EATONTON, GA - Golf course architects frequently speak of working with the land and building courses that fit their environment. Most will refer to any particular design as an expression of the earth, say that's what the property gave them to work with.
Then you see it and realize the course is more an expression of the architect and his machines than it is nature.
The fact is that very few architects can resist putting their fingerprints all over a golf course, whether intentionally or not. It's fashionable to talk of letting the land dictate the course but far too often, when the end product is realized, such rhetoric is exposed as just that: design-speak.
Only when a course such as The Golf Club at Cuscowilla in Eatonton, GA, is encountered does the word "natural" have any real meaning.
It comes as no surprise that the architectural team captained by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw could build Cuscowilla in such an understated manner. Coming off the unparalleled success of the Sand Hills Golf Club, widely recognized at the best golf course created since the 1930's, the eye of Coore & Crenshaw was well practiced in identifying great holes and unearthing them from the land, moving only microscopic amounts of earth in the process.
To be sure, the property of Cuscowilla, located on the shores of Lake Oconee just south of Reynolds Plantation in central Georgia, contributes mightily to the course's personality. Coore & Crenshaw might argue that the 600 acres of sleepy meadow, pine groves, rippling hills, and lakefront shoreline deserves complete credit. Yet as wonderful as the site is Cuscowilla is not from the best piece of land to come available in the last several decades: it is equally the architects' honest and gentle touch that is responsible for making this what is now Golf Week's 10th best course in America built since 1960. Make no mistake, few if any fellow architects on the same site would have the sense to leave well enough alone.
Play began at Cuscowilla in 1997 and after five full years, few courses in the South can compare for serenity, naturalness, and diversity of holes. Cuscowilla is one of the lovely, quiet places in golf, a setting made undoubtedly more inspiring because of what wasn't done rather than what was. It could have easily been spoiled by someone too greedy or less observant.
According to Sales and Marketing Manager Barbara Witt, the owners, German entrepreneurs Heinz Nathe, Rolf Witt, and Pete Bailey, sought to create a naturalistic "heaven on earth" retreat for quiet living with a golf course that would compare to the finest locations with which they were familiar. They eventually settled on the expansive Eatonton property in the mid-1990's and, given their goals, didn't wait long before contacting Coore & Crenshaw.
Bill Coore remembers being impressed with the property on his first walk through. "It was a combination of open pastures and shoreline and an old tree nursery," he says. "It really was an attractive piece of property (and) it looked like it was quite suited to golf."
The architects soon went to work assembling the routing, and the progression of holes they discovered is nothing short of brilliant.
Cuscowilla roams over the property, unfolding to it in curious, purposeful movements. While much of its beauty is inherited, its inspiration is also rooted in how the routing artfully connects the various topographies of the property, encompassing all of it in stride. It never remains in one place for too long but rather follows the various forms as if continually lured, from the bright meadow to the linear pine orchards, up slopes and down dales, kissing the shore of Lake Oconee and then climbing back though it all again.
Bill Coore explains: "We wanted some of the open holes. We wanted holes in the trees. We wanted holes that go up and over hills and we wanted holes that would play on the side hills and holes that would play through the valley - as much variety as possible."
"Once we settled on where some of the holes were going, it then became pretty much a process of allowing the land to guide us where the others were going."
Imbedded in the routing are holes that are as varied as one could want, yet they're grounded in the character of the site. Most thrilling are the deep, rugged bunkers that appear like rusted scars dug randomly throughout the course. The red-colored Georgia soil and shaggy-grassed edged bunkers give Cuscowilla one of the most recognizable looks in modern golf. At times the bunkering is awe-inspiring, such as at the 5th, a drivable uphill par four through the meadow where the endless, gaping pit that controls the eye is the centerpiece of the entire hole, and is, in fact, where the hole should be.
The bunkering is strategically placed as well, such as at the initial drive across the prairie where the tee ball must either fly directly or play away from the pits at the bend of the hole, complicating the angle if approached too cautiously. The par five second is a sojourn through the pines with a path that twice rambles toward large bunkers, then detours around them until the green is had. The eight gnarly hazards along the fringes of the 465-yard 6th are as frightening as they are majestic.
As stirring as the bunkers can be, some of the better portions of Cuscowilla lay bare. The long par four 15th delivers the player to an outrageous, barren green nestled in the crook of the dogleg of the 17th. The long two-shot 13th has no bunkers at all, defensed only by length and a mysteriously subtle green. (A writer once asked Ben Crenshaw what the course's "signature" hole was, a designation typically reserved for the most flamboyant or photogenic hole. To both tease and debunk the signature hole mentality, he said it was the largely featureless 13th.)
In 2001 Golf & Travel Magazine named Cuscowilla "America's Best Real Estate Course" but it must be said that the housing, as impressive and attractive as it is, is hardly noticeable. Most of the structures appear spread out and recessed in the pine orchards like cabins, and the magnificent field of prairie surrounding the entrance will never be built on, ensuring that long looks from this high point down to the lake are preserved. The goal, says Witt, is nature. "We never want to lose that natural feeling you have here," she says.
As of summer 2002, 300 of the 400 home sites had been sold with less than that number having been fully constructed. Cuscowilla plans to go private eventually, perhaps as soon as early 2003, so it is imperative for Southern golfers to make the trek while they can still access the course.
Rarely anymore does land that lends itself so ideally to golf meet an architect (or architects) who knows how to craft it into something instantly classic. Coore & Crenshaw have made a career out of it.
Cuscowilla must be already considered among the country's great golf courses. It exudes timelessness, natural beauty and appearance, as varied topography and range of golf holes as could be, subtle yet innovative green complexes, and bunkering that will never be forgotten. This, combined with the brilliant routing and demanding two-shot finishing holes at the 9th and 18th that any club would want, makes Cuscowilla nearly everything the serious player dreams about.
640 Old Phoenix Rd.
Eatonton, GA 31024
Phone: (706) 484-0050
Architects: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw
Yardages: 6,847; 6,402; 5,348
Cuscowilla offers luxurious on-site accommodations in a variety of cottages and homes surrounding the course. Cottage rates range from $130 per weekday night for one-bedroom to $363 for three bedrooms. Lake Villas range from $160 to $484, and homes are available beginning at $650 up to full-sized, 6,000 square foot spreads that go for $1,600. Golf and lodging packages are also available. Call 1-800-458-5351 for more information.
If the serene, peaceful life of Cuscowilla is not what you're looking for, the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation is just around the corner.
The Waterside Restaurant and The Veranda Café, located just off the 10th tee at Cuscowilla, offer some of the most favored fare on Lake Oconee. Locals recognize it as among the area's finest and frequent this lakeside restaurant that is accessible by car or boat.
Guest fees vary, but expect a range between $75 and $90 depending on the day of the week and season. Please call ahead to confirm rates.
The Golf Club at Cuscowilla is located east of Eatonton near Lake Oconee. From I-20 turn south on State Road 44 (exit 130) and travel 12 miles to Old Phoenix Road (2nd traffic light). Turn left on Old Phoenix for .5 miles and the Cuscowilla entrance will be on the left.
Not only is Cuscowilla a great walking course, walking it is both encouraged and sometimes mandatory. A full caddy program - comprised of both college students and full time professional caddies - headed by Assistant Golf Professional Chris Icton is yet another fine aspect of the traditional nature of the club.
(out of 5)
Par 3's: 4.5
Par 4's: 5
Par 5's: 4.5
Practice Facilities: 3.5
Club House/Pro Shop: N/A
Pace of Play: 4
Overall Rating: 4.5
August 1, 2002