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

One of the top golf destinations in the southeastern United States, Reynolds Lake Oconee is home to 117 golf holes. 18 of the best of those are on its Oconee course, designed by Rees Jones and originally unveiled in 2002.

Jones inherited some of the best terrain on the entire property to work with for the back nine of the Oconee course, meandering through inlets and setting up gorgeous tee shots over water on the par three 15th and closing par four 18th.

The 18th is one of the strongest finishing holes I’ve ever played, driving over Lake Oconee from 466 yards from the tips and still 426 from the third tees in.

What it lacks in lake frontage, the front nine makes up for with elevation. The fifth through ninth holes all have elevated tee shots, highlighted by a beautiful pair of par threes (5 and 8).

In addition to thousands of visitors, the Oconee course has played host to the annual Linger Longer Invitational college championship, the 2007 PGA Cup and the annual Chik-fil-A Bowl Challenge. Along with Great Waters, the Oconee helps put the premier in Reynolds Lake Oconee’s premier golfing destination.

The course begins with a long par five, measuring 538 yards from the first tees in. A small pond comes in to play about 450 yards down the fairway, and the green resides off a short dogleg left alongside the water.

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Hole 1: Par 5 (559/538/513/417)

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Hole 1: Par 5 (559/538/513/417)

Hole two at The Oconee is a mid-range par four with an interesting green complex. Heavily protected on all other sides, the pin while we were there was right in the front-right – the only area not bunkered.

You’ll see on the second hole that the Oconee course puts a premium on accurate driving. It’s heavily wooded but very fair – none of us had significant issues keeping our tee shots in play.

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Hole 2: Par 4 (397/377/367/315)

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America’s Best On-Site Non-Course Golf Facilities

One of the trends I’ve loved witnessing over the past few years has been the addition of non-course golf facilities at top-ranked resorts. These value-added venues give players fun options when they’re off the tee sheet to settle bets, enjoy the land, be social and bond especially during trips to remote golf destinations.

One of the first of these I ever had the pleasure of checking out is still my favorite: The Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford designed H-O-R-S-E Course at The Prairie Club in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

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One of an infinite number of potential tee boxes on the Horse Course at The Prairie Club

 

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“Routing” for the Horse Course – there are no actual teeing locations, and the next green can always be anywhere

 

Like in a game of basketball H-O-R-S-E, the player in charge calls a teeing location and green. From there, the competition usually goes one of two ways: Closest to the pin or fewest strokes to hole out.

Even with no official tee boxes or routing, the Horse Course at The Prairie Club was ranked the #10 Most Fun Course in America by Golf Digest in 2015.

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Golf Course Review: Medinah Country Club, Course No. 3

Medinah CC No. 3 Course Rankings:
Golf Digest: #48 US, #3 Illinois
GolfWeek: #85 Classic
Golf.com: #44 US
Architect: Tom Bendelow; Rees Jones

This past May, I had the good fortune of being invited to the unveiling of Rees Jones’ newly renovated Course Two at Medinah Country Club. Since the course was not yet ready to be played, we were treated to a round on a championship course that I’ve dreamed of playing for years: Medinah No. 3.

Most recently the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup, No. 3 has played host to a plethora of golf championships, including that Ryder Cup, three Western Opens (now the BMW Championship), the 1988 US Senior Open, three US Opens (1949, 1975, 1990) and two PGA Championships (1999, 2006).

Currently ranked the 48th best golf course in the country (public or private), No. 3 has a heritage that is unmatched in the Midwest.

The course starts out with a relatively straight-forward par four. Tee it high and let it fly – anything that flies the hill should get a good roll forward down the hill, leaving a short iron or wedge in.

From the first green on, players are introduced to some terrific Tom Bendelow designed greens. The back-right pin location we had moved a ton.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

The first in a fabulous set of par threes, the second hole plays entirely over water. While all the tee boxes are adjacent to the lake, the required carry and especially the angle in changes dramatically depending on tees.

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Big Things in the Works at The University Club (FKA Tripoli)

I recently had the opportunity to check out a local private club I’d never played before: The University Club. You probably know it as Tripoli, and great efforts are being expended to change that.

Debuting in 1921, The University Club is part of the northwest side of Milwaukee’s “Murderer’s row” of classic tracks off Good Hope Road, alongside The Wisconsin Club (fka Bryn Mawr), Brown Deer Park Golf Course, and a mile or so from Milwaukee Country Club.

