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How a trip to Reynolds Lake Oconee taught me to appreciate the sport of golf

Reynolds Lake Oconee / Photo courtesy of Explore Georgia
Reynolds Lake Oconee / Photo courtesy of Explore Georgia
Darren Paltrowitz

Located about 75 miles from Georgia's Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Reynolds Lake Oconee is unlike any travel destination that this writer has been visited before. Set along 30 acres of shoreline, the overall Lake Oconee area has six championship golf courses on its grounds. The Reynolds Lake Oconee property -- which includes a Ritz-Carlton hotel on-site -- has received top honors from Forbes, AAA, U.S. News & World Report, GOLF Magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler alike.

Prior to travelling to Reynolds Lake Oconee, I had golfed on only one occasion. That occasion -- which occurred on the Wild Turkey Golf Course at New Jersey's Crystal Springs Resort -- was not a pleasant one. It was largely a combination of being slowed down by a party ahead of us, being rushed by club management which thought that our party was the slow party, and getting questionable looks from other golfers for being beginner-level players.

And prior to golfing at the Wild Turkey Golf Course, I admittedly did not have a positive outlook on the sport of golf. Sure, I loved Happy Gilmore and recently wrote a story about the wonderful organization known as the Mediocre Golf Association, but I never "got" why it is that millions of people view golf as an activity of simultaneous relaxation, recreation and general interest.

However, after traveling to Reynolds Lake Oconee and speaking with a group of journalists that cover golf resorts and/or the sport of golf as a whole, I now "get it." Below and on the following pages are 5 of the reasons why I not only appreciate golf but also see myself returning to another course in the near-future to give golfing another chance:

#1: Golf is the great equalizer

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In golf, one's handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer's potential ability. It is used to calculate a net score from the number of strokes played during a competition. In turn, thanks to the concept of handicapping, two people of very different skill levels can play a round of golf against one another in both a fair and competitive manner.

Explained Dan Vukelich, Editor of New Mexico Golf News: "Golf is humankind's longest target game. Players direct a ball over hundreds of yards. Aiming at anything longer and you're either trying to kill it or blow it up."

Added Vukelich: "Even when I'm playing badly, I make it a point to look around, at the clouds, the trees, the manicured fairways. I smell the grass. I hear the birds chirp. And I think that they went to all this trouble to create this beautiful outdoor space for my enjoyment. Sometimes, that brings me back."

Further to the fact that golf is an inclusive sport, Joe Barks -- Editor of Club & Resort Business -- noted: "The Topgolf phenomenon is bringing new players into the game, especially millennials, by adding technology -- chip-based 'target golf' -- and more fun -- like music, food and drink -- to help break down the perception of golf as a stuffy, old-white-man sport and serve as a good introduction to how it can be an appealing recreational/exercise alternative."

#2: Golf's history has been full of colorful characters

Lloyd Mangrum among the crowd at the Mangrum Drives
Lloyd Mangrum among the crowd at the Mangrum Drives

Between touchdown dances, expensive Super Bowl commercials, World Series locker room champagne baths and college drafts, other professional sports have been better with creating media-friendly spectacles than golf. In turn, many people assume that golf is not full of exciting athletes.

Dan Vukelich of the New Mexico Golf News politely disputed this while we were at Reynolds Lake Oconee: "People say that golfers aren't athletes. They rightly call PGA Tour and Champions Tour player Duffy Waldorf ''The Walrus.' The LPGA's Christina Kim has the body shape of a fireplug. Yet they can do something most people find incredibly difficult and perform in their sport at the highest level."

Vukelich continued: "Few people have the physique of LeBron James or Serena Williams, but seeing regular-looking people doing amazing things with a golf ball gives the rest of us the 'Walter Mitty' belief and hope we too can be great."

