Course Review: The National at Reynolds Lake Oconee (GA)

Reynolds Lake Oconee, National course rankings:
Golf.com: #5 Georgia public

Designer: Tom Fazio (2000, 2014)

During last month’s trip to Lake Oconee, Georgia, our first 27 holes were played on The National course. The National features three nine-hole tracks: The Ridge, Cove and Bluff. On most days, two of the nines are open while the third is being worked on – we were unfortunately not able to check out the Ridge course, but were very happy with what we found on the Bluff and Cove tracks.

Designed by Tom Fazio and debuted in 2000 (the third nine was added in 2014), the National at Reynolds Lake Oconee is the only 27-hole course on the property and, while it is not considered to be one of the two “premiere” tracks at Reynolds, I have been told it is the sure number three and from what we saw that’s for good reason: The nines are really well laid out and interesting, and Fazio’s layouts feature beautiful views, great shot quality and plenty of challenge.

We played the first tees in for all of our rounds in Lake Oconee, which made for a comfortable 6,593 yards for the Bluff/Cove combination at the National. Bluff/Cove is the longest combination of 18 holes on the premise, measuring 7,034 yards from the tips. The other two combinations are in the mid- to high-6,900’s.

Flying in to Atlanta, everybody’s flights were well timed so we didn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes for everyone to get their golf bags and then have Jeff, our trip planner, pick us up curbside in a massive white van. Even with eight guys’ luggage and golf bags, we fit in easily with room to spare, making for a comfortable hour and a half journey to Lake Oconee.

We arrived at the National more than an hour ahead of our tee time, and were all still wearing what we traveled in from Wisconsin during March – there were a lot of open van doors in the parking lot for us to change in to golf clothes since we were not yet able to check in to the condos.

Day one was the one suspect day of the trip weather-wise, and I chose long pants. I regretted that decision as the sun made for a more than comfortable golf experience.

A quick group shot before heading out for our first nine – we played a total of 91 holes in three days while at Reynolds Lake Oconee:

Group-IMG_6421

Jeff, me, Greg, Dan, Nick, Mitch, Mike and Justin on the first tee of The National, Bluff nine at Reynolds Lake Oconee

While the layout of the National course was very enjoyable, there was a big difference in conditioning here versus on the Oconee and Great Waters courses. Oconee and Great Waters, which are Reynolds Lake Oconee’s premiere tracks, were over-seeded during the early season to encourage more lush, green conditions, while the National and other courses on the property were allowed to grow in more naturally.

That should be great for the regular season, but for a bunch of guys from Wisconsin it made for conditions that were less spectacular (as a caveat, the conditions on the other two courses were phenomenal): Still dormant grass and slower, sometimes choppy putting surfaces. Being the first course we played on site, we had no complaints and it was a terrific warm-up round.

Now for a walk-through of the Bluff and Cove nines on Tom Fazio’s National course…

The sand traps down the right side of the fairway are definitely in play off the first tee, as is the treeline down the left side of the fairway. It’s a fairly straightforward opening hole, though, which is welcomed following all the travel it took to get there.

01-IMG_6418

The National, Bluff course hole 1: Par 4 (386/365/313/278)

The second hole on the Bluff course has an absolutely diabolical green. With a middle-right pin location, a few of us thought we had perfect approach shots. We all watched as our balls veered further and further right until they were all well off and below the green surface. This is a tough pin to get to.

01-IMG_6423

The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

01-IMG_6426

The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

A look at the green from behind:

01-IMG_6427

The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

With a fairway bending right and then finishing slightly uphill, the third hole on the Bluff course urges players to try cutting the corner for a better angle in – I tried and hit the right-side fairway bunker, making for a much more challenging approach.

02-IMG_6429

The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

02-IMG_6432

The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

The uphill approach to the third green:

02-IMG_6434

The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

The first of the par threes on the Bluff course, the fourth is a beautiful one-shotter abutting the shore of Lake Oconee. Playing around 165 yards from the #2 tees, I hit a club longer than normal and hit the back-left of the green, caroming right and catching the back slope to find its way back toward the hole. I had about a fifteen-footer left, which I nestled up for an easy three.

Even with 91 holes, I didn’t have a single birdie on the trip. Our group had quite a few overall, though, including two on par threes by Jeff during our first 18, and two by Greg on the first nine of day two at Great Waters. These guys were throwing darts!

03-IMG_6437

The National, Bluff course hole 4: Par 3 (173/165/137/132)

03-IMG_6441

The National, Bluff course hole 4: Par 3 (173/165/137/132)

Continue reading

Course Review: Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee (GA)

Reynolds Lake Oconee, Great Waters course rankings:
Golf Digest: #95 US public, #15 Georgia
GolfWeek: #91 US residential, #2 Georgia
Golf.com: #41 US public, #2 Georgia

Designer: Jack Nicklaus (1992)

Of the 99 golf holes at Reynolds Lake Oconee, a handful of the most scenic may be on the back nine of the Great Waters course.

Several of the most scenic holes I’ve seen in Southwestern United States may be on this back nine, in fact.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened in 1992, Great Waters is currently ranked as Golf.com’s #41, and Golf Digest’s #95 public course in the United States, and number two public in the state of Georgia by both GolfWeek and Golf.com. It’s worth mentioning that its #15 in Georgia ranking by Golf Digest is because almost every other course on the list is fully private and includes courses like Augusta National, Peachtree, East Lake and the Atlanta Athletic Club, by the way.