I was really impressed with The University Club. The conditions were terrific, I enjoyed the variety of hole layouts and was pleasantly surprised by the topography and scale of the property. I expected a smaller footprint and had no idea there’d be as significant of elevation changes. Plus, I thought their men’s locker room is awesome (full wraparound bar with TV’s and seating areas).

The University Club is one of the most intact Tom Bendelow courses in the country. In fact, sixteen of the course’s greens survived numerous renovations over the past 96 years and are absolutely stalwart Bendelow designs. Highlighting those are the putting surfaces on four and thirteen, both strategically as good as you’ll find in the Milwaukee area.

A  look at the 13th green, both undeveloped when Bendelow originally envisioned it and as a finished product nearly 100 years later:

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The 13th green – now and as raw land when Bendelow originally designed it (photos courtesy The University Club)

In conjunction with their recent merger with The University Club’s downtown dining location, the FKA Tripoli Country Club is making huge updates to their golf facilities, bringing in nationally renowned course architect and a friend of mine, Andy Staples of Staples Golf Design.

While attention will be put toward improving the course’s play-ability and environmental sustainability (potentially including strategic tree removal, utility updates and some course design adjustments), one of the highlights for Staples’ renovation is the development of a world-class on-site practice facility.

The University Club short game area plan

Staples’ concept for a new short game practice area (links to SGD website)

Adding in the practice area will require adjusting the 12th green and making several other tweaks to the area it will occupy, as laid out above.

While modern architecture rains praise on Bendelow’s best designs – Medinah, East Lake, Mission Hills and Olympia Fields, to name a few – there are factions of the golf world who for a time were critical of his general body of work based on the volume of courses he designed between 1898 and 1933.

Coined the “Johnny Appleseed of Golf” by Golf Digest Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten, Bendelow designed between 600 and 1,000 courses and also served as the initial Superintendent at the country’s first municipal course: New York’s Van Cortlandt Park, starting in 1899.

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Tom Bendelow

As a salesman for Spalding sporting goods, Tom worked hand-in-hand with A.G. Spalding to bring the great game of golf to the masses. Scores of courses were developed, new players were introduced to the game, and you guessed it – Spalding sold a ton of golf equipment.

Tripoli was one of Bendelow’s first projects after leaving Spalding to work full-time for American Park Builders, the group responsible for arranging the construction of Tripoli, in 1922.

The original criticism against Bendelow was that he was the “18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” architect during his time with Spalding. Basically, that he would show up and put stakes in the ground to denote where tees, fairways and greens should be – all in a single day – and move on to the next project. I’m not sure anyone could do more than that and be attributed with designing 1,000 golf courses, especially in the early 1900’s when travel was I’m sure at least a little less convenient.

“18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” changed when Bendelow took over for William Langford at APB. Now having access to staff and other great resources, Bendelow was able to contribute the time and on-site TLC toward his projects that greatness requires. Tripoli was an original benefactor of that.

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Tom Bendelow’s design of Tripoli as shown in a 1922 APB brochure; this is the most detailed original color rendering of the course that includes fairways vs rough, greens and bunkers

One thing noticed on Bendelow-designed courses is the ease of walking from green to tee. While I could tell The University Club would normally be a great walking course, it was far from an easy hike on our dreadfully hot 95-degree September morn. Several of the uphill climbs actually left me a little dizzy toward the end – as I was saying earlier, there’s a lot more elevation than I expected.

While having the next tee nearby makes for easy transitions, advances in golf equipment technology have made shots that were heroic during Bendelow’s days not only realistic now, but to long-ish hitters almost standard.

At 440 yards from the tips, and 418 from the first tees in, for example, the 16th should be a challenging par four. The course institutes in-play out-of-bounds to discourage players from trying to cut the corner, but a 240-yard carry here leads to a really good reward… And it’s not like someone who can carry 240 ever mishits the ball, which is a great thing because directly along the line of that 240 is the 12th green.

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The dogleg left par four 16th at The University Club

One potential solution to get players to play the 16th the way Bendelow meant for it to be played could be as simple as relocating the tee boxes further right. This would make the direct route toward the green much less possible and force players to aim down – or nearer to – the hole’s fairway.

Having to hit long- or mid-iron in over the creek to a heavily contoured green would bring back the bite on this pivotal par four.