But specific to some of the more exciting players that golf has had over the years, Vukelich did not hesitate to name names. "Lloyd Mangrum was a notorious drinker and would arrive at the first tee with the shakes, then drive his first shot into the woods so as to gain privacy to swig from a flask provided by his caddie. Ben Hogan, 'The Hawk,' also was called the Ice Man for his legendary coolness and focus on his own game. As he left a par 3 where his playing partner had just scored a hole-in-one, Hogan asked him, 'I made 2, what did you make?'"

Another one of these interesting folks, according to Vukelich, was Titanic Thompson. "Titanic Thompson was a notorious gambler on and off the course who was honored by the World Series of Poker. In 1933, agents in the Chicago FBI field office read that Al Capone triggerman Jack "Machine McGurn was playing in the Western Open at Olympia Fields Country Club. They went there on Day 2 to arrest him, but agreed to let him finish his round before handcuffing him."

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#3: You can make up for a few bad strokes with 1 or 2 great shots

Dealing with a bad shot at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters
Dealing with a bad shot at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters

Within the sport of golf, par is the pre-determined number of strokes that a golfer ought to require to complete a hole, a round or a tournament. For example, a par-hour hole at a course should be in four or less strokes.

Sometimes a golfer may have hit a bad opening swing or two at a hole. But with some luck, those opening struggles can be corrected with a spot-on stroke or two. This is comparable to how a baseball player is not expected score a hit on every at-bat, or even half of their at-bats; in fact, a baseball player with a career batting average around .300, or 30%, may be destined for the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Luxury journalist Shaun Tolson, who frequently writes about golf, explained: "Sometimes, one great shot can make up for a couple lousy ones. That’s one of the great things about the sport. You can hit two or three mediocre -- even bad -- shots on a hole, but one great shot can make up for them. You can follow up a bad drive and a bad second shot, for example, with a great pitch shot that lands close to the hole for an easy putt."

Tolson continued: "Similarly, you could hit three straight bad shots, but if you hole a really long putt, you can still make par. If you can find your ball to hit it again, you always have a chance. Beginners need to remember that, because golf can quickly become a discouraging and unenjoyable pastime if players think that they need to hit most of their shots perfectly."

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#4: Unlike other sports, you can relive history when playing it.

Steps taken on the greens of the U.S. Open
Steps
taken
on the greens of the U.S. Open

Unless you yourself are a professional athlete, or you have lucked into a VIP opportunity, odds are that you are not going to be on the field or court that your favorite athletes played on; the New York Mets' sales department briefly let me and some friends get on the field of Citi Field when we expressed interest in buying season tickets. But non-professional golfers are able to play on most of -- if not all of -- the courses that host major tournaments like the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship, and the Masters Tournament.

By being able to step foot on famous golf courses and play a round, you are relieving historic moments as a golfer. You are keeping traditional of the sport alive while also making one-of-a-kind moments of your own.

Many golfers opt to take history on the course a step further, according to Dan Vukelich of New Mexico Golf News. "There's a subset of golf known as the hickory movement, in which tournaments and championships are contested using only wooden-shafted clubs of the type used by Bobby Jones and his predecessors. These people test themselves against past greats on classic courses designed by A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie, which were designed for such equipment."

Continued Vukelich: "Fanatics within this subset go even further back, playing with golf balls made out of gutta percha or even using 'featheries,' leather balls stuffed with tightly-packed bird feathers first used hundreds of years ago. Regardless of the equipment used, the desire to play famous courses often is driven by the desire to walk where the legends walked."

Joe Barks of Club & Resort Business talked to me at Reynolds Lake Oconee about how golf plays into history from a different angle: "Golf can provide you with the increasingly rare chance -- especially in metro areas suffering from overdevelopment and sprawl -- to get out and enjoy some true quiet amid really striking natural scenes, and in a much more unique and less crowded way than just going to a park."

Barks added: "This is true for many public/municipal courses as well as private clubs or higher-end resort properties, and the enjoyment of just getting around the course and seeing all of the various natural features and experiencing the serenity that it offers can minimize a lot of the frustration that might be experienced with trying to play the game itself."