During a recent golf trip to Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Georgia, seven of my friends and I spent our entire Friday on the Great Waters course, starting at 9:00 in the morning and playing 36 spectacular holes.

Great Waters, along with Rees Jones’s Oconee Course, is one of the resort’s premiere courses, meaning that while it’s part of the trip’s itinerary it costs an extra $55 per day to play. All replays are free of charge, dependent on available tee times.

Our first round was played on the National course the day before, whetting everyone’s appetite for some awesome golf – golf we’d have been unable to experience back home in Wisconsin.

We were started off on the back nine. As I said earlier, I can’t imagine a more beautiful conglomerate of golf holes: Save for the tenth, each hole has a view of Georgia’s largest lake, Lake Oconee, each hole is well designed and, in typical Nicklaus fashion, challenging from tee to green.

Similar to golf destinations like Bandon Dunes and Kiawah Island, Reynolds Lake Oconee’s courses are situated on the same general property but with distance between each – each course features its own course, clubhouse, bar and restaurant, practice area and overall environment.

The clubhouse at Great Waters is beautiful and well-appointed, as you will get a brief glimpse of from the next few photos:

Clubhouse-IMG_6516

View from the lakeside practice green:

Clubhouse-IMG_6524

One of the smaller collections of memorabilia inside the clubhouse:

Memorabilia-IMG_6518

The beautiful, slick-rolling back nine putting green along Lake Oconee:

PracticeGreen-IMG_6523

Our group of eight was split between Great Waters and The Oconee, overall, for favorite golf experience, but for me it was Great Waters without question. The Oconee is no doubt a fantastic golf course, but the pure beauty and challenge of Nicklaus’s design won me over.

While we started on the tenth hole, I’ll still present the course from the first tee on – don’t worry, we’ll get to that majestic back nine… And the front nine’s really good, too.

Played between the tree lines, the trap on the right side is in play about halfway down the fairway. The left side is preferred off the tee, as that side offers a clean run toward the green.

The putting surface on one is large and fronted on the right side by a single trap.

01-IMG_6586

Hole 1: Par 4 (409/391/371/329)

The second hole is a par five with terrific elevation. The tee shot is again tree-lined, and the second shot leaves a risk/reward option of carrying the water on the right or laying up on the left side.

02-IMG_6591

Hole 2: Par 5 (507/480/447/390)

A plaque 218 yards from the green commemorates Mark McCumber’s double-eagle hole-out to beat Loren Roberts in the 1995 Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf event.

This event was held at Great Waters between the 1995 and the 1997-1998 season, before it was renamed the Accenture-World Golf Championships and moved to Austin Country Club (last week’s PGA event).

02-IMG_6600

Laying up will result in a short and straight-forward approach shot, but the risky alternative is tempting as the fairway in the driving zone is elevated significantly.

02-IMG_6602

Greg’s approach shot following a massive drive on two – he got the calves in to that one:

02-IMG_6703

02-IMG_6603

A dogleg left par four, the third at Great Waters plays over a guarded elbow in the fairway. Two traps on the left side of the green protect par here, along with a lengthy distance over 400 yards from the two longest sets of tees.

03-IMG_6605

Hole 3: Par 4 (432/410/382/335)

Justin’s second shot from the shoulder bunker on three:

03-IMG_6608

The first par three on the course, the fourth plays well downhill over a small creek that will catch anything real short, and becomes a more significant water hazard on the right side. The green here is sloped from back-right to front-left, and the bail-out area short-left was popular for our group in both rounds.

My tee shot in our second round ballooned out to the right, somehow hit a rock in the water hazard and ricocheted about 40 yards past the green on the next hole. It was a lucky break as I was still able to salvage four.

04-IMG_6614

Hole 4: Par 3 (186/169/152/143)

The fifth is a beautiful par four that is best played with less than driver off the tee. A draw around the corner in the fairway will allow for driver, but anything hit long and straight will likely find the pine straw and leave a next-to-impossible approach shot over the creek that meanders past the fifth green.

05-IMG_6618

Hole 5: Par 4 (422/387/357/243)

A well-hit, straight driver will leave a tumultuous low approach shot over the creek:

05-IMG_6623

The Nicklaus Bridge welcomes players to the green complex, which abuts the creek and features a beautiful stone retaining wall.

The approach on five is all carry – anything short is gone.

05-IMG_6634

A look back from behind the pin on five:

05-IMG_6633

An uphill par four, the fairway on six leaves a largely blind tee shot that leads to a wonderful, narrow green complex with sand traps everywhere.

06-IMG_6712

Hole 6: Par 5 (522/495/472/400)

A back-right pin location was tough to get to, and made for some fun uphill, side-winding putts.

06-IMG_6645

A closer look at this multi-tiered green:

06-IMG_6647

Another uphill tee shot, the seventh is a long par four that measures 466 yards from the tips and 403 from the #2 tees – the tees at Great Waters are simply marked as 1, 2, 3, …

Straight as a matchstick, the seventh will require an accurate drive and mid-to-long iron, depending on the drive. The green is subtly raised with sand right and several tall trees protecting the left side.

