This is the second and final part of a review of The Reserve at Lake Keowee, a golf community in the upstate region of South Carolina, less than an hour from Greenville.
The private and upscale Reserve at Lake Keowee wears its lack of pretension on its sleeve. Conceived by two local men as a community where families could comfortably gather, The Reserve’s demeanor is so understated that it doesn’t even name its golf club on its scorecard. A first-time visiting golfer might think the actual name of the course is “Jack Nicklaus Signature,” since that is the only thing on the front of the card except for the community’s logo of mountains, lake and sun. To someone unfamiliar with The Reserve, this may seem a bit extreme, but it is aggressively consistent with the tone of the place.
The golf course itself echoes the theme of high-quality and low stress, even though typical Jack Nicklaus routings are anything but soothing. The Reserve’s course is superbly conditioned, with greens that are easily among the fastest in the upstate region of South Carolina. On the day I played recently with fellow members of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, the stimpmeter read a professional-tournament-like 13, according to golf professional Greg Rushing. That is about the only thing “fast” about the experience on the sprawling Reserve layout, which will appeal especially to the low double-digit handicap player looking for a sporting challenge but may force more accomplished golfers (and big hitters) to move back to the tees at 6,700 or 7,112 yards.
A sliced drive on The Reserve's downhill 1st hole is not the worst outcome if it avoids the bunkers on the right side of the dogleg.
Going to great lengths for a challenge
So does that make The Reserve something less than a “shot maker’s” course? Not at all. Jack Nicklaus always seems to find a way to toughen his designs, and there are enough Golden Bear touches at The Reserve to remind us of that, and to justify a 134 slope rating from the modest 6,250-yard white tees and, gulp, a 142 from the 6,731 blue tees. (Forget about the tips at 7,112, a 148 slope and 74.5 course rating, unless you are a masochist or Jack himself.) But the typical Nicklaus attitude of take it or leave it challenge is missing, or at least much softened, at The Reserve. His fairways here are generous in the extreme, something spray hitters will appreciate right off the bat as they play to the #1 green from the adjacent 18th fairway after pushing their initial drive right. And I don’t recall a single customary Nicklaus tree in any fairways at The Reserve, although plenty of trees line the wide fairways.
The uphill par 4 3rd hole is a classic short two-shotter, daring big hitters to put the bunkers in play and more conservative players to thread the needle up the right side.
Still, the generous landing areas notwithstanding, appropriate placement off the tee is mandatory given the almost bulletproof vests of sand behind which the Bear protects his greens at The Reserve, making some entry points clearly preferable to others. At #2, for example, a par five, the pin was set just beyond a deep bunker that covered the middle front of the green; not much choice there except to pluck the right club from the bag and hit it perfectly, the consequence of not doing so a long putt from right or left side of the green or, worse, a play from that front bunker to a tight pin. The uphill par 4 3rd featured another two bunkers that blanketed most of the front and right sides of the elevated green. At the iconic par 3 4th, two “spectacles” bunkers that reminded me of the billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in the Great Gatsby cause second- and third-guessing about distance on the sharply downhill hole. (See photo below; the green really does look like an inscrutable face.) And on it goes throughout the round, almost all the potential damage in the form of bunkers at greenside, with an occasional fairway hazard thrown in to penalize the most significantly errant tee shots.
Now you see it, now you don’t
The course routing keeps the lake at bay until the 15th green, when as you reach the peak in the fairway, there it is below you, about 160 yards in the distance. Between the lake and the back of the green is a stand of trees set there, it appears, to keep too-long shots from reaching the lake. A little finger of the lake cuts in a few yards just short and left of the green, an S-curved stone wall restraining the lake from the front of a greenside bunker. The water at greenside should be of zero consequence to any but the unhappiest hookers. After a tricky par 3 16th, the lake frames the 17th tee but recedes as you move down the fairway on the par 5. The lake is more eye candy than hazard on The Reserve golf course.
The lake appears quite suddenly behind the 15th green, more eye candy than hazard.
