Atlanta: An Unexpected Resort-Golf Destination

The 5th at Reynolds Plantation


Without question, Atlanta possesses a rich golf heritage: the heroics of favorite son Bobby Jones, the presence of old-line clubs like East Lake and Peachtree, the hosting of numerous PGA, Champions and LPGA Tour events over the years, not to mention a couple of major championships.

But Atlanta as a resort-golf town? Hardly. Unlike other city golf destinations—Orlando, Scottsdale, Las Vegas, for example—Atlanta evokes images of business suits and gridlock traffic more so than golf shirts and wide-open fairways. That perception could be changing, however, especially as folks like Herman Vonhoff have their say.

“I think Atlanta has a great golf image, but not so much as a golf destination,” notes Vonhoff, founder of Grand Cypress Development, which established the Orlando resort of the same name and is now developing the Georgian, an 1,150-acre spread west of Atlanta. “We’re not like some of those other destinations, but I see no reason why we can’t be. The weather here is fantastic and there are plenty of great golf courses.”

To view Atlanta as a golf destination, all one really need do is step outside—outside the perimeter, that is. Venture in any direction beyond I-285, the infamous 62-mile beltway that encircles the city, and you’ll find a lineup of stay-and-play facilities that rates with any in the country. There’s Chateau Elan and Lake Lanier to the northeast, Barnsley Gardens to the northwest, Reynolds Plantation to the east and Callaway Gardens to the southwest.

The newest kid on Atlanta’s resort block is located 45 minutes away, near the sleepy hamlet of Villa Rica.

There’s much to enjoy at the Frog, the Georgian’s heavily wooded, 7,018-yard golf course by Tom Fazio. (The quirky name, by the way, comes courtesy of Vonhoff, a collector of frogs who perceived an outline of the amphibious creature in an overhead rendering of the property.) The Fazio touch is evident—huge, tumbling fairways, sweeping bunkers and large bentgrass greens—and the entire layout, unencumbered by development, has a real “out there” feel

On the opposite side of town, another high-rolling visionary has for years been entertaining guests with his own upscale retreat. Back in the early ’80s, pharmaceutical magnate Don Panoz was intrigued by the possibility of growing grapes in northeast Georgia—not exactly a hotbed of vineyards. Ignoring the cynics, Panoz acquired 3,500 acres of rolling terrain 40 miles outside of Atlanta and the result was the exquisite Chateau Elan Resort & Winery.

Conveniently situated just off I-85, the 16th-century chateau-style winery now turns out nearly 20 varieties and 20,000 cases of wine annually, while the adjacent French country-style hotel pampers guests with 306 luxurious rooms and down-home Southern hospitality. Among the can’t-misses: dinner in the glass-roofed Versailles restaurant, a visit to the 14-room, European-style spa and driving lessons at the Panoz Performance Driving School at nearby Road Atlanta Speedway.

Just out the back door of the inn, a nine-hole par-3 course serves as an appetizer for a three-course golf feast that includes the 7,030-yard Chateau and the 6,851-yard Woodlands courses, both designed by Denis Griffiths, and the private (but open to guests) Legends Course, a team effort Sam Snead, Kathy Whitworth and the late Gene Sarazen, a close friend of Panoz. The Legends was home to the Sarazen World Open from 1994–98, and Sarazen’s legacy lives on at Chateau Elan: The Squire’s affable grandson, Geoff Sarazen, serves as director of golf for the two resort courses.

A few miles west of Chateau Elan lies a pair of first-class lakeside hideaways, Renaissance PineIsle and Emerald Pointe Resort. Formed in 1957 when the Chattahoochee and Chestatee Rivers were dammed, 38,000-acre Lake Sidney Lanier covers 540 miles of shoreline and is a popular weekend playground for Atlantans seeking refuge from the rigors of the city. Its shores also provided architects Gary Player and Ron Kirby with prime golfing ground at Renaissance PineIsle, where 1,200 acres of pine-forested real estate include a 254-room hotel, seven tennis courts, a private beach and a 28-slip boat dock.

Given free reign over the shorelines of a heavily fingered peninsula, Player and Kirby not only crafted the spectacular par-5 fifth and par-3 sixth holes at water’s edge, they also managed lake views on seven of the back-nine holes, usually from elevated vantage points. More than just pleasing to look at, this Marriott Golf-managed facility is also a well-planned strategic design. While not overly long at 6,514 yards, the 1974 layout has aged well and offers a dangerous but potentially rewarding route as well as a safer bail-out path on nearly every hole. The fun is in choosing correctly.