07-IMG_6714

Hole 7: Par 4 (466/403/361/318)

07-IMG_6721

The eighth is the longest par three at Great Waters, measuring 223 yards from the tips and 206 from the #2 tees. This two-tiered green featured a front pin location for our rounds, having us hitting long irons and all ending up just short of the green. A back pin would require much more, I’d imagine, as the putting surface is quite long front-to-back.

08-IMG_6654

Hole 8: Par 3 (223/206/184/154)

A look at the two-tiered green on eight:

08-IMG_6657

The ninth hole gives players a sneak peak at that picturesque lakeside golf I mentioned earlier that’s found throughout the back nine.

The tee shot plays straight out toward Lake Oconee, and the fairway falls hard toward the left along the coastline. While it looks reachable, the water in front is well over 300 yards away, so swing freely and get a wedge in your hands for this testy little approach.

09-IMG_6663

Hole 9: Par 4 (392/376/359/306)

09-IMG_6671

I stepped on one big time during our second eighteen on this hole, leaving 50-60 yards to the pin in the middle of the fairway – yep, chunked it in the water but still managed to salvage bogey.

09-IMG_6731

The tenth at Great Waters is the only hole on the back nine not on the lake, although there are certainly views behind the tee boxes.

A straightaway par four of 380 yards from the first tees in, the hole is fairly tight with an array of fairway bunkers on the right side of the fairway. These are certainly in play, which I discovered the first time around.

A great drive will leave a short wedge in, which I was delighted to discover starting our second eighteen of the day.

Greenside bunkers protect the short-left side of the putting surface on ten, and with a right-side pin location the green ran hard from the back-left to front-right.

 

10-IMG_6527

Hole 10: Par 4 (409/380/355/317)

If you’ve spent any time on Reynolds Lake Oconee’s web site, you’ve undoubtedly been wowed by the drivable par four 11th! The layout of this gorgeous risk/reward hole is absolutely spectacular, and uses the lines and surrounding beauty of Lake Oconee well to lull players in to a false sense of comfort.

The view from the tees looks like there is nothing but fairway out ahead:

11-IMG_6675

Hole 11: Par 4 (349/314/277/260)

From the forward tees a little more becomes visible:

11-IMG_6677

A panoramic view of the eleventh during our morning round:

11-IMG_8888

A look at the green complex from the right-side pine straw – as you can see here, Lake Oconee comes in to play all along the left side of the fairway.

11-IMG_6537

A closer view of the green – while this front-right pin was green-lit for long drives, anything toward the middle or left side of this laterally running complex should surely mean laying up.

11-IMG_6538

Playing alongside a cove of Lake Oconee, the par five 12th plays over water (and fishermen) to a right-to-left fairway that climbs uphill. A tall draw was the best play here, although the dreaded straight ball left several of us in the trees.

12-IMG_6679

Hole 12: Par 5 (559/521/489/426)

A nicely drawn drive in to the fairway left me the below view for my second shot. I somehow failed to get a picture of the approach shot, which continued to play between the tree lines and slightly downhill.

The twelfth is the longest hole on the Great Waters course, teeing up from 559 yards from the tips and 521 from the #2 tees.

12-IMG_6544

Thirteen is a strikingly beautiful par four. Aiming just left of the right-side fairway trap will lead to a tee shot bounding downhill with a great look at this lakeside infinity green. The left side is no good – trust me – although the fairway does funnel slightly from that side back toward the playing surface.

13-IMG_6547

Hole 13: Par 4 (434/408/377/322)

A view of this wonderful green on the long par four 13th at Great Waters:

13-IMG_6552

13-IMG_6549

For my money, the fourteenth is the most picturesque of many picturesque par threes at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Playing over the cove, it is a mid-length one-shotter from 160 to 185 yards, depending on tee selection.

With a lot of wind, this hole could be a real bear – we had a fairly calm day weather-wise, though, so it was more a matter of choosing the right club and putting a good swing on it.

14-IMG_8889

Hole 14: Par 3 (186/164/118/99)

14-IMG_6560

This view was way too pretty not to take out the camera for:

14-IMG_8893

A look back toward the tee boxes on the par three 14th:

14-IMG_6562

Playing uphill and a bit over 400 yards, the par four 15th features one of the toughest greens on the entire course.

A roller coaster ride on the upper-back half had me aiming six or seven feet above the pin on a ten-footer for my birdie look. I left it just below the hole for a tap-in par, and while everyone else I played with had at least a birdie or two, I would leave Reynolds Lake Oconee completely birdie-less.

15-IMG_6565

Hole 15: Par 4 (416/409/352/268)

Another stunningly photogenic par four, the sixteenth plays 427 yards from the #2 tees and slightly downhill to another classic lakeside green complex. We had some really big hitters in our group, and three of us pulled drives slightly left, but no one made the water off the tee – swing away!

As an aside, anything just off the fairway and rough area in the trees is not hopeless at any of the Reynolds Lake Oconee courses – soft pine straw contains wayward shots and as long as they’re not in anybody’s yard means a recovery shot should be plausible.

16-IMG_6680

Hole 16: Par 4 (457/427/404/355)

Just another amazing lakeside hole on the back nine at Great Waters:

16-IMG_6683

16-IMG_6687

While the world of golf is enamored with long par threes, I am a sucker for a short one with a challenging green.

