Superb Rees Jones layout remains a strong draw
In the wake of the economic downturn of the late 2000s, having an outstanding golf course with first class conditioning has not guaranteed a successful operation.
A case in point is Echelon, a Rees Jones design in the north metro Atlanta suburbs that opened to sterling reviews late in 2006, but encountered early difficulties and struggled to gain a foothold in a crowded local market.
Echelon opened as a private club with a name (the Georgia Tech Club) that did not exactly endear itself to the sizeable number of Georgia Bulldog alumni and fans in the area.
Like several other upscale facilities in the North Fulton area, the Georgia Tech Club encountered early financial difficulties, and soon had a different name and ownership, as well as converting to semi-private status.
Through its struggles, however, the reputation of the golf course has not been negatively impacted. With a new owner coming on board more than a year ago, Echelon is moving forward and looking to fill the upscale daily fee niche held by White Columns before it went private.
The club’s new owner/general manager is Jeff Peltz, a veteran PGA member who has been involved with high profile facilities in Vail, Austin and PGA National in south Florida, before moving to Atlanta in the mid-1990s.
Peltz was out of the golf industry for a while, but elected to return in an ownership capacity. He says he “looked at 15 properties in the Southeast, and Echelon was the only course you could remember every hole.”
The quality of Jones’ layout, the conditioning of the course and the aesthetic appeal of the rolling piece of property were evident to Peltz, as was the lone drawback for the facility.
The original owners planned their construction schedule in phases, with the golf course coming first and other amenities to follow. Because of the club’s early financial troubles, the construction of a clubhouse was pushed back and never got started.
Echelon has operated out of a temporary pro shop since it opened, not an ideal situation for a course of its caliber.
Peltz says he is “looking to break ground this Fall,” on a clubhouse. Until it is completed, Echelon will have to rely on Jones’ standout layout and the quality of the course conditions to attract daily fee visitors and build a membership, which has increased significantly since Peltz assumed ownership duties.
“All things considered, things have gone reasonably well,” Peltz says of the first year-and-a-half for the club since he took over. Despite the uncooperative Winter weather, daily fee play has increased, and the responses he has gotten from both the course’s regulars and newcomers “have been positive.”
Peltz admits that not having a clubhouse is a drawback, but pointed out, “People come for the golf course and the quality of the greens. They would rather have a quality golf product, and having Rees Jones’ name on it helps.”
Jones is best known in the Atlanta area for his re-design work on East Lake and the Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands course, which have enhanced both in their roles as hosts of the PGA Tour Championship and majors for both professional and amateur golf.
Echelon rates high in just about every conceivable category, including its Course Rating and Slope numbers. From the back tees, it is rated as the toughest course in Atlanta (and likely the state).
But the tournament tees were installed mainly for an event at the highest level of the game, as well as to test its collegiate golfers. With those two possibilities likely off the table, those tees are rarely in use.
From the tournament tees, Echelon measures over 7,550 yards and is rated at 77.3/150. The gold tees are more in line for a stern but fair test for players with low single digit handicaps and below at 7,075 yards and rated at 74.8/144.
From a strictly golf course standpoint, Echelon’s reputation has centered around how difficult it is. But the course is considerably more playable than is widely assumed, particularly from the blue and white tees.
The blues measure 6,550 with a rating of 72.3/138, with the whites a mostly comfortable 6,025 yards with friendlier ratings of 69.7/129. The forward tees are just under 5,000 yards and rated at 70.0/126.
With a number of holes beginning from significantly elevated tees, the yardage numbers on the scorecard are not quite as imposing as they are in reality, although there are some balancing uphill shots that are most definitely uphill.
With the exception of a handful of holes, length is not as much a concern as you’d think (the tournament tees excluded), but it is a considerable asset on those holes.
Two of the par 5s measure 600 yards or longer from the gold tees, but the only other two holes with serious yardages both play significantly downhill. There are also several mid-length par 4s that are either uphill or feature hazards short of the green that make it essential for players to choose to correct set of tees.
