrought iron chandeliers, a stacked stone fireplace, pine woodwork, and picture windows.

Guestrooms, the most attractive of which look out on the lake, extend throughout all four floors of the four-story hotel. The comfortable chambers feature one king or two full beds, goose down comforters and Frette linens, a flat-screen high-definition television, a stocked minibar, a sitting area, and a patio or balcony. The spacious bathroom includes a bathtub and separate glassed-in shower as well as a double vanity with a granite countertop. Guests who reserve a “Club-level” room gain access to a dedicated concierge, a limited breakfast, hors d'oeuvres, snacks, a variety of beverages, and a computer with Internet access. Lodge guests who want to connect to the Internet in all other instances must pay $10 per day. There's no self-parking, either. Valet parking runs $22 per day.

Six two- and three-bedroom guest cottages offer greater privacy and a more rustic, though still elegant, decor. Located just behind the spa and to the side of the hotel, all six extend alongside the 18th hole of the Oconee Course. Each comes with a wood-burning fireplace, a kitchenette with microwave (no stove, however), a flat-screen high definition television in the living room and each bedroom, a porch facing the home hole of the golf course and the lake, and elegant bathrooms.The restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge (Dining Rating: B) are the best—and most expensive—in the Lake Oconee realm. The Ritz operates three distinct dining venues. Linger Longer Steakhouse in the Oconee clubhouse, which recently reopened following a fire, is the resort's star restaurant. There's a big bar with a large flat-screen television as well as two seating areas, the latter of which looks at the kitchen. We recommend starting with the tuna tartare with crushed avocado and soy-lime dressing. The short ribs are always a good bet on the à la carte menu. A devoted team of knowledgeable servers took good care of our table. Open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.

Georgia's Bistro, located on the first floor of the Lodge, specializes in regional cuisine. The chef utilizes Southern-grown products whenever possible. Many herbs come from the chef's herb garden just outside the bistro. We started with the mushroom ravioli, but the real hit of the table was the sole. On a night when the dining room was uncomfortably chilly, we opted for al fresco dining on the terrace.

Gaby's, located lakeside by the infinity pool, is an ideal casual lunch spot. Choices range from salads to burgers to seafood. We were quite satisfied with our jumbo crab burger. The dinner menu includes pasta, filet mignon, and braised short rib. A favorite seafood selection is blackened catfish & shrimp, served with mac and cheese, smoked corn salad, and Cajun aioli.

If you venture off property, you might consider Silver Moon (Rating: C+; tel: 706-485-5698). It's nothing fancy, but it's a local favorite. The menu is limited but the dishes are well prepared. We had the Monday night prime rib special.

Located beside the hotel, the Spa at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge is a posh facility encompassing 18 treatment rooms, a stunning indoor pool, and a fitness center. The therapists are well trained and highly professional. Guests enjoy complimentary access to the gym and pool.

Lake Oconee is the focal point of non-golf activities at the Ritz. While there's a small beach, the real outdoor hub of the Lodge is the infinity pool. The pool is especially nice when the hotel isn't crowded, but it's rather small. We found the densely packed chaise lounges to be somewhat uncomfortable. The Ritz rents kayaks, canoes, and fishing equipment at the beachfront. Talk to the concierge about renting a boat. Other popular pastimes include biking, walking and hiking, and tennis. The tennis club, located near the Lake Club, features lighted hard and clay courts. In season, there's a kid's camp at the Lodge. An evening fire with s'mores is a Lodge tradition.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine, USAToday.com, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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Reynolds Lake Oconee and the Ritz-Carlton Lodge in Georgia: A Top-10 Golf Resort
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