The seventeenth at Great Waters is such a par three, playing entirely over water to a small putting surface with subtle but significant contouring.

Capping out at just 164 yards from the tips and 146 from the first tees in, the seventeenth is all water and requires focus.

During both rounds, all four of us had some pretty great shots to this green, but I don’t think there were any birdies on this hole even though there were a number of tee shots inside ten feet.

17-IMG_6692

Hole 17: Par 3 (164/146/137/127)

Dan teeing it up on seventeen along Lake Oconee:

17-IMG_8890

There’s a whole lot of water on seventeen:

17-IMG_6574

The eighteenth is a fantastic finishing hole at Great Waters. While the tips extend to 540 yards along the lake, the first tees in are under 500 yards and will undoubtedly lead to a risk/reward decision between a long, 200-plus yard carry over water, or laying up to the right.

 

18-IMG_6694

Hole 18: Par 5 (540/495/475/387)

Hogan’s tee shot on 18:

18-IMG_8891

During our first round I went for it from 220 and hit the top of the rock wall in front of the green. I smartened up during our second round, hitting a hybrid to the right-side shoulder in the fairway and an easy 50-yard wedge in and a good look at birdie.

It’s too easy to go to a world-renowned golf destination like Reynolds Lake Oconee and say to yourself, “I didn’t travel all the way to Greensboro, Georgia to lay up with 200-225 yards on a memorable par five.” Maybe that’s why I’ve never been lower than an 8-handicap.

18-IMG_6696

18-IMG_6581

A closer look at the well-protected green complex on 18 at Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee:

18-IMG_6697

Both the Great Waters and Oconee courses at Reynolds Lake Oconee – the resort’s premiere tracks – had been over-seeded early on in the year, which our group appreciated as it meant the tees, Tif Way 419 Bermuda fairways and MiniVerde Bermuda greens were green and lush.

The 419 Bermudagrass rough was still dormant during our trip, though, as is the tendency on southern courses during the late Winter / early Spring season. This is the same way the RTJ Golf Trail at Ross Bridge was last month – slightly “browned out” roughs, few leaves on the trees but beautiful everywhere else that matters.

The National course at Reynolds Lake Oconee had not been over-seeded, and the difference between the Oconee and Great Waters courses and it was drastic – the greens on their two premiere courses were much faster and more consistent – definitely worth the extra $55 per day to play them (including free re-play).

Great Waters is a fabulously designed and executed golf course, and there is no question it is deserving of its top 100 accolades. If you are visiting Reynolds Lake Oconee and are hesitant to spend the extra $55 a day to play the premiere courses like Great Waters, take my advice and do it. You’ll thank me later!

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Greensboro, GA
Yardage: One-7073, Two-6581, Three-6069, Four-5667, Five-5107
Slope/Rating: One-138/74.0, Two-133/71.9, Three-129/69.6, Four-122/67.7, Five-126/70.1
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $195 including cart, range

Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee Website

Course Review: RTJ Golf Trail at Ross Bridge (AL)

This past week, I had a work conference in Birmingham, Alabama, at the renowned Marriott Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort.

My wife, Kelly, worked in public relations for Porsche when she lived in Atlanta, and she was a tad envious when I told her the conference was at Ross Bridge. She had been to a number of events there and said it was a great resort with good food and excellent service. Her favorite story about the Ross Bridge involves Secret Service agents who were asking about Porsche and gave her an SS pin. She went in her closet and found the pin pretty quickly.

Our conference went well on Tuesday night, and I had the morning’s first tee time on Wednesday to make sure I could enjoy the course before my 3 pm flight home to Wisconsin. I expected it to be a well needed respite from the cold Wisconsin winter, but was actually able to get out on the courses around here beforehand to slap the ball around sans putting complexes.

I got new Mizuno JPX-850 forged irons during the off-season, and they feel phenomenal. I was really excited to hit in to actual greens with them, and I finally got my opportunity down in Birmingham.

The Ross Bridge course is the premier course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It is really easy to see why the second you arrive at the first tee.

Ross Bridge is the premier course on Alabama’s RTJ Trail, and it’s also the fifth longest golf course in the world (second longest in the United States). Tipping out at 8,191 yards, it’s a beast of a track with out-of-this-world contouring.

ross-bridge-scorecard

The course offers a very nice practice facility, including a range with sand traps and a couple of really nice practice greens. I don’t like to practice often, which is probably why my handicap rarely dips below a 9, but I did roll a few putts to get the speeds and recall a little of my muscle memory and short game instinct.

IMG_6248.JPG

IMG_6252.JPG

People say Robert Trent Jones built golf courses with “Heroic opportunities,” which is one of many things I enjoyed so much at Ross Bridge. The first tee reminded me of the opening drive at a home course called Morningstar – I could look out and know that the left side was dead, but from the on-board touch-screen GPS system knew anything over or right of the central sand trap would get a great kick forward down the fairway.

img_6259

Hole 1: Par 5 (620/573/543/511/463)

The entire fairway past that middle bunker kicks left toward the water, but my drive was perfectly fine and left me a carry of 200-plus yards over wetlands. This course isn’t that tough 😉

img_6263

Hole 1: Par 5 (620/573/543/511/463)

If the shear length of the par five first hole – 620 yards from the tips and 543 from the orange tees I was playing – isn’t enough of a challenge then surely the two green-side traps beneath the elevated green will catch your attention. This first hole is far from a friendly handshake, but one that’ll make you feel really good if you can card a four or five.

img_6267

Hole 1: Par 5 (620/573/543/511/463)

The previous day’s rain made for a cart path only situation on Wednesday morning, and I have to say that this is a fairly tough course to manage from the cart paths – it would probably have been more enjoyable to have just carried my bag. I enjoyed the hell out of the round, either way.