Nicklaus does take the shackles off on the finishing hole, an uphill all-the-way dogleg left par 4 around a grouping of nasty bunkers to a large, two-leveled green that plays 444 yards from the tips. From all but the front two tees (340 yards from the whites), this is a solid par 4.5 or harder.
In addition to the immaculately groomed and speedy greens –- originally planted bent grass -- the Bermuda fairway and tee box turf were as good as it gets. The practice range was special too, one of the finest in our experience, with a wide teeing area, part of which was covered by a portable bay to keep out rain and searing summer sun. A large bucketed net was set about 20 yards out from the tees, into which you could try to aim pitch shots. Over by the practice chipping green, a two-station area was laid down at long pitch distance. A separate practice bunker was large enough to accommodate a dozen or so players if necessary. The adjacent putting green was as slick as the greens on the course; a second smaller green sat beside and above the first tee (and next to a perfectly shorn croquet court that might have stimped at 20). The practice grounds at The Reserve destroy all excuses for not being properly warmed up. And it will also improve all aspects of your game, especially the short ones.
The quiet genius in The Reserve’s routing could very well be that, like a healthy meal, it leaves you satisfied but not stuffed; post round, you have plenty of energy to enjoy the golf community’s other well-conceived amenities. With a lake of 18,500 acres and 30 miles of shoreline along The Reserve’s boundary, water activities are central to its attraction. The Reserve’s 200-slip marina satisfies the captain in some of the community’s residents, but canoes and kayaks, available for everyone’s use, are popular too, especially for family excursions. For those who take their water chlorinated, the large adult pool and “zero-entry” (no lip) kids pool sit at lakeside, a short walk to the marina and clubhouse. We understand there has been something of a cross-migration in the pool area over time, with the adults taking over the amply sized kids pool -– no struggling to get in or out -- and vice versa.
The spectacles bunkers at the par 3 4th play tricks on the mind and the distance from the elevated tee.
The action around the Great Lawn
In fact, there may be no other golf community in America that has managed to compress most of its activities into such a tidy, yet dramatically laid out area, all around the Great Lawn. Looking west, with the marina and a lakeside amphitheater at your back, the view is up an escalating slope of about three football fields worth of lawn to the rear of the stone and wood clubhouse that commands one of the highest points in the community. Along almost the entire lengths of the right and left sides sit attractive Great Lawn Homes designed by the famous architect Keith Summerour of Atlanta. Package prices –- the land and homes are now sold separately to give buyers a choice of home styles –- start in the $800s, but with that you get a minimum 3,000 square feet (optional studio over garage) and to choose among handsome French Normandy, Arts & Crafts, English Country and Classic American Shingle designs -– all a short walk to the lake, the market, the pools, the clubhouse and the first tee. Only a handful of the Great Lawn sites and homes remain unsold.
To the near right with your back to the lake is Founders Hall, used as chapel, community and performing arts center, and just beyond it the pools; to the near left sits a post office and market -– I can vouch for the quality of its sandwiches. At the top of the long sweeping two-level Great Lawn is the clubhouse, which earned an award from Golf Inc. as one of the best new private clubhouses shortly after it was completed in 2002. Out the front door of the clubhouse is the perfectly manicured croquet lawn with some commanding views out across the downhill first hole and equally uphill 18th. I can understand why residents consider sunsets a big deal at The Reserve.
The Great Lawn, on two levels, runs 360 yards up from the lake marina. It is a magnet for families and sun worshippers on a nice summer's day. Photo courtesy of The Reserve at Lake Keowee/Dave Myers Design.
I ate dinner in the clubhouse on the Saturday night I arrived, attended by a young bartender (a grad student from nearby Clemson University) who answered my questions about the community articulately and enthusiastically, despite the fact he worked there just one night per week while attending school. The cuisine in some private club dining rooms can be uneven, especially when there is little competition in the immediate area. (Trust me, you have to work very hard to find a decent restaurant in the Sunset, SC, area.) But the German chef at The Reserve obviously is at the top of his game and especially knows his way around a schnitzel, offering two hard-to-decide-between choices. I opted for the Holstein Schnitzel, with a perfectly runny fried egg on top. The plate-covering piece of veal was perfectly cooked, the potatoes and vegetables accompanying the dish no mere afterthoughts. In keeping with an ethic to never gouge Reserve members, the menu prices were quite reasonable (the schnitzel dish was $17); atypically for private clubs, The Reserve does not require its members to spend a minimum amount on food and beverage. But if that was the rule, it is hard to imagine anyone complaining, given the quality and the lack of alternatives in the immediate area.