According to Barks, a lot of this has to do with the people who provide upkeep on these courses: "The golf course superintendents who maintain the courses are the unsung heroes in the industry, in how they provide beautifully manicured playing areas while also preserving the surrounding natural landscapes. More courses are now promoting their properties as places to walk on trails and enjoy nature and wildlife, whether or not you play the game."

Luxury journalist Shaun Tolson, who frequently writes about golf, agreed with Vukelich and Barks: "Golf, like most sports, reveres its history. But unlike those other sports, amateurs have the opportunity to play some of the same courses that their golfing heroes played. For example, baseball fans might nostalgically remember Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair as he watched his game-winning home run sail over the Green Monster in Boston, but they’ll never get a chance to take batting practice at Fenway Park to experience what it’s like to hit a ball against or over that famous outfield wall. Some of golf’s most famous courses, however, are open to the public; so amateurs can test their abilities hitting a tee shot to the famous island green on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass or they can learn firsthand how difficult it is to hit a tee shot on the 18th at Pebble Beach with Carmel Bay all down the left side of the fairway."

Continued Tolson: "Even beyond some of those iconic shots, many famous courses have hosted significant championships over the centuries, and many of those courses have changed little over the years. That means that amateurs who are fortunate enough to play the Old Course in St. Andrews, for example, know that they are walking the same fairways and putting on the same greens as some of the sport’s greatest players -- golfers who grew the sport to the level that it has reached today. That, by itself, makes those rounds of golf special and memorable."

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#5: Golf is a lifelong sport.

A photo from the Farmfoods European Senior Masters event
A photo from the Farmfoods European Senior Masters event

If you are still playing within Major League Baseball, the National Football League or the National Basketball Association as a 40-something, you are in rare company. If you are professionally active as a top-ranked skateboarder, professional wrestler or an athlete in another sport requiring quickness and agility in your 40s, you are not only rare, but are undoubtedly going to be called "old."

This is very different in the golf world. For starters, the PGA has an internationally-broadcasted Senior Tour with major tournaments and recognized championships. And many of those full-time players on the Senior Tour -- which is for golfers aged 50 and over -- were notable PGA champions, as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino were among the legends that that won a Senior PGA Championship. In turn, the sports of golf has more respect for its elders than other major sports, which may only incorporate their legends with a once-a-year "old timers game."

As South Carolina-based journalist Bill Bauer told me at Reynolds Lake Oconee: "Golf is a lifelong sport. One of few where the game adjusts to one’s age and ability. With multiple tee boxes creating playable lengths and properly designed generous landing areas, as well as a certifiable handicap system, men and women of all ages and abilities can enjoy the competitive nature of the sport."

Commented Joe Barks of Club & Resort Business: "A real trend right now is for clubs of all types -- public as well as private -- to create short or 'executive' courses that greatly reduce not only the time required to play but also a lot of the game's difficulty, which have been the two biggest impediments to attracting new players."

Barks continued: "These are 6 or 9 or 12-hole courses that are shorter in length and put more of an emphasis on shotmaking and the 'short game' -- irons, chipping and putting -- versus having to be a stud who drives 300-plus yards. These are proving to be very attractive as entry points for many new players, as well as older players who just can't hit it as far any more, and those who are time-pressed or have shorter attention spans. These courses take just a couple of hours to play."

Whether it's on a traditional course or the new sort that Joe Barks talked about, Dan Vukelich of New Mexico Golf News emphasized that your appreciation of the overall golfing experience is related to the company you keep on the course: "It's a cliche that you learn a lot about a person by playing 18 holes of golf with them, but it's true. Are they honest? Do they cheat? Can they handle adversity or success well? Can they solve a problem? Are they self-absorbed, tantrums, club-throwers? A large portion of the Rules Of Golf are aimed at setting a standard of courtesy by a player toward his or her fellow competitors."

Thanks to the natural beauty of Reynolds Lake Oconee, and the insight of journalists Joe Bark, Bill Bauer and Dan Vukelich, I look forward to returning to a golf resort for another on-the-course outing in the near-future.

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Edited by Pratyay Ghosh

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