When you’re sick or just not feeling well, what do you do? You go to the doctor. After yesterday’s fiasco at the National, my golf game wasn’t just sick. It was on life support. Actually, it had expired. My playing partners were too kind to state the obvious: “Your golf game is DOA, pards.”
And so I did what any sensible media guy, or any embattled Golf Road Warrior, would do at a classy full-service operation like Reynolds Plantation. I prostrated myself before the powers-that-be and asked for help. It was given, but there was a condition: Rise early in darkness, be as chipper as the chirping birds, and get thee to the Golf Academy by 7:30 a.m., there to meet with Rob Bowser, the lead staff instructor.
Bowser sized me up pretty quickly. Here, I’m sure he thought, is a desperate golf/travel writer on the back nine of life looking for a quick fix. After a brief interview and a few half-wedge shots. Bowser had me diagnosed. It was all about swing path. Mine was faulty. Rob set up a bunch of props—a stick in the ground with a puff ball at one end was one—designed to get me swinging from the inside on my downswing. My brain got it, but my body, with its ingrained bad habits, was slower to respond. But I did march off to the first tee on the Oconee Course with a tad more confidence than I had previously.
Thanks to the ministrations of Mark Lammi, VP of Golf at Reynolds Plantation, who picked up where Rob left off, I started hitting more solid shots. And what a place to make those shots.
The Oconee, named for the lake it visits at a few holes, was built 10 years ago by Rees Jones. While known as the “Open Doctor” for his remodeling work at vintage courses to prepare them for major competitions, Jones’s original designs are also noteworthy. Rees strives for a classic, traditional presentation, and he achieves it here.
While not unaware of course aesthetics and their subliminal impact on a golfer, Jones is all about risk/reward options for experts and plenty of forgiveness for players of lesser attainment. The rolling fairways are broad. They are not overdressed with bunkers. Water comes into play at nine holes, but it can be circumvented in most cases. The greens, surfaced in bentgrass, are large, firm and fast. They’re among the finest I have putted in the Southeast.
The idea on the Oconee is to make time on the front nine. The longer, tougher back nine builds to a climax at the final three holes, a solid par 5 bookended by two of the longer and more challenging par 4’s on the course.
I found the collection of par 3’s on the Oconee to be exceptional. My favorite was the fifth, which plays from an elevated tee over the corner of a pond to a skewed green defended fore and aft by bunkers. Three of the seven tees on this hole are placed well to the left, so that the water is not in play for higher handicappers.
On the back nine, Jones built a superb pair of yin-yang par 3’s. The 13th has one of the largest bunkers I’ve ever seen pushed up to the front of the perched green, while the 15th, set on a natural peninsula, is blessed and cursed by an abundance of water, with inlets of Lake Oconee in play in front of and behind the green.
Guests of The Ritz-Carlton Lodge have a pretty sweet deal. The Oconee Course is their special, dedicated playground. Listen up, you hotel guests who love the game but play infrequently: the key to enjoyment is selecting the correct set of tees for your ability level. There’s a “hard par, easy bogey” dynamic at work on the Oconee, a concept borrowed by Rees from his dad, Robert Trent Jones.
Rees gets the last word on this beautiful layout. “We have uncovered a dramatic golf course without changing a lot of what we found when we got here,” he said when work was completed in 2002. Nips and tucks were made, and a few rocky watercourses were created to spice up a few fairways, but from start to finish the Oconee Course plants a big wet kiss on Mother Nature.