GREENSBORO, GEORGIA | You don’t get this kind of reaction often, even at some posh and sporty places. Only a handful of players in the field at the hastily created Drive On Championship had ever seen Reynolds Lake Oconee, the 35-year-old lakefront development carved out of rural Georgia farmland between Atlanta and Augusta. Gerina Piller, Ryann O’Toole and Jackie Stoelting had visited six years ago for one of Golf Channel’s Big Break events. And one or two of the late additions to the 109-player event had seen the property. But other than that, the Great Waters Course and all that surrounds it was a surprise. Even Jillian Hollis, who went to school at the University of Georgia 45 minutes up the road, and Mariah Stackhouse, who grew up and still lives in the Atlanta area, had never made it out to Reynolds.
Now, they all want to come back, and not just as a one-off replacement venue.
“What do we have to do to get a regular event out here?” Katherine Kirk asked some friends Friday evening as she folded a piece of pizza she’d picked up from a nearby Mellow Mushroom (eating outdoors and remaining socially distant). “It’s great. I mean every part of it. The golf course, the hotel, the lake, the community. This is the kind of place we should be playing every year.”
That theme grew louder each day. Stacy Lewis floated the idea of Reynolds hosting a Bing Crosby-type pro-am event on three of its six courses. And Jerry Foltz, who played the Oconee Course on Saturday morning and the National Course before going to work for Golf Channel on Sunday, said, “You could have the largest field of the year here and play the first two rounds on (Great Waters and Oconee) and then move to Great Waters after the cut. It’d be one of the best events of the year. Everybody would come.”
“It's honestly a pleasant surprise,” Mel Reid said. “I haven't been in this area ever. But it's somewhere I would come back, I want to see, even for like a couple of days of vacation. It's just cool to see the bay with all the boats. Obviously, we don't have spectators, but we feel like we do. That's an added bonus and very pretty to walk and it's just honestly a pleasure to play.”
The boats were a bonus. Residents of Reynolds, including LPGA commissioner Mike Whan who has a second home near the Ritz-Carlton, meandered out into their yards if they lived on the course and brought their boats into the coves around the back nine to watch the live golf. As many as 50 boats and a dozen kayaks provided the largest gallery the LPGA Tour has experienced since the season restart. They blew air horns for birdies and whooped and cheered from the water.
“I love it. It’s like Old Waverly, with a lake and some other cool stuff to do.”
Reynolds Lake Oconee management encouraged the flotilla, putting up a large television screen on a dock behind the clubhouse that could only be seen from the lake. Even some players got into the act. On Saturday afternoon, Kelly Tan finished early and went out on the lake with a Reynolds resident, a local weatherman named David Chandley. “Kelly kept saying, ‘Blow the horn,’ ” when there was a birdie, Chandley said.
“It was amazing,” said Bianca Pagdanganan, the long-hitting rookie from the Philippines who played herself into the final threesome on Sunday. “As a rookie I haven’t seen a lot of spectators around. That was probably the most I've seen. It looks a lot cooler because they're on boats. Definitely getting some claps, it feels nice to have people come out and watch.”
Lydia Ko, who plays better when she can engage with fans, said, “You know, since quarantine we haven't had any fans, so it's nice here, especially on the back nine by the water. A lot of these people with their boats out clapping for us. It's always nice to kind of feel like we're playing in front of crowds again.”
Tourney winner Ally McDonald obviously wants to come back. “I love it,” she said of the entire Reynolds Lake Oconee experience. “It’s like Old Waverly (her home club in Mississippi) with a lake and some other cool stuff to do.”
The other cool stuff is one of the reasons players are so high on a return to Reynolds. McDonald, Kirk and Amy Olson visited the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds and shot clays with a guide on Wednesday. “I’m left-eye dominant,” McDonald said. “So (the guide) was a big help in telling me to squint or even close my left eye.” For those who don’t know, right-handed people who are left-eye dominant are naturally good putters but can’t shoot moving targets worth a darn – one of the better and more relaxing tips McDonald got during the week.
“It’s about the whole place,” Jim Gallagher Jr., who also made his first trip to Reynolds, said of the appeal. “It’s like when (the PGA Tour) played at Callaway Gardens. That was a good golf course, but it was a getaway. Players took their families. It was a working vacation.”
Working vacation is what the pandemic has been for many of the members at Reynolds Lake Oconee for the past eight months. They would love to share their home with the best women golfers in the world every year once things return to normal. And if this year was any indication, none of those players would turn the invitation down.
Top photo: María Fassi, Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford walk the 13th fairway at Reynolds Lake Oconee.