The Ross Bridge course hosted the Regions Charity Classic from 2006-2009, and I’m told was transitioned away partially because of the challenging walk. Being a tough course to walk may have been disheartening for veteran PGA Champions Tour players, but for me the dramatic changes in elevation that permeate the course were enthralling.

The first of those enthralling elevation changes is on the par four second hole.

I have seen a lot of golf holes playing from elevated tee boxes. The par three 17th at Hawks View Como Crossings in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for example, was at one time a ski hill. The 17th at TimberStone in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably the greatest elevated tee box I’ve ever seen.

The second tee at Ross Bridge isn’t quite as spectacular as those, but it’s close. Maybe most impressively, it’s probably not even the most dramatically elevated tee shot on the course.

img_6269

Hole 2: Par 4 (467/430/395/322/278)

The second hole plays downhill, giving golfers the impression they can maybe carry 300-plus yards over the sand traps that line the left side of the fairway. The green here is fairly small for the Ross Bridge course, and anything long will find the water past it. Anything left probably will, too, while anything short will find the beach.

IMG_6271.JPG

Take a good look at the third hole from the first hole tee box. You probably won’t get a better look again.

img_6264

View of the 3rd hole from the 1st hole fairway

The course’s starter, Houston, told me that morning that if I couldn’t see where I was going to aim well right, especially on three. I was a bit toey off the tee on three, leaving me right in the middle of the fairway and about 225 yards from the green. The green was completely blind, though, and the hillsides right of the fairway otherwise imply that hitting over them will lead to good fortunes. Not true – turns out you want to play the ball well right. I tried to hit well right and hit just right (in general) – I found my approach shot ten yards below the green complex and was happy in general that it didn’t roll further down the hill in to the water.

Continue reading

Golf Course Review: Kiawah Island, Osprey Point

My wife, Kelly, and I got married at North Hills Country Club in Menomonee Falls on September 24 and left Wisconsin the following Monday for South Carolina for a much needed and enjoyable honeymoon.

The deal was that I would get to play two rounds of golf on our honeymoon. I took full advantage with rounds at the Ocean course and Osprey Point.

When it comes to Kiawah Island Golf Resort, anyone and everyone thinks of the Ocean course, and why not? It is one of the top five courses in the country and literally one of the greatest in the world. The Ocean course has also held almost all of the professional and amateur majors that exist, and they have all been seen on national television.

Not only have their events been nationally televised, but they have been replayed habitually because their outcomes have been monumental.

Our original honeymoon plans were to go to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Considering the Zika virus scares, we decided to change our plans to somewhere more domestic where the virus doesn’t exist.

South Carolina was the perfect destination. Neither of us had been to Kiawah Island or Charleston, though we’d both heard a million great things about Charleston [and I, as a golf writer, obviously have heard a billion awesome things about Kiawah Island!].

In as few words as possible: Our honeymoon in South Carolina was wonderful.

We spent five nights on Kiawah Island and two in Charleston, and we experienced nothing short of amazing dining, shopping, spa and overall experiences at both.

There is more to come on my blog about the Kiawah Island Golf Resort experience, so let me get to the day-of experience at Osprey Point…

Continue reading

Golf Course Review: Kiawah Island, Ocean Course

Kiawah Island, Ocean Course Rankings:

Golf Digest: #3 US public, #1 South Carolina, #20 US top 100, #44 world
GolfWeek: #1 South Carolina, #8 resort, #15 US modern
Golf.com: #1 South Carolina, #6 US public, #50 world, #25 US top 100

Designer: Pete Dye (1991)

The Ocean course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort has always been a bucket list course for me. As most golf enthusiasts have, I’ve seen it on TV during Ryder Cup reruns, and of course during the more recent 2012 PGA Championship. I have also seen it perennially ranked as one of the top five public courses in the entire country.

I had heard all the stories about how brutally difficult the course is, how the winds will howl off the ocean at 40-plus miles per hour, and of course more than anything how spectacularly beautiful it is.

For me, the course lived up to its billing and more. The amenities at the Ocean course clubhouse were fantastic, especially the Ryder Cup Grille (maybe the best golf course bar and grille I’ve ever been to), the expansive clubhouse and well-appointed locker rooms, and the practice range.

Golfers from around the world visit Kiawah Island for this experience, of course, but what they visit it for most is to walk the same fairways that so many of the game’s legends have also walked… And to gauge their games against what they have seen played professionally.

The Ocean course is a walking-only track, although many players take carts along the perimeter of the holes. My new wife (we were in Kiawah Island celebrating our honeymoon), Kelly, joined me for the round and we took a cart and also had a forecaddie, Andy, who did a terrific job as would be expected for a professional looper who has caddied not only at Kiawah Island but also at Bandon Dunes, Streamsong and a number of other world-class golf resorts.

