Best golf courses in the SEC

By Mike BaileyNovember 16, 2010, 12:42 am
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The Great Waters Course at Reynolds Plantation (Reynolds Plantation)

Southeastern Conference football fans will tell you their brand of football is tops in the nation. The last four national champions have come from the SEC, and no other conference has so many highly ranked teams or more passionate fans year in and year out.

But the golf is pretty good in SEC country as well – especially during football season when heat and humidity is replaced by the turning of the leaves and cool morning dew. So if you're thinking about taking a trip to see the Crimson Tide, the Vols, Gators or Tigers, for example, bring your sticks.

From Rocky Top to Baton Rouge, back to Gainesville, here's your guide for where to play golf in the Southeastern Conference. Football on Saturday; golf on Sunday; it can't get any better.

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The home of the Georgia Bulldogs is also the home to several good daily-fee and resort golf courses, starting with the university's home course. Opened in 1968, the UGA Golf Course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., a friend of former UGA President Dr. O.C. Aderhold. Site of the 1993 NCAA Women's Championship, this popular public golf course has undergone a number of improvements over the years, including a greens renovation 2006.

About 20 miles south of Athens in Greensboro are several terrific golf courses open to the public. For example, Reynolds Plantation is a resort with layouts designed by some of the best names in the business. Reynolds Landing is a beautiful Bob Cupp design that hosted the 2008 PGA Professional National Championship as did Great Waters at Reynolds Plantation. The latter is a Jack Nicklaus signature design that makes great use of Lake Oconee.

Other courses at Reynolds plantation include the Tom Fazio-designed National Course (27 holes), Oconee Course designed by Rees Jones, and Cupp-designed Plantation Course. The resort is also home of the Reynolds Golf Academy, led by top-100 teacher Charlie King.

Another excellent option in the area is the Golf Club at Cuscowilla, located in Eatonton, Ga. This challenging Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design is an excellent walking course with a real old-school country club feel. You may also want to check out the Harbor Club, a Jay Morrish/Tom Weiskopf design also located on Lake Oconee.

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If you're traveling to an Auburn Tigers home game, there's the Grand National Golf Club, one of the premier stops of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Located in nearby Opelika, RTJ Sr. called the 54-hole complex located on the 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee the greatest site for a golf course he had ever seen. Both Grand National's Lakes Course and Links Course have been honored by Golf Digest near the top of the state rankings.

A little closer is Auburn Links at Mill Creek, which opened in 1992 and plays host to an NGA/Hooters Tour event. Designed by Ward Northrup, this 7,145-yard course winds through narrow, tree-lined fairways to bentgrass greens. Also in Auburn is Moore's Mill Golf Club, a 7,000-yard Alan Blalock/Glen Day design carved through a setting of hardwoods, creeks and rolling hills. And then there's Indian Pines Recreational Authority Golf Course, a local favorite that opened in 1958. Though it's only a little more than 6,200 yards, it may be one of the best values in the state. Those who play it rave about the playing conditions and friendly staff.

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They call the Louisiana State University Tigers' home stadium 'Death Valley,' and the golf in these parts, with the alligators and water hazards, can take on that persona as well. A good starting point is Carter Plantation in nearby Springfield. Designed by LSU alum David Toms and part of the Audubon Golf Trail, Carter Plantation is a strong test that provides enjoyment to all levels.

A little closer to Baton Rouge is The Island, located in Plaquemine. The course, which was laid out on an old sugar plantation, is literally surrounded by water as its name might suggest. Stretching to more than 7,000 yards, it has 54 bunkers.

North of the city you'll find a pair of good public golf options. The Bluffs, in Saint Francisville, is a solid Arnold Palmer design that plays to almost 7,200 yards. And in Zachary, there's Copper Mill Golf Club, an interesting 6-6-6 layout, meaning it has an equal number of par 3s, par 4s and par 5s.

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The home of Steve 'The Old Ball Coach' Spurrier's Gamecocks, the capital city of Columbia has nearly 20 public golf options in a state that specializes in tourist golf. You could start with the heralded Oak Hills Golf Club, a Steve Melnyk/David Love III design that winds through a forest of oaks, pines and dogwoods with no homes on it. Or you can try Cedar Creek Golf Course in nearby Aiken, S.C. This Arthur Hills layout was cut through a natural forest with rolling hills in the heart of the state's thoroughbred country.

Other attractive options include Santee Cooper Country Club, a well conditioned, tree-lined layout with exceptional par 3s; Foxboro Golf Club, which recently underwent a renovation; Legends Oaks G.C., which is laid out along the grounds of an antebellum plantation; the P.B. Dye-designed Northwoods Golf Club; and Crowfield Golf and Country Club, which has earned four stars from Golf Digest magazine's Places to Play list.

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The Florida Gators play in 'The Swamp,' a feature you might find at some of public golf offerings in the area. You can expect plenty of water, trees and sand on courses like Turkey Creek Golf & Country Club (formerly Plantation Oaks), a 30-plus year-old course that's reasonably priced and fun to play. This Ward Northrup 6,600-yard design is an enjoyable parkland layout with lakes, bunkers and trees.

Ironwood Golf Course is a municipal facility that's also Audubon-certified. It's easy to walk and easy on the wallet. And Steve Smyers designed Meadowbrook Golf Club on the rolling Santa Fe Hills just outside of Gainesville. On the site of a former Indian reservation, Meadowbrook has rolling fairways, streams and ponds. It features six par 3s and six par 5s.