Tigers burn bright on Saturday night
On a fall evening in South Carolina, many of the state’s citizens huddle around TVs to cheer for their Clemson Tigers or state university Gamecocks. On a night when undefeated Clemson fell behind early and then made a steady climb back into the game, every completed pass and recovered fumble producing an ear-splitting crescendo from the family of Clemson grads in front of the big screen in the clubhouse’s great room. I met Reserve co-founder Buddy Thompson the following day in that same room, now quiet, giving me an opportunity to scan all the wood, stone and leather that gave it all a feeling of solid warmth, if a bit of old boys club. Thompson and friend Dean Ricker were the inspiration for the community back in the late 1990s after co-owning seven acres on nearby Lake Jocassee.
The finishing hole at The Reserve is the toughest par 4 on the course (according to me, not the scorecard), an uphill dogleg-left slog that demands a long and well-placed drive.
The price of admission to The Reserve may seem a little heady for some, but the community portrays the kind of esprit du corps that would seem to be welcoming to all comers. Despite the croquet lawn out front, the adjacent clubhouse is warm without being stuffy, a model of un-pretension. At first I was a little surprised that one resident sidled up to the bar on Saturday night wearing a beat-up old Clemson visor, but the dominant theme at The Reserve appears to be live and let live. Even cell phone use is permitted in the clubhouse, although members are gently dissuaded from taking or making calls on the golf course.
“We really have no cell phone policy,” says Thompson. “Most people are very respectful of each other and ‘police' themselves. I have never been interrupted by a phone or heard anyone complain of a bad experience.”
The 10th is one of the trickier driving holes at The Reserve, favoring the player who, like Nicklaus, fades the ball off the tee.
Everyone at The Reserve seems to know everyone else. Thompson touts the friendliness and lack of cliques in the community, a contention that seemed to be proved by the endless stream of club members who stopped by during my conversation with him to offer hearty greetings (but without any ring kissing). Neither did any of them fall all over themselves to try to convince me that The Reserve was a special slice of paradise. And Buddy’s story about his own emotional connection to the land and the community seemed much more narrative than marketing pitch, although he is clearly proud of what he and the original founders have built.
Only one thing at The Reserve seemed a bit disharmonious to me -– the lack of distinction in its name. Plenty of golf communities and clubs include “Reserve” in their names; some Reserve officials admitted that potential buyers have shown up at The Reserve’s gates expecting it was one of The Cliffs Communities (The Cliffs includes “Keowee” in its three local community names). Moreover, for a community whose “DNA,” as Buddy Thompson puts it, is all about being a family gathering place, perhaps something like “Reunion at Lake Keowee” would have been a better branding choice.
Nevertheless, and with that minor observation aside, The Reserve seems to be doing all the right things, and at the proper pace. It walks the talk of conviviality and family. Certainly, The Reserve has a long way to go in terms of dotting its landscape with a lot more homes and generating the income, through land sales, to fund another golf course and the other promised amenities, but the tortoise approach is clearly keeping The Reserve safe from the kind of harm that has befallen other, more aggressive golf communities, including the neighboring Cliffs.
And we know how those tortoise and hare races eventually turn out.
If you would like more information about The Reserve at Lake Keowee or to arrange a discovery visit -- The Reserve's package, which starts at $145, is one of the most reasonably priced that we have encountered -- please contact me.
A group of cottages at The Reserve, some with as many as four bedrooms, start in the $500s. They are within a short cart-ride's distance of the clubhouse and are popular as rental units but are comfortable enough to serve as primary homes as well.