A classic, reborn

Great Waters is rebuilding from the ground up to modernize its Jack Nicklaus design.

Jack Nicklaus calls it “spectacular.”

In fact, in an interview recently taped at Lake Oconee, he uses the word “spectacular” four times. He’s talking about the Great Waters golf course, a course he designed that opened with a bang in 1992, like lightening escaping from a bottle.

It was “spectacular” then. It will remain “spectacular” now, thanks to the comprehensive renovations currently underway.

“Spectacular’s a pretty good word for the golf course,” Nicklaus says.

Great Waters, says Chad Goetz, a design associate with the Nicklaus Design Group and the man overseeing the renovation project, “is one of Jack’s most renowned courses in his portfolio.”

This portfolio includes 415 golf courses in 45 countries and 39 states with approximately 70 of those designs ranked in various national and international top course lists. In fact, more than 145 Nicklaus courses have been the stage for more than 900 professional golf tournaments worldwide.

And this is before MetLife agreed to invest in miles of new irrigation pipe, roughly 104 acres of new turf, including 37 acres of Zeon Zoysia sod for the fairways and 47 acres of TifTuf Bermuda sod for the rough. Reworked greens at Great Waters will shimmer with a new batch of TifEagle Bermudagrass.

Since June of last year, workers at the golf course have taken a three-phase approach to completing the renovations, slated for fall of this year. Phase one began with a comprehensive irrigation project that replaced aging infrastructure and included re-working drainage areas.

“Irrigation systems get old. Grass needs to be refreshed. Drainage needs to be refreshed… We were called in to do that,” says Nicklaus.

Along with the massive irrigation project, mounds of earth have been moved or shifted. Cliff Hamilton, a renowned “golf course shaper” who controls an earth mover like Leonardo handled a paint brush, says when he first walked onto the tee box at the 11th hole at Great Waters to consult with the Nicklaus team and Reynolds Vice President of Agronomy Lane Singleton, he topped the hill leading to the tee box and said. “Wow, what a golf hole. Why are we doing anything to change this golf hole?” He explains that Nicklaus wanted to adjust the tees to increase visibility to the fairway, which he wanted to change as well. “We lowered the fairway a good bit to see water in front of the green, says Hamilton.”

“Great Waters wanted to re-do the golf course to get it to a modern level,” says Nicklaus.

Modern means longer, (the course will be stretched from 7,000 total yards to roughly 7,450 yards) and, Nicklaus says, it means adding “variety” to the heralded design.

“As far as the ball goes today, you have to create more variety, otherwise it becomes boring.” Adding an additional set of forward tees playing to 4,500 yards provides options for all skill levels.

Early significant changes included trimming the fairway on number 11 “to open up the views and vistas from the tee,” says Singleton. On the par 4, 13th hole, the fairway has also been trimmed down and the green has been shifted toward the lake. On 15, bunkers have been added around the green to provide additional strategy,” says Singleton.

On the 9th hole, the first on the course to bring Lake Oconee into play, new changes will bring new options.

“Number 9, if you stood on the tee, you couldn’t really see the water in front of the green,” explains Singleton. “Now… we bit the bullet and actually cut  nearly 20 feet of dirt out of that fairway to drop it down. That’s a lot of dirt.  An area left of the golf hole was the recipient of all this fill dirt. Now when you stand on the tee, you want to say, ‘Okay, do I want to hit a driver or do I want to maybe play a three-wood and not take a chance on reaching the water.’ I’ve got the opportunity to play out in the fairway, challenge the first bunker, challenge the second bunker… each time that you challenge something and you’re successful, you will be rewarded with an easier shot into the green. That’s what we’re trying to do with nine.”

Overall, the concept was to take the original bones of the beautiful tract and allow Lake Oconee and the wooded landscapes a chance to breathe new life into the grand dame.

“In essence we are building a brand new golf course here… this is a big project,” says Goetz. “The idea is to just kind of distill the essence of the golf course and simplify it as much as we can. The golf course is not the star, necessarily, of the site. It’s the beautiful piece of land and Lake Oconee… we want something that fits in harmony.”

“Our desire is to keep the course true to Mr. Nicklaus’ original vision while modernizing the course where appropriate – and prudent – and adding length where available,” says Rabun Neal, president of Reynolds Lake Oconee.

So, in effect, the mystique of Great Waters will remain but members and the golfing public will have a new course to enjoy.

“This is a very comprehensive renovation,” says Singleton. “We will essentially have a brand new golf course. There is no stone unturned on this renovation. Everything from the ground up will be rebuilt.”

In January of this year, Nicklaus was back on the course with Goetz reviewing the scope of the project and progress. The master designer and 18 major champion-winning golfer was pleased. As he toured the project in an all-terrain vehicle, he smiled.

“Any time you come back and get a second bite on the apple, it’s sweet,” he says.

“I think it’s great. I’m happy.”

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