Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee -- It just might get (a little) better than this

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Jeffrey A. Rendall

GREENSBORO, GA – If you’re set to play Great Waters and visiting Reynolds Lake Oconee for the first time you’ll quickly gather the course is located somewhat apart from the main resort accommodations and amenities.

In fact, on the drive over to Great Waters the thought might cross your mind that you’re lost. Pay close attention to the map and bank for another twenty or so minutes to reach the facility. Upon driving onto the property, you won’t see the lake either, only residences and quite a healthy representation of trees…are we in the wrong spot?

Every tee on the par three 17th must shoot over water. That's what the course is known for, right?

Don’t be deterred. First impressions aren’t always correct and that’s never been truer than for Great Waters, a golf course which many consider the “signature” layout at Reynolds Lake Oconee. The Jack Nicklaus-designed classic opened in 1992, the second golf course constructed along the shores of beautiful Lake Oconee (the Bob Cupp inspired The Landing was the first to open in 1986).

Again, if you’re not familiar with the course the opening sequence of holes could leave lingering doubts as to the “Great Waters” theme as well. Granted there’s a pond near the green of the par five second hole and a stream flows serenely on holes four, five and six (near the tee), but it’s not until reaching the challenging par four ninth that you’ll truly understand how Great Waters gets its name.

Many golf courses offer different settings and personalities on their front and back nines but Great Waters takes the concept to the extreme. The parkland-style front is a quiet and pleasant journey through mature trees with the usual Jack Nicklaus strategy creatively woven into the holes – but the back nine is where Great Waters truly shines.

The par four 5th hole is rated the most difficult on the outward nine. With the stone wall and creek in front you can understand why.

By my count the final eight holes have some connection to Lake Oconee though the closing sequence does so most dramatically.

One can only imagine how impressed the Nicklaus folks must have been upon seeing the land for the first time. Longtime Nicklaus Design Associate Jim Lipe was with Jack before Great Waters came to be and he recalled they couldn’t help but appreciate the panorama of what they saw.

“The site had nice topography, elevation change and movement, as well as beautiful mature trees.  On the perimeter of the site, we had the Lake Oconee amenity, and we worked the routing to touch on the lake at the end of both nines. It was a very nice design opportunity,” Lipe remembered.

Flowering trees provide the backdrop to the par four 15th hole. No bunkers to contend with but mounds on the left will keep you honest.

True, there is a bit of elevation change on Great Waters but the topographical variation is much less noticeable than on the other Reynolds courses, especially The Oconee and The National.

It goes without saying Nicklaus has played golf all over the world and seen everything there is to see in terms of variety of settings and golf course design characteristics. I can’t say for sure but with Reynolds Lake Oconee’s close proximity to Augusta National (a little over an hour to the east) the region must hold a special place in Jack’s heart. So many great Nicklaus memories are associated with the northern half of Georgia – it surely must have stood out in the designer’s mind when dreaming up the holes.

With such a beautiful and natural site the Nicklaus team took great care to preserve the environment surrounding the links too. Again, Lipe explained, “There were a couple of creeks on the site, and of course, Lake Oconee that we had to monitor and filter any/all runoff during the construction process.

The green of the par four 9th is perched right on the edge of Lake Oconee. Bailout to the left if need be.

“I don’t recall specifically but there might have been a protected species or two, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, that we had to work around in the clearing process, but other than that Great Waters was pretty much like other projects in that type of environment.

“But we are always cognizant and highly protective of any natural species or unique environmental situation, and it is simply part of the process. We don’t call them environmental concerns or restrictions, but environmental opportunities. Our goal through the design and development process is to enhance the natural environment, whenever possible.”

Having played a decent sample of Nicklaus courses I’ll testify to the truth of Lipe’s statement. Nicklaus possesses a keen eye for features that add interest and variety to his layouts and makes no attempt to hide the grand landscapes behind gimmicks and goofy excesses. The bunkering on his courses always forces a player to consider shot types and shapes prior to pulling the trigger. Jack’s vast knowledge of golf history often shows up in his greens too.

The 186-yard par three 14th hole hugs the lake. Hit your shot, enjoy the scenery.

Sometimes playing away from the flag stick is the smart choice on Jack’s greens in order to use slopes to steer the ball towards the hole. True, all golf architects concentrate intensely on strategy but for some reason Nicklaus layouts always stand out.

Needless to say in order to score well at Great Waters you must be familiar with the course to understand the proper play at all times.

Lipe says Great Waters was envisioned to be the type of layout that encourages repetitive play. “As I recall, Great Waters was, at first, intended to be a private golf course with tournament aspirations—perhaps not a PGA TOUR or professional event, simply due to the location of the course, but the potential for some top amateur events.

The short par five 2nd hole offers your first glimpse of water on the course, but still fits in nicely with the parkland theme of the front nine.

“The desire by the ownership was for a championship level golf course.

“And as Jack has always done, he designed the golf course for those who will play the layout for 51 weeks of the year, not for how it might be used for one week out of the year. If he can create a course with beautiful aesthetics, balance, variety, and great strategy and shot values, he has accomplished a design that accommodates the resort player, the club member, the average player and the best golfers.”

With all the water worked into the course design you might surmise it would be difficult for resort duffers to navigate. Not true. Even on the holes requiring modest water carries there’s a bailout option for the faint of heart. Meanwhile, the parkland holes on the front nine are framed by trees – but there’s still adequate room to maneuver and plan your shots; and as is true with all the courses at Reynolds you can usually play a shot out of the woods if you hit it in there.