I was paired up with Jerry and Paul, who were celebrating Paul’s retirement with a well-deserved golf vacation. We had a lot of fun with these two. In fact, we were very fortunate during both of our rounds on Kiawah Island for getting great playing partners.

Jerry and Paul played from the Dye tees, which measure 6,475 yards and have a slope/rating of 134/72.0. The tips, noted as the Tournament tees on the scorecard, play from a staggering 7,356 yards with a slope/rating of 144/77.3, and is commonly considered to be one of the most challenging rounds of golf on the planet (a 77.3 course rating is astronomical).

It is not always the length that is so challenging about the Ocean course, although I’d imagine playing from almost 1,000 yards longer would add a considerable amount of stress to the tee shots.

kiawah-island-ocean-course-scorecard

Like the Straits course at Whistling Straits, the Ocean course is intimidating off the tee but actually has quite wide and forgiving fairways. Choosing a line to hit at is a big decision on many holes, and the ever-present wind and long fescue that abounds means precision off the tee is at a premium.

I had my driver going pretty well at the Ocean course, as well as my putter. In fact, if it wasn’t for the second and third holes I would have put together a pretty good round.

The conditions were everything you’d expect from a course that charges over $350 per round: There was rarely a blade of grass out of place, and the greens ran beautifully with almost no visible imperfections. The fairways ran out nicely, too, which makes for a fun round when your driver is going straight-ish.

The greens are probably the hardest aspect of the Ocean course. Most are steeply elevated with dramatic run-offs to collection areas and deep green-side sand traps.

Unlike the 950-plus “bunkers” at Whistling Straits, all sand areas at the Ocean course are played as wasteland. This means that players are allowed to ground their clubs in them, and even take practice swings.

Among its multitude of awards, probably best shown here, the Ocean course at Kiawah Island is maybe best known for the amazing rounds of professional golf that have been played there.

Most recently, Rory McIlroy destroyed the field in the 2012 PGA Championship with a cumulative score of -13 including a final round 66, two 67’s and a +3 second round. To gain perspective, second place was England’s David Lynn eight strokes back at -5 and just 20 players in the field of 156 finished the tournament under par.

The most famous professional tournament in the Ocean course’s history, though, was when the US outlasted Europe in the 1991 Ryder Cup by a score of 14-1/2 to 13-1/2 on a missed putt from six feet on 18 by Bernhard Langer. The exuberance of the crowd and players, alike, and the howling conditions left an indelible mark on the golf world as what has historically been dubbed “The War by the Shore.”

The Ocean course starts out with a beautiful, short par four with a generous fairway. The approach carries a long fairway bunker that runs the right side of the second half of the hole, and the niceties of one of the course’s most subtle greens offers a generous handshake to start the round.

The second and third holes have risk/reward options off the tee: The further a player can drive the ball [with accuracy] toward the left side of laterally running fairways, the less distance will be left to the green.

I hit a nice drive on two to the fairway, then made up my mind to lay up with what I thought was a safe 5-iron over the creek that dissects the layup area. My shot carried a bit farther than expected and wound up behind a tree stump and was completely unplayable, leading to a triple-bogey and the first half of some terribly played golf holes.

The third is a very cool short par four! The fairway again runs right to left over a marshland, and the line to hit at is just right of the oak trees on the other side of the fairway. The further left the aim, the longer and more accurate the tee shot needs to be.

Although it sets up similarly to the second off the tee, this is a really short par four and the ultimate premium is placed on players’ approach shots.

By the way, this is the hole that Rory McIlroy’s tee shot got stuck in a tree on during the 2012 PGA Championship. This is likely not the first time you’ve seen this image…

ball-in-a-dead-tree-branch-day-3-2012-pga-red

Rory McIlroy retrieving his tee ball from a tree on the third hole during the 2012 PGA Championship

A lone mound lies about 50 yards from the green on three, which is one of the smallest and most penalizing targets I’ve ever seen. This green is tiny from front to back, and with a right-side hole location was a sucker pin if I’d ever seen one.

The right play would have been left of the pin, but being 62 yards out and in the middle of the fairway I was feeling confident and hoping to get back one of the strokes I lost on two.

Tripling two was disappointing, but what happened on three was nuts: My perfectly drawn tee shot left me in position A. Even though Andy warned me that going at the pin would be tricky, I hit what I thought was a beautiful 60-degree wedge and nearly hit the flag. It then bounced off the green.

From no-man’s land, I was determined to hit a wedge on to the green… Four times. I also tried putting it up the steep slope once. I finally found the putting surface and two-putted, resulting in a crowd-pleasing five-over (what’s that even called!?) nine. Ouch!

The fourth is a long par four, playing just over 400 yards from the Dye tees and 453 from the tips. The hole is divided in two fairway areas with marshland separating them, and regardless of how well the tee shot is hit, will undoubtedly require a long and accurate approach shot in.

I did not amaze anyone on this hole, taking a double-bogey, but at least that was better than the eight-over I’d scored on the previous two holes (+10 on three holes, though? Wow, this is not your average golf course!).

