I’d held a 9-iron but never gripped a gun.
Chip shots? Yes.
Reynolds Lake Oconee’s Ritz Carlton Hotel
That is until I arrived at Reynolds Lake Oconee’s Ritz Carlton Hotel where guests can take aim at both fairways and sporting clays.
“I have designed a shooting course that is essentially golf with a shotgun,” said Justin Jones, the director of the resort’s new Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
Jones convinced me to put my putter down and give shooting a shot, pun intended. Reynolds Lake Oconee, a resort and residential community situated between Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia, boasts six scenic award-winning golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Jim Engh and Bob Cupp. But Jones had his own designs for me that January day, so I made the short drive through the hills and forests of Reynolds to the 100-acre piece of remote countryside and through the gates of the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
I soon discovered the poise and English accent of Welshman Jones and rough-hewn but stylish appearance of the circa-1800’s worn-wood and stone barn, the centerpieces of what would be a shooting experience with a sophisticated, traditional flavor. Jones, both calming and enthusiastic, greeted me when I stepped out of my car.
“We’re thinking of bringing guests by boat ride across the lake from the Ritz Carlton to the sporting grounds here,” he revealed as I surveyed the setting of the welcome center on the quiet water of Lake Gideon, upon which visitors to the sporting grounds can kayak, canoe, fish or hike around. I soon learned of Jones’ admiration and appreciation for the management of Reynolds Lake Oconee which encouraged and almost always implemented his creative ideas such as the boat service. Ownership allowed Jones to personally design the very natural, thoughtful, exciting sporting clay shooting facility. He also carefully selected a staff of young, accomplished competitive shooters to serve as guides.
Shooting with Jones, an accomplished competitive shooter, is like playing golf with a PGA Tour player in a pro-am. Both his grandfather and father captained British Olympic trap shooting teams and the family farm in Wales is home to the leading trap-shooting grounds in Great Britain.
“Here at Reynolds we are blessed with a wonderful piece of land over undulating terrain and Sandy creek,” Jones told me as he outfitted me with safety glasses and ear muffs. We were in the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds welcome center and outfitters shop, which was very much like being in a golf shop. Instead of balls I was getting bullets; instead of Callaway club rentals I was borrowing a Browning or Beretta. (The bullets and rifle usage are included in the fee which tops out at $250 for a single person with an hour of expert instruction while shooting 50 targets.) When we then climbed into a specially-customized golf cart, I was tempted to begin looking for the first tee.
“We were able to put in 20 individual shooting stations, similar to the concept of an 18-hole golf course,” explained Jones, who had placed my rifle in a gun rack before taking the wheel. The Welshman stepped on the accelerator and had now become, in golf parlance, part caddie and part instructor. “Up to five people at a time can experience a one-mile trail in a customized golf cart and you ‘play the holes’ or ‘stations.’ In terms of difficulty, some are ‘par-threes’ and some are ‘par-fours.’ Just like golf holes, each shooting station is individual and presents different challenges.”
As a complete novice, I was wide-eyed under my safety goggles when we arrived at the first shooting station – a small, covered, wooden stand – and watched another newbie had just fired her rifle and hit one of the flying, biodegradable, non-toxic clay disks that had silently launched through the air by a solar-powered device. Her shooting guide pushed a button after she’d signaled she was ready by calling out the traditional command: “pull!” Jones smiled at my surprised look.
“Half of our guests are women. 70-percent of the guests have never held a gun before. So we’re very much a school in terms of providing all of the equipment and looking after the guests. Everybody, up to five guests at a time, goes out with a companion guide,” he explained. “They’re out to have a bit of safe fun and adventure.”
Since the poor level of golf at which I play hitting errant balls deep into the woods often makes for unsafe adventure, I smiled at his choice of words.
I presumed I would be worse at shooting than golf, but I was wrong. Despite being a bit nervous having never even felt the kick of a rifle, Jones, in a matter of minutes, coached me to the point I was ready to shoot. I pointed the shotgun and held my breath.
“Pull,” I said, with a tone of voice so it was more like a request than the typical command.
A clay disk then zoomed from out of the trees like a silent Frisbee soaring from right-to-left. Following the simple tips I’d been given I pulled the trigger and watched the disc explode into pieces and fall to the turf.
Jones seemed to be as excited as if I’d shot Osama bin Laden. I felt sheepishly proud – and ready to do it again. The rifle kick was minimal – not nearly as strong as I’d expected it to be, so we went from automated station to station, driving the cart in between, blasting away for the next hour or so as if the wonderfully natural setting was an open-air arcade – which it is – blended into the forested thickets and pecan orchard.
Each station is entirely on its own and unique. The covered stands are positioned to make the shooter aim in different directions and varying through the prevailing winds from different angles, elevations, trajectories and distances. The targets are launched from different directions and at different speeds – some roll and bounce along the ground and some even skip over water to simulate the flight and movement of game birds and animals. There are fun little touches here and there, but Jones said he was very careful to keep his creative designs natural and not “Disney-like.”
“Sometimes the targets are ‘incoming’ and sometimes they are ‘away targets,’” Jones revealed. “We have tried to make every ‘hole’ or ