“I took my time getting here but took no time coming back.” It was a cliché and pathetic introduction, made even more awkward by the mask. I regretted it instantly. “You should put that in a story,” the friendly concierge insisted, her smiling eyes dulling the embarrassment. Okay. “Maybe I will,” I mumbled back, still getting used to the communicative restriction. “Thank you.”
It was a good and truthful line.
I’d heard about the wonders of Reynolds Lake Oconee as a resort (and the Ritz-Carlton as a hotel) for literally a decade. I always thought the many water-lined fairways looked cool but never felt like I had to get there. Then Jack Nicklaus went and opened his restored Great Waters course, and I was offered a prestigious “can’t miss” invitation to attend the christening. Now … I had to get there. Meeting Jack Nicklaus, talking to him in person and shaking that famous Golden “paw” – that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
On that late 2019 flight to Atlanta I could think of nothing but what I’d say to Jack when we met. I had a framed 5 Pound Note from the Royal Bank of Scotland in my carryon — an invaluable souvenir I’d picked up at The Old Course — hoping he’d sign it for me. It had been years since I’d asked anyone for an autograph … and Jack was as big of a “someone” as any I’d ever met. Would he think it’s stupid? Would he think I’m stupid?
I shouldn’t have worried. Jack thought it was great. The crisp bill, adorned with his smiling, trophy-holding likeness, lit up his face and gave me a huge sigh of relief. He thanked me for “letting him” sign it. (I did Jack a favor.) Surreal.
Up to that point, the “where” I was hadn’t mattered — at least not nearly as much as the “who” I was there with. But, then, as Jack was whisked off to meet far more important people, I stopped, looked around and took it all in. Suddenly, the place itself very much mattered. Suddenly, Reynolds Lake Oconee was very much amazing.
If you’ve never been to Reynolds Lake Oconee, you’ve never stood on the patio of the Main Lodge at the Ritz-Carlton and looked out over the sprawling lawn, pool complex and beach running along the aforementioned lake. You’ve never had your breath taken away by the sheer beauty. You’ve never had your feet on the soft floor of their plush suites. Suddenly, all of that was very much impressive. It may have taken Jack Nicklaus to get me here, but it wouldn’t take jack to get me back ... and somehow I had to convince everyone else to come here, too.
I didn’t wait long to return — I’d have been there even sooner were it not for C@^!D — and this time I had my son, Dylan, with me in October 2020. His appreciation for everything on the property didn’t just affirm my impressions ... it made me appreciate the entire Reynolds experience even more.
“This place is huge, Dad,” he said — an all too painful reality at that moment, given we had a flat tire and were a speed bump-loaded 15-minute drive from the nearest station with an air pump. This time we were staying in the National Cottages — 3.2 miles from The Ritz — multi-story houses on The National course at Reynolds. Dylan was surfing back and forth across the wooden floor in his socks, checking out all the rooms and watching golfers hack away beyond the porch. “This place is awesome, Dad.”
I love that word — “Dad.” Especially love it when my teenage son uses it fondly. I smiled, pummeled with flashbacks from a decade earlier when I’d taken him on his first big golf trip. That same adventurous little boy was still in there, and that same joy of discovery was still plastered across his face. We’ve played more than 300 courses together across the country since then, and this trip was for his 18th birthday (the next week). Thousands of unforgettable memories ... not a day taken for granted. You never know when it’s going to be your last.
“What do you want to do first?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Eat,” he replied. Yep.
The National Cottages are not only perfect in their capacity to hold golf groups and families, they also happen to sit only a hundred yards or so from the fabulous Tavern (one of 10 “culinary venues” at the resort). The National Tavern overlooks the lake that wraps the Bluff nine of the National Golf Course, adjacent a putting green beyond the Tavern patio that Dylan spent a solid six hours on. Korean BBQ Pork Riblets, Buffalo Shrimp Tater Skins, Wings, Swordfish and Cauliflower Tacos chased down by lemonade, a S’mores Brownie, Crazy Shake and some Cinnamon Doughnuts and we could barely move. Or, I should say, “I” could barely move.
“You can go back to the cottage, Dad. I’m gonna putt some more.” Kids.
Reynolds is an oasis with no surrounding desert. An escape, not just from Atlanta, but from Savannah (3.5 hours), Nashville (5 hours) and Minneapolis (18 hours). A mere 80 miles from Augusta, Georgia, the place sells out Masters week, (and many others) yet the property is so massive it never feels crowded.