The view from the tee of the short par four 11th hole. Lots of options on how to play the hole and a great view too.

The fairway bunkering is well-placed and not too deep. Should you find yourself in the sand it’s the typical half-shot penalty, not the endless frustration of surrendering an opportunity to shoot for the green. Greenside bunkering keeps you honest from the fairway but isn’t so deep as to be penal.

Green complexes are surrounded with shaved-to-fairway height chipping areas which provide numerous options to play shots – including the flat stick, a crucial weapon in every average player’s arsenal.

The course could certainly be setup to play extremely difficult; but for those weeks of the year where members and resort guests are the stars you can enjoy the round without feeling beat up.

The second shot on the par four 7th hole plays slightly uphill, meaning the front bunker probably sees a lot of action.

All of the courses at Reynolds Lake Oconee have undergone renovations at various times and Great Waters is no different. The course is set to close in June (2018) and the Nicklaus crew will take over to tweak Great Waters so as to bring it up to modern standards.

Nicklaus Design Associate Chad Goetz will oversee the operations. “We are very excited about the opportunity to return to Great Waters. Already a wonderful course with great history and acclaim, Jack is taking a sympathetic approach to the renovation, in order to retain the character of his original design work.

“We will be modernizing the course in various ways, including adding length in places to make the course relevant again for better players.

The 457-yard, par four 16th hole is rated the hardest hole on the back nine. Avoid the lake and you will have a decent chance to pull off a par.

“But at the same time, we will be adding a new set of forward tees to allow members and guests more options to tee it forward and enjoy their round. Jack is also taking advantage of the renovation to enhance the playability on a handful of holes, while adding to the overall beauty of the course. Finally, there will be numerous technical improvements that golfers may not notice, but these enhancements will help to improve year-round playing conditions and make the maintenance more efficient.”

Players don’t often appreciate the little engineering features that make golf courses what they are. Without proper drainage, for example, golf holes would be practically unnavigable. We’ve all seen courses with puddles in the bunkers and standing water in the fairways. It may be an inconvenience to not be able to play a course for a period of time during renovation – but it’s worth it.

According to the press release from Reynolds Lake Oconee, Great Waters will “will receive a total turf replacement, new greens, bunkers, tees, water features, and irrigation systems, as well as cart path replacement.  Drainage and other elements of the course’s infrastructure, plus an assessment of the trees, and the practice facility are included in this comprehensive reinvention of the community’s premier golf course.  The Nicklaus layout has stood the test of time and will remain loyal to the original design.

The tip sheet indicates the downhill par three 4th hole plays shorter than the listed yardage. It had better; missing short is not an option here.

“Work is to begin in June 2018 with an expected re-opening in Fall 2019.  This restoration is the latest in an ever-widening list of improvements made to the golf courses, clubhouses and other facilities since MetLife’s investment in Reynolds Lake Oconee in 2012.”

As I mentioned all of the Reynolds courses have been renovated and all are in excellent condition. Great Waters’ greens had just been aerated prior to our playing there in August – but I’m guessing they’re in tip top condition most of the year. After the Nicklaus team completes its work I’m sure Great Waters will be as good as it’s ever been and better in many ways.

The Reynolds website describes the highlight holes as, “the par four fifth, where a creek crisscrosses the fairway and cuts in front of the green; a stone wall and the Nicklaus Bridge add to the hole’s splendor. The gorgeous ninth is the first of the lake holes, the water edging in along the right side of the green.

From behind the flag of the par five finishing hole, a great risk-reward opportunity to leave Great Waters with a smile.

“The back nine is a completely different experience, as the final eight holes are on Lake Oconee. Playing on the lake-encircled peninsula, the back-nine holes include the short par-4 11th, where the green juts into the lake, causing left-side hole locations to make the flagstick appear to be floating. The par-3 14th is one of the most photographed holes in the Southeast, its green sitting along the Lake Oconee shoreline.”

On nice days you share the surroundings with folks taking advantage of the water sports on Lake Oconee. It’s no exaggeration to say Great Waters is one of the best golf settings you’ll find anywhere. No wonder Jack Nicklaus thinks so highly of it.

As indicated above Great Waters will be going away for a while; but when it returns, be ready for the raves from every golf publication of note. It just goes to show, it really can get (a little) better than this.

Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee
Great Waters Dr.
Greensboro, GA  30642

Phone: (706) 485-0235


Course Designer: Jack Nicklaus

Course Statistics:
            Tees     Rating Slope               Yards
            One     74.1     140                  7,073
            Two     72.0     135                  6,581
            Three   69.7     131                  6,096   75.4/139 (L)
            Four     67.8     124                  5,667   72.8/134 (L)
            Five     70.2     128                  5,107


Consult the website for closing/opening dates for Great Waters.

Helpful information

Already recognized among the “25 Best Golf Communities in North America” by GOLF Magazine, Reynolds Lake Oconee is not only fine-tuning one of its world-class golf courses, but is enhancing its long-established reputation as an outstanding place to live.

Reynolds Lake Oconee has 117 holes of golf, all designed by legendary golf architects, including Nicklaus, Rees Jones and Tom Fazio. In addition to golf, the Reynolds community offers a wide array of recreational opportunities along the more than 350 miles of Lake Oconee shoreline.
Vacation guests at Reynolds can choose from individual cottages within the private gates, while enjoying a variety of amenities. Accommodations also are available at The Ritz-Carlton.  A variety of vacation packages are available.

For additional information contact Reynolds Plantation Properties at (800) 800-5250, or visit 

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