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The University of Tennessee Volunteers football program has a long, storied history. And while the local public golf scene might not be able to match the Volunteers' tradition, there are some pretty good offerings nonetheless.

Designed by Joe Lee, Landmark Golf Club at Avalon sits on a beautiful piece of rolling property, replete with spring-fed lakes and valleys for peaceful, yet challenging golf setting. Elevated tees give golfers great looks of the holes, which are carved through hardwoods. River Islands Golf Club is a gorgeous Arthur Hills design located in Kodak between Knoxville and Smoky Mountains. This links-style course covers more than 7,000 yards, set along the edge of the French Broad River, which has three islands that serve as focal points of the golf course.

And finally, in West Knoxville, there's Dead Horse Lake Golf Course, an 18-hole layout with Bermuda fairways and large undulating bentgrass greens. Very reasonably priced, the course works its way around a large lake.

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Known more for its basketball prowess than its football program, the Kentucky Wildcats have made strides on the gridiron as of late. The university's golf offerings are pretty good as well. The school has two excellent courses, including the heralded Arthur Hills-designed Big Blue Course. Members have weekend priority on Big Blue, but you can get on the rolling 7,100-yard layout with a little effort. Even if you can't, the slightly shorter Wildcat Course isn't a bad second option as both offer excellent bentgrass greens.

In general, the Lexington area offers a pretty good public golf scene. One good option in the area is the Bull at Boone's Trace, named for native son Daniel Boone. This challenging layout is located in the gated community of Richmond and covers over 120 rolling acres of woods, water and wildlife. Featuring bentgrass tees, greens and fairways, the course is always in top condition.

Kearney Hills Golf Links is an excellent Lexington muni designed by Pete and P.B. Dye. Playing to nearly 7,100 yards, the course, not surprisingly, features several difficult holes. And Rees Jones designed Marriott's Griffin Gate G.C., located just minutes from downtown Lexington.

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The Vanderbilt Commodores don't often contend for the SEC football title, but the golf scene in central Tennessee rivals any of the other schools in the SEC.

Perhaps the best place to start is in Old Hickory at the Hermitage, which has 36 holes of excellent public golf. The General's Retreat course, which once hosted the LPGA's Sara Lee Classic, is a challenging but playable layout that offers six sets of tees. The newer and more difficult President's Reserve course winds through 300 acres of natural wetlands. This Denis Griffiths-designed layout is considered one of the best public golf values in the state.

Gaylord Springs in Springhouse is a Scottish links-style design that follows the Cumberland River. Well groomed, the course is routed alongside wetlands and limestone bluffs. Nashboro Golf Club, located in the heart of Nashville is a classic layout that's very popular among locals. The Buford Ellington Golf Course at Henry Horton State Park is another favorite, playing to more than 7,000 yards through a forest of hardwoods and featuring a 249-yard par 3. And Blackberry Ridge offers great views with numerous elevated tees as well some of the best greens in the area.

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Oxford, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, doesn't have much of a golf history, but the golf scene in the area is growing rapidly. Locally, the best option is the Ole Miss Golf Course, overseen by the school's Landscape Services Department. The course was originally designed by Cary Middlecoff and opened in 1973, but Nathan Crace oversaw a renovation in 2008 that has helped make it one of the premier public golf courses in Mississippi.

The best place to play golf, though, is probably about an hour west in Tunica, which has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, mostly because of casinos. Tunica Resorts features three golf courses, often offering terrific stay-and-play packages. The golf facilities include the Mark McCumber-designed Tunica National Golf Club, the Links at Cottonwoods Golf Course at Harrah's Casino (designed by Hale Irwin) and River Bend Links at Casino Strip Resorts, designed by Clyde Johnston.

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Starkville, home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, is located about 30 miles west of Columbus and an hour south of Tupelo, where Elvis Presley was born and raised. The closest public golf offering is the Mississippi State University Golf Course, a 6,926-yard layout designed by Brian T. Ault. The tree-lined course is staffed by students of the university's Professional Golf Management Program.

But the best golf course in the area, and one of the best courses in the South, is Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, a few miles north. Designed by Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp, the course is private, but there are ways to get on, including booking a stay-and-play package. Sometimes drawing comparison to Augusta National with slick, undulating greens, the course hosted the 1999 U.S. Women's Open.

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The home of the Alabama Crimson Tide is situated about an hour southwest of Birmingham, giving visitors to the area a wealth of golf options. Locally, there's Ol' Colony Golf Complex, a beautiful municipal layout designed by Alabama alum Jerry Pate. The course has been lauded by national magazines, operates a local First Tee Chapter and has excellent teaching and clubfitting programs. Hidden Meadows Golf Club, an enjoyable course with a great atmosphere and friendly staff, is another affordable local option.

Perhaps one of the best golf experiences in the state, though, is about an hour east of Tuscaloosa in Sylacauga. FarmLinks Golf Club is a Mike Hurdzan/Dana Fry design that serves as both a living laboratory for turfgrass products and practices, and a high-end, daily-fee course. The 7,400-yard course, which features dramatic elevation changes, has dozens of varieties of turf, although it's not that noticeable since the greens are perfect A-1/A-4 bentgrass greens.
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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”