I’ve played every course but the Bob Cupp-designed Landing at Reynolds Lake Oconee, and I fondly recall each of those five rounds for different reasons. My Canadian friend and fellow global traveler, Brian Kendall, played Rees Jones’ Oconee course with me at sunset on my inaugural visit. The par-72, 7,158-yard course has five stunning holes that touch Lake Oconee, and four others with stellar lake views. “Rees doesn’t get enough credit for the great work he does,” Brian said, and I agree that you don’t hear enough about his successes. But the Oconee is ranked in Golf Magazine’s “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” and in Golf for Women Magazine’s “50 Best Courses for Women.” So he did get some well-deserved credit here.
My initial round at Reynolds was on The Preserve, a 6,698-yard, par-72, Bob Cupp Design. Another round packed with beauty — aquatic and otherwise — The Preserve gets significant “bonus play” with it’s short, fun “Quick Six” — intended for those just trying to squeeze in a little more golf at day’s end.
The other “Top 100 Course You Can Play” at Reynolds is Jack Nicklaus’ reinvigorated Great Waters. A flashy romp along the water, with a spectacular closing nine, my playing partner (former PGA Tour pro Blake Adams) described it as the best (public nine) in Georgia and “the perfect way to end any day.” (Sharing the course with Jack being an added bonus.) Jack’s renovation project was spearheaded by the meticulous Chad Goetz. Over lunch with he and his lovely wife, Chad covered all the upgrades — a brand-new 8th hole, leveled out 96 tee boxes, switched turf from Bermuda to Zeon Zoysia, and much more. He holds Jack (and Barbara) in the highest esteem, and said, “Jack is so involved as an architect, even still, that you can’t make a change he won’t notice. Literally nothing gets past him.”
What I saw and experienced was … well … spectacular. “I can’t think of another inland course with more water views or waterfront land,” Jack said. I can’t either. After my only birdie of the day, on the stunning 3-par 14th, I told Blake he was lucky to live there. His quick comeback spoke volumes. After jesting they were “lucky to have him” he said, in all seriousness, “I could live pretty much anywhere. I choose here.”
Blake is officially the Director of Player Development at Reynolds. An avid hunter and fisherman, he spends his days “working” at the incredible practice facilities dubbed “The Kingdom.” The Kingdom, with its two TaylorMade club-building Tour Trailers, indoor-outdoor range, 16-acre practice area and personalized instruction at every level, is one of only two such facilities in the entire country — an incredible amenity to both members and guests.
The Creek Club (Private)
Beyond the aforementioned golf courses and the state-of-the-art practice facility, Reynolds Lake Oconee gives its members (and privileged guests) another surreal experience at The Creek Club, a very private and very amazing Jim Engh creation that instantly became one of my 25 favorite rounds ever played. Jim Engh’s designs aren’t for everyone, but they are very much for me, and I’ll gladly double my praise for his work to compensate for the “ungrateful.”
This particular masterpiece was filled with shaping and elevation you can’t imagine, intrigue I can’t describe and green complexes I can’t possibly forget. From the driving range to the very last tee, you feel like you’re in your own world. It’s one of the rare private courses where homes are there but never intrude, and where the features on the course are so distracting you don’t notice much off the course.
“Do you enjoy Engh’s courses?” the head pro, Jose Lopez, asked me, with zero clue he was stepping on one of my “topical land mines.”
Jose may or may not have taken a giant step backward just before my exuberance exploded. “Jim Engh and Mike Devries are the most underappreciated architects alive today. Jim is the closest living equivalent to Mike Strantz — another genius — and I wish more than anything we had an Engh design close to my place.”
“Sooo … yes?” Jose replied with a smile insinuating that a one-word answer would have sufficed.
“Yes.” Absolutely, yes.
I can understand why the golfer would never want to leave Reynolds Lake Oconee. I can also understand why the average kid (boy or girl) and person (man or woman) would never want to leave the Ritz-Carlton. The aerial view of the hotel property — while amazing — doesn’t remotely reveal the true splendor of a stay. Beyond the marina, the playground, the Spa, the fitness facilities, the awarded and assorted restaurants, plush and spacious rooms, trails and land-water activities galore, there’s a priceless peace and calm you pay a lot for … but would gladly ante up more.
My favorite moments at Reynolds came in the infinity pool, under the stars, on a perfectly calm, crystal-clear, night. It was my last night there, the night that always hits you with those “don’t want to go” pangs. I was feeling them hard. With apologies to Iowa, Kevin Costner and baseball players, as a golfer the thought did cross my mind, “Man … is this heaven?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Dylan answered it anyway.
“All it needs is a Waffle House.”
(Face palm emoji) Seriously … Kids.