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The ideal tee shot on 16 is ~240 yards directly over the 12 green

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The 16th hole green complex and Tripoli windmill

Playing The University Club with Andy, it was fun to visualize his thoughts on the redesign. His great respect for the architecture that’s made golf’s golden age courses thrive over the past century I think will lead to changes that are often subtle to the eye, but will help reinstate Bendelow’s strategic themes while promoting a more fun environment for championship golf. These “subtle changes” should make massive impacts for a course that already has a lot going for it.

As shown in Bendelow’s 1922 color rendering (earlier/above), a lot of his time and efforts were spent on design features that have since been covered by trees.

It’s easy for club members to freak out when “tree removal” is mentioned. We hear numbers in the hundreds, even thousands, and imagine a course we’ve come to know and love looking like scorched earth (picture Lawsonia’s Links course or the updated Blue Mound Country Club). The truth is that most courses can lose hundreds, if not thousands of trees and leave the course visually comparable but strategically and environmentally better off.

“We don’t have a total number of trees in mind at this point. What I would say is, many courses of this age have seen trees planted for a variety of reasons, and now that they are 50-60 years old their impact on the course in terms of playability and turf health is significant. We’re going to concentrate on providing sunlight and air movement for all of the greens, and do our best to open up angles of play and approaches to greens that are more in line with how the course was originally intended to play.  This isn’t to say we’re going to remove all the trees.  We’re going to highlight the architecture through thoughtful removals and in some cases replacement, thinking about how members actually play golf.”

-Andy Staples

A few examples of areas where Bendelow’s design strategy has been overrun by tree growth:

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Mounding now in the trees on the right side of the fairway on 13

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Bendelow’s mounding on the right side of 15

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Looking toward the location of Bendelow’s original bunkers on the left side of 16

A notable up-and-comer in the industry, GolfWeek recently email blasted their entire readership with a list of four keynote speakers headlining their 2017 Architecture Summit at Streamsong this December: Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Rich Mack of Mosaic (developers of Streamsong), and Andy Staples. That’s some good company to keep.

An expert in the field of sustainable golf design, his most famous work is probably the development of Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah. A famously tough critic, Even Tom Doak gave Sand Hollow one of the highest scores (an 8/10) in volume two of his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.

It’s Staples’ recent renovation of Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, Michigan, though, that is probably most relevant to The University Club project.

Host of the 1955 PGA Championship, Meadowbrook celebrated their 100-year anniversary by hiring Staples and closing down for 18 months to make course updates. They entered that shut-down with 86 members on a waiting list to leave… And emerged with a full membership of 325 plus a waiting list to join¹.

Staples’ work in Northville has been hailed as a massive success, and Golf, Inc Magazine has named it one of five finalists for the world’s best course renovation project in 2017. It’s easy to see why from the pictures – it looks spectacular:

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Meadowbrook CC renovation project: Hole 8 (par 3) – links to mlive article

Like at Meadowbrook, I’m sure it’ll be tough for the membership at The University Club to endure a season without golf, but I think they made the absolutely right choice in hiring Staples, and I’m excited to follow the renovation’s progress and see all the great things he and his team do when it reopens down the road.

 

¹ Source: Crain’s Detroit article: “Meadowbrook Country Club Golf Risk Pays Off With Membership Surge,” July 23, 2017

A [Small] Sneak Preview of Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley

This past May (therefore, a small sneak peak), I spent the weekend on Petenwell Lake in Adams County, Wisconsin, for my friend Scott’s bachelor party. Our buddy Kyle and I headed up to Sand Valley Golf Resort a few hours before our group’s scheduled tee times for a sneak preview of the second championship course on site, Mammoth Dunes.

I love Sand Valley. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the original course there expertly: It’s fun, challenging, unique, FAST, rugged and tremendously beautiful. It also makes visitors feel as if they’re hundreds if not thousands of miles from what they know to be Wisconsin.

I’ve written quite a bit about Sand Valley, but have yet to post anything about David McLay Kidd’s upcoming Mammoth Dunes. We were able to walk six holes [with a guide and without clubs – it was still an active construction site], and they looked spectacular:

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Hole 1: Par 4 (413/394/358/324/221/198)

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1st hole green complex at Mammoth Dunes

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Hole 2: Par 4 (410/406/360/330/286/236)

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Target area off the tee on 2

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From the central fairway bunker on 2

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A look back toward the tees on 2

If you visited Golf Digest’s website any time during 2016, chances are you noticed an interesting reader competition: “The Armchair Architect.” 532 entries were received and reviewed by David McLay Kidd, Mike Keiser and Ron Whitten, and the winning entry was by computer gamer Brian Silvernail of Rockledge, Florida.

