Fore Sure: Golf Georgia State Parks for fun in beautiful settings.
By Bill Bauer
Georgia is steeped in golf tradition. It is the home of the Masters, the birthplace of the legendary Bobby Jones, and the site of the FedEx Cup Golf Championship. From the mountains in the north to the low-lying coastal areas, Georgia has over 500 public and private courses. In the same expanse it also maintains nearly 50 state parks with a history dating back to the founding of Indian Springs in the 1800s. The state’s long commitment to golf combined with its dedication to preserve its natural beauty and history has created a home for some of the most award-winning public golf courses in the country: The Georgia State Park golf courses.
For golfers looking for a great stay and play package, three of the seven state parks are within a few hours drive of one another, making them the perfect getaway for a one-, two-, or three-day golf experience. The golf courses are championship caliber, and the lodging choices are first class. Each layout winds its way through the forested state parks and offers a wonderful round of golf void of highways and homes. It is golf at its grandest, with a side of serenity, great for any golfer.
Begin your golfing sojourn with a challenge at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Prescott, about a two-hour drive from the Georgia / South Carolina border. Golf Digest Frugal Golfer Magazine lists the Creek golf course as “the 4th sweetest deal in the United States,” but also makes you aware that you will be tackling “the hardest starting hole in Georgia!” The par 4 opener does not require distance, but does call for a well-placed fade off the tee. The left to right slope on this downhill fairway can get you into trouble in a hurry as thick stands of trees border each side. Stay left and let the ball funnel its way toward the bottom where the fairway ends at a creek, which must be carried to the elevated and well-bunkered green.
How Hard Labor Creek got its name is open to speculation but it is believed that it reflects the era when slaves toiled in Georgia’s heat and humidity or Native Americans had a hard time crossing the creek that winds its way through a third of the holes. Today, golfers find that its name typifies what to expect. At only 6,426 yards from the tips it is not long, but elevation changes, tricky tee shots, and demanding approaches to difficult greens can leave you feeling like you had a hard day at work. That being said, its pastoral setting, abundant wildlife, and winding layout through dense pines and hardwoods make its difficulty palatable. Playing the Creek at Hard Labor a second time is a must: Knowing the nuances of the course to avoid the troublesome areas, and managing the elevation will make your round well worth the effort.
Heading northeast, near the Georgia / South Carolina border in Elberton, is Richard B. Russell State Park, home to one of the true gems of the state park system. Consistently rated “among The Top Ten Municipal Courses in the U.S.” by Golfweek Magazine, Arrowhead Pointe boasts over half of its 18 holes overlooking the massive Richard B. Russell Lake. Designed by Bob Walker, the par-72 layout is one of the most scenic in the state and typifies the state golf course theme of “no crowds, no houses, no noise.”
In 1980 before Lake Russell was created, several sites were excavated near the state park and all indications were that the Paleo-Indians inhabited the area thousands of years ago, hence the name Arrowhead Pointe. Built on a peninsula, the 6800-yard design weaves its way through a forest of towering pines and majestic oaks while bordering the shoreline of 26,500-acre Lake Russell. Carved out of 110 acres of woods, the course confronts the golfer with 63 bunkers and array of inverted mounds from tee to green. These hazards combined with gently rolling, Bermuda fairways, and a host of large, multi-level, sloping greens place a premium on accurate drives and precision shots to the putting surface.
Deciding on a signature hole is a tough task, but it’s definitely a toss up between the par-5 #16 and par-4 #17. Like most of the back nine, both holes are bounded by the jagged edges of Lake Russell. Hole #5 on the front nine is a unique par-5 with a double dogleg. Off the tee it curves to the left where two large bunkers await errant drives. Then it sweeps back to the right where more sand comes into play on the approach to the green. This is not a course for the hydrophobic as water either comes into play or surrounds #11 of the 18 holes.
The third course is a short drive away in nearby Royston. In Scotland the mountainous area north and west of a line from Dumbarton to Stonehaven is known as The Highlands. Two kinds of valleys (steep narrow glens and broad rolling straths) are dotted with rock outcroppings and carpeted with green grass. It is only fitting that in a setting so similar to the birthplace of golf is the aptly named Highland Walk, nestled in Victoria Bryant State Park.
Highland Walk was completely renovated in 1996 by architect Denis Griffiths, who also fashioned Chateau Elan and the Georgia Club in Athens. Originally a 9-hole tract, Griffiths used the natural flowing rises and falls in elevation to reroute the course and add nine holes. The par 72 layout is somewhat unique with the front playing to a par 37 and the back to 35. The back nine sports three par 3s and a long par 5, dubbed “the monster.” This 603-yard beauty is a dogleg left that turns nearly 90 degrees, keeping the green hidden for an eternity. It takes two lengthy shots to pass bend in the fairway and have an approach to the green. A sizeable bunker protects the corner and two more allow a narrow opening to the green. While it registers as the #2 handicap hole, many Highland Walkers consider it the toughest on the course.
A picturesque par-4, the 17th is clearly Highland Walk’s signature hole. It reflects the course’s name. Utilizing seven tee boxes, depending on the day, it requires the most challenging tee shot on the course. Standing atop the tee the golfer looks down upon a huge ravine that must be carried to safely reach the landing area beyond the winding cart path. The narrow fairway begins its ascent just beyond the valley and is bordered by trees to the left and a wall of rock and scrub pine to the right. The steep and somewhat ominous outcropping skirts the fairway from the tee to the elevated green.
The Georgia State Park Golf Courses provide more than just golf. Perfect for couples as well as group getaways, each has a host of lodging choices and amenities. Richard B. Russell State Park offers some of the state’s finest fishing and boating and the fully-equipped cottages are located on or near the lake’s edge. Among the park amenities are a pro shop and clubhouse, seasonal canoe and pedal boat rental, bike and disc golf rentals, and six miles of trails for hiking and biking. Hard Labor Creek is best know for its golf course, but it too offers a wide range of recreational opportunities in a beautiful wooded setting. A lakeside beach is popular with swimmers during summer months, and more than 24 miles of trails are available for hikers and horseback riders. First-rate cottages are available for overnight stay and play packages. Victoria Bryant’s Highland Walk is the perfect spot for the final round on the golf trail or a one-day outing. It has all the natural beauty of the other parks as well as all the golf amenities you need. There are no cottages for an overnight, but there are many full-service campsites.
All three golf courses offer well-appointed clubhouses, snack bars, and full service pro shops. Practice areas including putting greens and driving ranges are available for warming up before, or working out the kinks after your round. A variety of winter golf packages and specials are available and can be arranged by calling any of the courses directly. For a perfect two-day package, play a midday round of golf at Hard Labor Creek, head to Arrowhead Pointe and relax by the fireplace in your cabin by the lake, and tee it up the following day. Add another night and enjoy the beauty of Richard B. Russell Lake after golf, and then drive over to Highland Walk in the morning to complete the trifecta. In addition, all State Park golf courses are apart of The Georgia Golf Trail, 770-266-0331.
The Georgia State Park Golf Courses offer championship golf at affordable prices in a setting like no other. Stan Awtrey, 20-year golf editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sums it up, saying that the courses offer “no development, no distractions and no excuses.” Play these three in the upper part of the state, and you just may want to venture further to sample the lower five!
– Photos courtesy Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites
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