The fifth is a tough par three over water with a long horizontal green that gets longer as it slants from the front-right to back-left.

This hole plays 207 from the tips, and is all carry with no room to miss long. The 10,000-plus square foot green allows plenty of room to bail out right, so club selection versus the wind is key while hitting the wrong side of the green complex will lead to a ridiculously long and challenging two-putt for par.

With a back-left pin and the wind blowing hard from that side, I was between clubs and decided to try hitting a drawn five-iron toward the middle of the green [in hopes it would hook left, which is never a given!]. It actually did, landed a couple feet from the hole and rolled to about five. It was a straight-forward birdie putt that I made. Phew, back on track.

Six is a tough driving hole, playing over a massive waste bunker and in to the wind during our round. A draw is the preferred tee shot, as anything hit long and right will find wasteland while anything hit short and left will find a deeper one.

The green on six is level to the fairway, and a bunker on the left side of the green is the only hazard to avoid on the approach.

The seventh is a short and score-able par five. With the wind still in our faces, the left-middle section of the fairway was our target as biting off too much of the elbow in the fairway was inviting disaster.

The fairway doglegs left to right at about 230-250 yards from the Dye tees, with deep fescue protecting the corner. The short grass then runs straight about 260 yards to a slightly elevated green with sand enveloping the right side.

I hit the ball hard off the tee, but it had some cut and we spent a few minutes trying to find it in the fescue. I hit a provisional and then heard Andy yelling to me to grab a club as my original tee shot was in the middle of the fairway well past the elbow.

I immediately went from hustling for a bogey to salvaging bird – this was becoming an interesting round!

A mid-length par three, the eighth demands accuracy. Sand abounds short, right and long of the target zone, and a mounded green means anything slightly off will kick off the hill and find sand.

There are a lot of contours on this green, so the most important shot here is the second to ensure par.

08-img_6070

Hole 8: Par 3 (197/170/166/151/105)

08-scorecard-img_6073

An interesting scorecard following 8 holes on the Ocean Course

Nine is a crazy par four. At 464 yards from the tips and 406 from the Dye tees, the fairway runs right to left with sand owning the entire left side of the hole (this is “Cart path” for the Ocean course). The traps on the left elbow of the fairway need to be avoided, while the right side of the fairway funnels slightly toward the middle.

Distance off the tee is the key ingredient to nine, as the approach is bound to be long but at least a 5-iron in is easier than 3-wood!

Massive pot bunkers are found both left and right of the green complex, although the elevated putting surface has nothing guarding the front (mercifully).

Check out the awful leave Jerry had following his tee shot (picture with the ball on top of the slope):

The back nine starts out with a mid-range par four that runs left to right. The fairway falls slightly downhill with wasteland on the left, and a deep bunker looms in the back-right of the green.

The eleventh has one of the most visually intimidating sand traps on the entire Ocean course toward the right side of the fairway driving zone. Stay away from it, obviously, and set up the second shot well right in the shoulder that leaves 100-125 yards out from this highly elevated green.

Brutal pot bunkers guard the front of this par five’s putting complex, which is bean-shaped from front-left to back-right. There is nothing easy about this hole and course.

In to the wind, especially, the par four twelfth is a ridiculously challenging golf hole! While the fairway is one of the widest on the course, there is nowhere to miss on the approach shot.

Water runs the entire right side of the approach area, and tight sandy lies make up the left. The green is small-to-average sized, but all the water and sand make the approach shot quite stressful.

The thirteenth plays somewhat similarly to the twelfth in that water runs the entire right side of the hole. Where it differs is that the fairway is nowhere near as easy to hit off the tee…

Traps on the front-left and left portions of the green, and a putting surface that runs along the water make the approach shot incredibly important here.

I love the contouring Dye executed with the fairway bunkers on this hole – check out one of them below:

As you can tell by the flag on the following photos, the wind was howling off the Atlantic by the time we got to 14. Playing to 161 yards from the Dye tees (194 from the tips), this par three is similar to the eighth in that anything even slightly off will not hold the green and leave players scrambling for an up-and-down.

Also adding challenge to the 14th is the gorgeous view of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the green…

Fifteen is the first hole truly adjacent to the Atlantic on the Ocean course. The wind was roaring off the ocean, and with the sun starting to set the views back to the tee boxes were stunning.

img_7645

The tee shot, at least partially because of the right-to-left wind influence, was all systems go. The green, on the other hand, presented more of a challenge. Sand runways occupy the left side of the approach area, and the putting surface runs from front-right to back-left, slightly uphill and atop the waste area.

The final par five on the Ocean course, the sixteenth is a long 579 yards from the tips and 540 from the Dye tees we were playing. A pond has to be carried from the back tees, but should not come in to play.

A deep sand reservoir runs the right side of the hole’s layout starting at about 300 yards, and along with the wasteland on the left side of the final third of the hole makes for a narrow setup shot.

If in doubt, keep the approach shot right to avoid the green-side bunker short-left. I felt bad for Paul with the sand shot he had to deal with (shown below)… That one was next to impossible.

The seventeenth is a pretty famous golf hole. Teeing up away from the ocean, it is all carry over the pond and makes for a tight target area. With the hole cut on the left side, it is tempting to take on the green-side traps on that side, but probably the safest play is adding a club and aiming for the middle of the green.