Just across the water is the recently renovated Emerald Pointe Resort. Formerly the Hilton at Lake Lanier Islands, the resort is now managed by KSL Recreation, the California-based operator whose other first-rate properties include PGA West, the Arizona Biltmore and Michigan’s Grand Traverse Resort. The lively, Joe Lee-designed golf course offers 13 holes along the lake, followed by post-round relaxation in the form of a 216-room hotel, a 300-site campground or—if you really want to live the high life—luxury houseboat rentals.

Venture 16 miles east of Atlanta and you’ll come upon Stone Mountain Park, home to the 825-foot slab of granite known locally as “the Big Rock.” Stone Mountain is also home to Evergreen Conference Resort, where the role that golf played in transforming Georgia’s top day-trip attraction into a complete getaway destination is as prominent as the carved likenesses of the Confederate military heroes etched into the face of the namesake landmark. In 1997, the state-owned park privatized the management of its entertainment, recreation, dining and lodging attractions, with Marriott assuming responsibility for the 36-hole golf complex, a newly constructed 5,000-square-foot clubhouse, three restaurants and the 428-room conference resort and inn.

The original 18 holes, a 1969 Robert Trent Jones layout, served for much of the following two decades as Metro Atlanta’s premier public golf experience. A third nine was added by John LaFoy in 1988 to ease heavy traffic on the popular Jones course, and LaFoy returned in 1994 to complete the deal. The newer nines, known collectively as the Lakemont Course, afford ample views of scenic Stone Mountain Lake and the ever-present carved faces that gaze down from the great rock. On the original Stonemont Course, the essence of Jones’ “hard par-easy bogey” philosophy is apparent: Nine par-4s exceeding 400 yards eventually expose every weakness in a player’s game.

Further east, about 90 miles from town, Reynolds Plantation is threatening to become the South’s most expansive golf destination. In fact, that’s the intent, according to CEO Mercer Reynolds, who envisions the 8,000-acre resort/residential community on sprawling Lake Oconee as “the new Pinehurst.”

If development continues at its current pace, Reynolds just might be right. A nine-hole addition to the Tom Fazio-designed Reynolds National Course debuted in 2000, and Rees Jones’ brand new Oconee Course, slated to open this fall, gives the property 81 holes—and the grounds crew a lot of flagsticks to plant each day. The National and Oconee courses join the original Plantation Course and the much-acclaimed, Jack Nicklaus-designed Great Waters, home to the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championships from 1995-97.

Also due to open soon is the snappy Ritz-Carlton Lodge and Spa, where 252 guest rooms—including the lavish Presidential House and its full-service wait staff—overlook the lake. With additional accommodations in golf cottages at the Plantation and Great Waters courses, Reynolds is a golf vacationer’s fantasy.

The new Fazio nine at the National Course is a delight, with vast, rollicking fairways framed by flowering dogwoods that lend an Augusta National-like touch in springtime. The Oconee is an aesthetic treat in its own right, with the lake coming into play on five holes and gurgling streams wandering through four others. The developers reportedly have tournament aspirations for the Oconee, where five sets of tees allow it to extend 7,393 backbreaking yards.

A tournament-caliber layout has long been the hallmark of Callaway Gardens, where the Mountain View Course is home to the PGA Tour’s Buick Challenge each fall. Sixty-three holes in all, plus a dazzling year-round horticultural display, make this vast, 14,000-acre spread a recreation- and nature-lover’s haven.

Lodging options include a homey, 349-room inn and a series of cozy cottages and villas. Located 80 miles southwest of the Atlanta airport, Callaway is home to a year-round cornucopia of events, including a professional water-ski tournament in May, a hot-air balloon festival in September and the Fantasy In Lights, a twinkling Christmas-time tour of the property.

And of course, there’s the Buick Challenge, whose past champions include David Duval, Nick Price and Davis Love. The event lately has become a favorite among the tour pros, thanks in large part to immaculate grooming of the 7,057-yard layout. Much like many of the other golf courses discussed here, Mountain View has a decidedly rural air—it’s just you, the golf course, and in this case, the wild turkeys that have free rein of the grounds.

Wild turkeys on the golf course? Doesn’t sound like big-city golf—which is precisely the point.