Attending the Masters is no one-day affair. It is something worth basking in, taking off a week off work for, preparing yourself mentally, and getting some golf in along the way. The travel bags pouring out of the oversized baggage claim area at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport will show you that plenty of others are doing the same thing.
The hardest part, unsurprisingly, is getting a Masters badge. But if you’ve figured that part out, the golf will come easy, and the golf will be good. Your first stop is about 80 minutes east of Atlanta on the sprawling, winding shoreline of Lake Oconee.
Reynolds Lake Oconee: Great Waters course
LPGA fans will have heard of Great Waters before. The course played host to the best female golfers in the world at the Drive On Championship last fall. Jack Nicklaus originally designed Great Waters in 1992 and completed a restoration in 2019, in time for its LPGA showcase. (Nicklaus Design is an affiliate company of GOLF.com.)
October, as they learned, is a great time to visit Georgia. But April might be even better.
The Great Waters course is one of six courses at Reynolds Lake Oconee, so if you’d like to spend more than just one day there, be our guest. Great Waters is just the one with unmatched scenery, and is ranked No. 87 in GOLF’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play.
Tipping out beyond 7,400 yards, the course can play as an absolute bear (as the Golden Bear tee markers will remind you). The hilly terrain is best traversed in a cart, which might make the length a bit easier to manage. But once you pass through the brutish first eight holes, the scenic 9th serves as the table-setter for everything that follows, bringing you right up next to Lake Oconee and even asking you to hit an approach over the water.
Basically the entire back nine features lakeside golf holes, punctuated by the finishing stretch of 16, 17 and 18 which all present forced carries over water. Hopefully your ball-striking is on point! It’s no wonder that stretch was a favorite for spectators during the LPGA event.
Best hole on property: 11, par-4, 242-351 yards
The driveable par-4 plays entirely downhill, and with the most precise tee shot you can find yourself putting for eagle. Unfortunately, that eagle putt might be 150 feet long. That’s what my partner Dylan Dethier ran into with the back left hole location set up the day we played (check out the video below for evidence). His tee shot came to rest on the putting surface some 52 yards from the pin. His ensuing eagle putt traveled more than 100 feet, and was still woefully short of his target.
The back of the green offers a bit of a backstop, so those who take the more risk-averse play off the tee can be rewarded with a birdie look after an accurate wedge shot. But the green basically runs perpendicular to the fairway, so there is nothing more important than distance control. The 11th is an architect’s dream, but it of course leads to backups on the tee. Everyone thinks they can drive it!
Located just north of Augusta in Evans, Ga., Champions Retreat was first made famous by the champions themselves — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. The Big Three each designed a nine-hole layout at Champions; the story goes that they drew straws during the 1999 Champions Dinner at Augusta National for their favorite slice of the property.
Upon first glance, one would think that Palmer won, with the scenic Savannah River abutting several of his holes, and the Little River tucked nicely a couple hundred hards inland. While Arnie’s nine (Island) sure is delightful, it’s the Nicklaus nine (Bluff) that is probably the best land for a golf course. Jack’s nine goes downhill, then uphill, then downhill, back up, then down again. There’s nothing comfortable about the shots he’s demanding of you, but the difference in elevation offers a relentless, stimulating challenge.
Nowadays, the people who make this place famous are the best female amateurs in the world, playing the first two rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. They play the Palmer-Nicklaus routing during those opening rounds. And for those looking to make the visit in 2022, you’ll be putting on brand new Tif-Eagle bermudagrass greens, a renovation that will be finalized later this year.
While the course is actually private most of the year, it is open to the public during Masters week. They’re laying out a tantalizing offer: Visit, rent out one of the lavish cottages and play some great golf while enjoying a true “retreat” from the main party taking place at Augusta National. They’ll even provide transportation to the event and back.
Best hole on property: par-4 4th (Island Course), 321-453 yards
This hole best exemplifies Palmer working with the land he chose. The tee shot carries over a marshy lowland area out onto a gigantic fairway. The left side features an enormous tree that works as a great target to work a left-to-right shot off. Just don’t hit it too good and end up too close.
The edges of this hole blend seamlessly into the forest on the right and the Savannah River on the left. One can imagine Palmer saying, “Let’s bring a hole right up next to the water, flirt with it, and then back off.” It’s quite the scene to look at and even more fun to play.