We had a ton of wind at our back, making 170-ish yards more like 130. I hit 9-iron and barely carried the pond on the right side, leaving a 50-plus foot putt with the sun going down.

This is a gorgeous golf hole, and one that works well with the Ocean course’s world-class tournament pedigree: Feast or famine plays well with fans when championships are on the line!

The eighteenth is a challenging finishing hole at the Ocean course. The tee shot is visually intimidating with the Atlantic Ocean to the right and wastelands in play both on the left and right sides of the driving area.

The left side of the clubhouse can be targeted off the tee. Find the fairway and heed caution on the second shot to set up a chance for par. Short-left of the green complex is deep, deep wasteland with intermittent patches of fescue that if found will likely add a stroke or two to your score, so caution is the name of the game.

Playing 439 yards from the tips and 396 from the Dye tees, the eighteenth is a great, great golf hole to end your round on this fabulous Pete Dye course.

After the eighteenth, make sure to find your way to the Ryder Cup Grille out back of the pro shop. The RCG has fantastic food and drink specials, not to mention some of the most captivating views found anywhere.

19-front-of-clubhouse-img_6218

The Ocean Course clubhouse at night following our round at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Our view of the flags from adirondack chairs on the patio at the Ocean course:

19-flags-img_6203

Flags outside the Ryder Cup Grille at the Ocean Course

Specialty cocktails at the Ryder Cup Grille:

19-specialty-cocktails-img_6201

Specialty cocktails menu from the Ryder Cup Grille at the Ocean Course

19-adirondacks-img_6206

My wife, Kelly, and me enjoying cocktails in adirondack chairs on the back patio of the Ocean Course clubhouse

My excitement to play the Ocean course at Kiawah Island was really high in the weeks leading up to our honeymoon, and that always worries me that the experience may not live up to my expectations.

It’s wonderful when a course with these high expectations pans out, and the Ocean course at Kiawah Island did. Between the pristine conditions, world-class service and some of Pete Dye’s most ingenious hole layouts, every hole on the Ocean course was fun, challenging and scenic.

“What would you compare the Ocean course to?” my friends asked when we got home to Wisconsin from our honeymoon.

It should come as no surprise that the nearest comparison for me is the Straits course at Whistling Straits. Both courses feature intimidating tee shots, wide fairways, a satisfying combination of large and small greens and a terrific variety of hole layouts.

Unlike the Straits course, there are no “Throw-away holes” at the Ocean course. The fifth at Whistling Straits is the one hole I’m referring to there. In my opinion, it does not fit the rest of the [otherwise spectacular] course and inserts an opportunity for a colossally high score that can ruin players’ rounds on a long par five where hitting driver off the tee can create a plethora of issues including lost balls. In contrast, there are zero of these contradictory holes on Dye’s Kiawah Island course, and I for one like that.

That said, both the Straits and Ocean courses are undoubtedly world-class and deserve each of their lofty state, national and world rankings.

Both courses are also stalwarts for fantastic golf destinations. The Straits course headlines the two Whistling Straits tracks (also including The Irish), the Meadow Valleys and River course at Blackwolf Run, Pine Hills Country Club (private) and The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, while Kiawah Island has terrific complementary courses including Fazio’s Osprey Point (soon to be reviewed) and River course (private), Gary Player’s Cougar Point, Jack Nicklaus’s Turtle Point, Clyde Johnston’s Oak Point, and Tom Watson’s Cassique (private).

Kelly and I spent an afternoon at Osprey Point and loved it, and from driving past the others for five days in a row we can’t wait to get back for Honeymoon 2.0 to see and review the rest.

Kiawah Island was a wonderful golf destination, and an awesome spot for the first five days of our honeymoon. The food and golf were fantastic, and there was so much to do including all the pools and beaches, an incredible spa, great shopping and seemingly endless options for dining and drinks.

img_7640

My wife, Kelly, and me enjoying our time at the Ocean course at Kiawah Island during our honeymoon

Kelly and I were fortunate throughout our wedding and honeymoon: It was supposed to rain all day for our outdoor wedding on September 24 at North Hills Country Club in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin – it never did and was perfectly comfortable; it was supposed to rain the entire time we were on our honeymoon in South Carolina – it rained for a couple of hours after we landed and we then had 80’s and nothing but sun until we left.

Within 36 hours of getting home to Wisconsin, both Kiawah Island and Charleston had been evacuated because of Hurricane Matthew. We never saw any of that weather system and hope everyone there is safe and unaffected.

We’re less than a month in to our marriage, but if we can keep getting this fortunate we sure won’t complain.

Pete Dye’s signature course at Kiawah Island is phenomenal. If you have the opportunity and finances to play it, play it. Splurge for a caddie or forecaddie, too, and make sure to ask for Andy. As far as true golf experiences go, there are few tracks I have played that can compete against the Ocean course at Kiawah Island.

Course Wrap-Up:

Location: Kiawah Island, SC
Yardage: Tournament-7356, Ocean-6779, Dye-6475, Kiawah-6202, Carolina-5327
Slope/Rating: Tournament-144/77.3, Ocean-138/73.6, Dye-134/72, Kiawah-132/70.9, Carolina-124/72.7
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $374 + caddie and gratuity

Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Ocean Course Website