It’s no secret to those who play golf throughout the state that Georgia’s best collection of courses in a condensed area is found on and around Lake Oconee.
State and national lists ranking Georgia’s best courses always include a handful from Lake Oconee, with the Golf Club at Cuscowilla always one of those in a very prominent position.
Cuscowilla’s name is well known to those within the golf industry and to those who enjoy searching out as many of the top-ranked courses in the various listings as they can. But for golfers not as attuned to the inner workings of the industry, Cuscowilla is just another course of indeterminate location and quality.
The Golf Club at Cuscowilla opened in 1996, and immediately was considered one of the jewels of the expanding wealth of courses in the Lake Oconee area. Cuscowilla was designed by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose work over the past 25 years includes two legendary resort-oriented facilities – Sand Dunes in Nebraska and Bandon Trails in Oregon, as well as the acclaimed Plantation course at Kapalua, site of the annual PGA Tour Tournament of Champions.
Cuscowilla has been a staple of national top 100 lists almost from the minute it opened, and has consistently ranked as the best of the outstanding courses on Lake Oconee.
Coore recently visited the course for the first time in quite a while, and came away duly impressed with the work he and Crenshaw did two decades ago, despite the decidedly un-golf-like weather that hit the state earlier this year.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it in a while, and they’ve done a really good job here keeping it up,” Coore said. “They’ve maintained the contours and tied them in around the edges and created some expanse to grow with tee modifications. All I can say is well done.”
Cuscowilla is a residential private club that also offers non-resident memberships, along with various stay and play packages utilizing cottages and villas on the property. It is the closest of the Lake Oconee courses to Atlanta, located on the southern tip of the lake in Putnam County.
Jarod Clark, the Director of Golf at Cuscowilla for more than a dozen years, says a sizeable percentage of the club’s membership is from the Atlanta area, with many of them settling along Lake Oconee and others selecting Cuscowilla as their second club.
“We have a great golf atmosphere here and an active membership,” Clark said. The active aspect of the membership also applies to the predilection for walking, with Clark pointing out that some 55 percent of the rounds at Cuscowilla are played on foot.
That enables the membership and resort guests to appreciate even more the quality and subtleties of the Coore-Crenshaw design and the inherent beauty of the piece of property they had to work with.
Clark says the primary appeal of Cuscowilla “is the uniqueness of the greens complexes and the variety of holes.”
When Coore and Crenshaw were creating Cuscowilla, Coore says the pair “took the natural elements” and went from there.
“We knew part of the course would be open, part through the trees, some holes by the lake and some with ponds. We put together a sequence of holes that we thought would be really interesting and fun to play.
“We’ve got some long par 4s, one or two short par 4s, a long 3, a short 3 and two interesting 5s.”
Along with the variety of holes, Cuscowilla is an eminently playable layout, with reasonable slope/rating numbers for a course of its caliber. Because it plays to a par 70 with just two par 5s, the total yardage is a bit deceptive – 6,730 yards from the black tees. The burgundy tees measure 6,312 and the green (senior) tees are 5,717.
Cuscowilla is rated at 72.7/133 from the back tees, 70.5/128 from the middle and 67.7/121 from the senior tees, with the course playing 5,183 yards to a par of 72 from the forward tees.
Off the tee, Cuscowilla is relatively open, but there are several holes where the tree lines are extremely narrow and keeping your tee shot between them is a real accomplishment. The generally thin tree lines typically allow for recovery attempts, but there are several native areas along the way that won’t be as kind to errant shots.
When Cuscowilla opened, one of its most distinctive features was its ragged, Scottish-style bunkering, which gave the course a unique look, but also presented the possibility of a near impossible shot if your ball barely rolled into one. The years have softened the bunkers to the degree that they are no longer as striking visually or as menacing from a playing standpoint, but they still pose a serious concern to those who may attempt to take a more direct line toward the green, challenging them from the tee.
“With the fairway bunkers, we created some angles and lines of play that gives different players a chance to show off their skills and have the thrill of hitting over them,” Coore explained.
Even with two par 4s that top out right at 300 yards and offer some “risk/reward” elements, Clark points out that Cuscowilla is more of a “second shot” course, with the intriguing nature of the greens complexes accounting for much of the challenge.
Cuscowilla converted its putting surfaces from bent grass to Champions Bermuda two years ago, and the change has enhanced the quality of the course, while keeping the greens complexes as a major aspect of the course’s defense.
The greens at Cuscowilla have ample amounts of slope, with a number of them falling off around the edges and several featuring false fronts. The ridges that impact many of the greens can make for some touchy pin positions for both approach and short game shots, with most of the greens modestly guarded by sand, allowing for run up shots.
Cuscowilla begins with a relatively open and tame par 4 with staggered fairway bunkers along the left side and a severely sloping green that will test your putting touch right off the bat.
The remainder of par 4s on the outgoing nine includes a scenic hole beginning with an angled tee shot over a pond (4); the first of two 300-yarders with a sprawling waste bunker bisecting the fairway (5); a very narrow hole with trees just short of the putting surface strongly influencing approach shots depending on the angle 7) and two of significant length (6 and 9), with the ninth essentially a par 5 except for those long enough to catch the speed slot on the slightly downhill, dogleg right.
Both par 3s are strong holes, with the mid-length third sporting water not far off the left side of the putting surface, with a long bunker running the length of the green to the right. The long eighth (225) plays downhill, and you can bounce it onto the sizeable green, which is guarded by sand on the right.
The lone par 5 on the nine (2) is not long, but requires some accuracy to find the fairway and also to avoid bunkers in the lay-up area.
The back nine begins with a tee shot that has to clear a finger of the lake, with the angle of the shot enabling you to determine how much of the water you want to take on. The short par-3 11th plays along the lake, but the minimal yardage makes the water less a concern than a ridge through the green that will send tee shots in different directions depending on where your tee shot lands.
The 12th is the second of the 300-yard par 4s, with trees tight to both sides and a small, undulating green that is tough to hit and hold.
There isn’t much in the way of scoring opportunities after the 12th, starting with the long, straight and narrow 13th, one of four par 4s that are longer than 450 from the tips. The par-3 16th isn’t much for length (162), but has one of several greens on the closing stretch with plenty of movement will result in some birdie putts that will challenge both your green reading skill and putting stroke.
Coore and Crenshaw had only two cracks at creating an “interesting” par 5, and they certainly succeeded with the 14th, which measures 614 yards from the back tees and 590 from the next set, in addition to playing significantly uphill for the third shot. The hole begins with a tee shot over a sliver of the lake, followed by a second that has to deal with cross bunkers that will leave a blind third shot of almost 200 yards if you can’t clear them. The hidden green is tucked away in a corner, with most pin positions protected by a yawning front bunker.
Another tee shot over water is among the aspects of the 15th, but the larger concern is a green with all sorts of movement. The tee shot at the 17th has to avoid a huge bunker at the corner of the dogleg left, with another sharply sloping green mostly surrounded by sand.
Cuscowilla concludes with a par 4 that is just plain long (474) and a little uphill, with bunkers guarding an ample putting surface short and right.
Course conditions are consistently first rate, the overall atmosphere is very golf-centric and the end result is one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll encounter on a golf course.
For information, visit Cuscowilla’s web site (www.cuscowilla.com) or call 706-484-0050