When multi-course facilities open under the ownership of one party, the process can often be analogous to a theatrical play. In the opening act the introductions are made - the storyline is fresh - the excitement of what will be clear. But sustaining interest can be a challenge, and many golf developments that started with fresh promise during the boom in golf course development in America at the end of the 20th century faced the ice cold reality that significant resources would be needed in order to maintain the momentum that started originally.
Many of the multi-course facilities soon realised the golfing population, which seemed like a never ending cascade similar to a waterfall, was no longer providing the same flow. The pressures to maintain a competitive edge would mean a re-examination of what the focus would be. Being able to attract a new audience - the Millennials - would mean understanding a new wave of potential customers with their own specific needs and expectations.
When Reynolds Plantation first opened in 1988, the hope was that the family-owned property would appeal to a traditional golf market. Those who saw the location, roughly halfway between Atlanta and Augusta situated on 12,000 acres of land, as the perfect vehicle to match a desire to be away from the constant motion of living, but still close enough to pick and choose the moments when to re-engage with the varied elements provided by the Atlanta metro area no more than 70 miles west.
The spark Reynolds Plantation started escalated rapidly when the second course - called Great Waters - opened in 1992. The Jack Nicklaus design accelerated interest and the course was well received in providing a sufficient challenge, but not the overly demanding type courses that were being built at a feverish pace throughout the States.
The diversification of courses continued in the years ahead. In 1997 another 18-hole layout called The National opened through the handiwork of architect Tom Fazio in 1997. Eventually in 2000, a 3rd nine was added, also by Fazio, called the Cove, which provided 27 distinct holes with the two other nines called The Bluff and The Ridge.
A good part of that momentum came from a growing real estate market. More and more golfers saw the wisdom in having the best of all worlds and, instead of simply playing only at certain times of the year, opted to make Reynolds Plantation their permanent home.
Just two years after The Cove Nine was added, another 18-hole layout called Oconee opened in 2002. The design from Rees Jones provided yet another distinctive layout to mesh with the other golf options at the facility.
Given the surge in golf, the family ownership at Reynolds purchased the former Port Armour Golf Club in 2005 and changed its named to The Landing. The Bob Cupp course was the first golf course built on Lake Oconee in 1986. The final golf addition came in 2007 when the facility opted to include a private membership club on property, called The Creek Club, with architect Jim Engh doing the design.
In that time frame, Reynolds Plantation became the focal point for wide range of key golf events at the local, state and national levels.
Shortly thereafter, The Great Recession impacted America and all corners of the globe near the end of ‘07 and continuing through ‘09 . The real estate market collapsed and related golf properties associated with such efforts came under great strain. Many simply folded completely and went out of business. Others were considerably scaled back. The impact of The Great Recession is still an ongoing matter for many in the golf industry.
Assumptions made in the 1990’s where the marriage of real estate and golf would continue indefinitely were shattered. Reynolds went into receivership. The future, if one could call it that, seemed bleak. Fortunately, in August of 2012 the entire property was purchased by Met Life, a New York-based insurance company from the Reynolds family. Within two years, a full-scale effort was underway to bring back to peak form the quality of the 117-holes on property along with the on-site Ritz-Carlton Lodge - a sumptuous spot for guests to fully enjoy the luxuries provided with upgraded rooms, top tier meals and related amenities.
The goal for Reynolds Lake Oconee - since rebranded - is to compete against the very best total golf communities in the United States. The main rival regionally being Pinehurst in North Carolina. The golf dimension is certainly bolstered by the Reynolds Kingdom of Golf: a first-class club-fitting and teaching operation presented by TaylorMade. Charlie King, an acclaimed golf professional leads a highly competent staff in being able to thoroughly fit and teach those looking to bolster their golf efforts. The 16-acre campus also includes a 7,500 square-foot indoor facility and has a slew of putting greens and practice targets for golfers to practise on. You might just find it hard to leave and actually play one of the courses.
The renaissance of Reynold Lake Oconee has shown a clear pathway out of what looked like certain gloom and doom. However, the stakes for all mega-course facilities is still a tall and tough task to overcome. The American golf market is clearly in a shifting pattern. The once dependable Baby Boomers are now aging out and playing far less.
Building connections are needed to target a newer younger audience that sees golf as a part of their lifestyle menu, but not the only dimension. This newer audience is more sophisticated, with clear expectations on how to win and maintain their loyalty. Reynolds Lake Oconee is blessed with a superb location that intersects land and water together in a magnificent manner. The realisation of what is needed in today’s marketplace is happening there - understanding the past pitfalls - yet creating a bridge to a new paradigm for the 21st century. What could have been a clear show stopper is now moving into its third act.
How Good is the Golf?
With 117-holes there is no doubt plenty of golf to sample at Reynolds Lake Oconee. It is important to point out The Creek Club is private and accessible only through a member. The Jim Engh design is clearly edgy, with land forms bold in their overall presentation. Traditionalists may not be enamoured with them but the shot-making requirements are specific and offer numerous risk/reward elements when playing. The ending par-5 with its three distinct greens is certainly innovative. If one can get the opportunity it is certainly worth playing.
The Great Waters course was the layout that pushed the facility to national awareness. The Nicklaus design is testing, but never overbearing. The ending holes rightly receive plenty of attention given their placement on the lake. But I see the par-4 5th as a clear winner given its interior design and the brilliant short par-4 11th as ones you will remember too.
The 27-hole Fazio layout at The National is a good counterpoint. The land the holes occupy is often rolling and, as befitting a Fazio course, eye-catching. While all three nines are good, I recommend playing the combination of The Cove and The Bluff for their respective beauty and challenge.
The Rees Jones layout at Oconee is a demanding layout and a top tier one. Although not stated on the actual scorecard, the back tees can bring the layout to over 7,200 yards. The need for consistent shot-making is clearly present with the likes of the par-4 16th and par-4 18th bringing the round to a grand climax.
Bob Cupp did a solid effort in providing playability at both The Landing and The Preserve. They are fun to play but a clear step or two behind the others.
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