With each set separated by 500 yards or so, the decision should not be especially difficult other than for those with an inflated view of their ability.
Echelon begins with an open, downhill par 4 that provides a glimpse of what lies ahead. The rolling fairway sports a sizeable bunker down the left side, with another prominent bunker guarding the front left portion of the green.
With a few exceptions, Jones has left the entrances to the putting surfaces open, but the large bunkers along the edges zealously protect nearby pin positions and require a skilled sand game. With many of the greens complexes carved out of hillsides, you will encounter some sharp drop-offs if you miss to that side.
The terrain also impacts the contours of the mostly ample putting surfaces, which are among the best you’ll find in all of Atlanta, but as a group are not excessively undulating.
The property on which Echelon was built produces some splendid views, but if you miss in the wrong spot, you will not necessarily appreciate its dramatic nature. While some fairways are bordered by relatively friendly mounds, there are plenty of holes where errant tee shots will take sharp bounces into trouble, and slightly miss-hit approaches may plunge into trouble spots well below the surface of the greens.
The tee shot on the par-3 third is an example of the latter, as is the second shot on the par-4 18th, one of the more interesting finishing holes around.
The opening nine includes one of the plus-sized par 5s (No. 4), several stout par 4s — including back-to-holes (5 and 6) with a ravine or creek short of the green — and a pair of par 3s where short is no good and long isn’t much better.
Neither of the par 3s on the nine have much length, but the third (171 gold/160 blue) features a nasty drop-off to trouble short left, an expansive front bunker that covers much of the wide, shallow putting surface, with water not far behind it if you over-club. The eighth (163/135) requires a carry over water to another wide, shallow green backed by two bunkers that will result in some scary sand shots with the water looming just beyond and below the putting surface, which slopes toward the hazard.
The back nine begins with a mostly inviting downhill par 4 of modest yardage that offers plenty of fairway, but approach shorts to right pins have to deal with one of the more imposing bunkers on the course.
Things get a whole lot more challenging once you arrive at the tee on the par-5 11th, which is a lock for any list of the toughest holes in metro Atlanta, or pretty much anywhere.
The 11th has length (660/561), a tee shot over a wetlands area, severe trouble down the left side, bunkers to the right and a sizeable ravine short of the green that will cause consternation for players of varying lengths. Once you clear the ravine, the hole angles sharply to the left, with the green a tough target to hit even without any bordering sand.
Jones thankfully follows the daunting 11th with one of Echelon’s tamest holes – the short but uphill par-4 12th. At just 279 from the blues, the 12th offers a definite scoring opportunity, but a precise second shot to one of the smallest greens on the course is required to capitalize on a chance at birdie.
The 14th is the shortest of the par 5s (507/481), but like the 12th plays sharply uphill, with bunkers in play along the way and a pronounced false front placing pressure on any approach shot to a pin close behind it.
Holes 13 and 15 have tour-length yardages, but both begin from significantly elevated tees, reducing the difficulty considerably while producing some striking visuals. The 13th is one of a handful of holes with huge gaps between tees, measuring 486 from the golds and 401 from the blues. The 15th is a healthy 236/208, but is wide open and downhill to the green, guarded right and long by a wraparound bunker.
Before closing out the round with a very strong finishing hole, Jones offers a relatively tame par 4 and a short and gentle par 3, with a trio of greenside bunkers on both the only real concerns.
The approach on the sharply dogleg right par-4 18th is one of the most interesting shots on the course, with another large bunker covering the entire left side of an angled putting surface. A precipitous fall-off short and right will result in shots that look good in the air ending in an unfortunate lie among trees and brush on the ground.
Echelon’s daily fee rates are extremely affordable considering the quality of Jones’ layout and course conditions. The club is located near the Fulton/Cherokee border just north of Atlanta National and White Columns and is accessible from both Birmingham Highway and Freemanville Rd.
For information, call 770-888-4653 or visit echelongolf.com.