Silvernail’s proposed hole is a split-fairway downhill par four where flying three traps on the right side will propel tee shots downhill and left, making it a potentially drive-able par four.

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Brian Silvernail’s winning “Armchair Architect” entry (linked to Golf Digest article)

I never submitted my entry for the competition, but after working on it with the topographic map that was provided I can see in person that my hole design probably wouldn’t have worked. My concept was to have distinct risk/reward areas where the smartest shot is a shorter one to a plateaued fairway on the left.

The right side would lead to longer drives and shorter approach shots, but those approaches would be made more challenging by uneven and tight lies, a blowout trap that obstructs the player’s view on that right side, tricky green contours that would make holding those shots difficult, and a more rugged path, in general. Meanwhile, a downhill shot from the plateau to the left would allow the smart player to hit a wide open green from an even lie, unobstructed view and receptive putting surface.

In person, I don’t think the area allotted has enough space to make something like that happen, and plus there’s a distinct possibility that the concept would look gimmicky, contrived and probably not be considered anyway.

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The par four 14th – subject of Golf Digest’s Armchair Architect contest – being roughed in

 

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Hole 15: Par 5 (522/509/448/398/365/325)

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Hole 15: Par 5 (522/509/448/398/365/325)

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A beautiful, natural location for the 15th green complex

I had been drooling over pictures of the par three 16th for quite some time – it looks as good in person as it does online:

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Hole 16: Par 3 (180/164/134/134/113/113)

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The massive green complex for the par three 16th

The tee shot on seventeen brings players back out in to the wide open area used for the course’s first two holes:

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Hole 17: Par 4 (432/427/363/352/260/237)

The fairway on 18 is shared in parts by the first, 17th and 18th holes. Miss this fairway and you’ve got some real accuracy issues.

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Hole 18: Par 5 (536/511/488/473/438/360)

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The approach on 18 heading back to the Mammoth Dunes clubhouse

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A look back from the 18th hole green

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View from the patio of one of the suites in the Mammoth Lodge

The new clubhouse and lodge at Mammoth Dunes was done beautifully, featuring common spaces and private lodging in the rustic farmhouse design style that’s swept the nation stemming from HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”

The Mammoth Bar and clubhouse are now finished and fully operational, but earlier this summer they looked like this:

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View of The Clubhouse from the first hole tee boxes – it has since been completed

One of my favorite things great golf resorts do is to add non-championship golf, golf-related facilities. Keiser created “The Punchbowl,” as well as the 13-hole Bandon Preserve par three course at Bandon Dunes; Paul Schock added the Gil Hanse designed “Horse Course” at The Prairie Club; World Woods has a wild, 2-acre putting green and practice holes; to a lesser degree, Streamsong has a fun par three bye hole.

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If Coore/Crenshaw’s design work on The Sand Box is comparable to their work on Bandon Preserve, visitors to Sand Valley will be in for a real treat

What do these things all have in common? They’re great places to spend extra time and especially initiate camaraderie through one-off competitions (aka gambling).

Sand Valley is finishing their first add-on golf facility: A 17-hole par three track designed by Coore/Crenshaw. The initial plan was to name it “Quick Sand,” but in conversation with Craig Haltom of Oliphant yesterday at Lawsonia it sounds like they’re now leaning toward “The Sand Box.” The short course is one of the things I’m most looking forward to checking out next season, and I don’t think they can go wrong with either name even though I love Quick Sand.

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The sandy area to the far left in this image is the site used for the Sand Box

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Sand Valley GM Glen Murray in the Mammoth Dunes pro shop, then still under construction

Preliminary plans are in the works for a weekend buddies trip to Sand Valley next Spring, and to say I’m looking forward to that trip is an understatement. Now we’ve just gotta make it through another long and cold Wisconsin winter…

Have you made your first pilgrimage to Sand Valley yet? If so, what were your impressions, where do you think the courses will stack up against the country’s best destinations, and what are you most excited for?

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rome, WI

Sand Valley Golf Resort Website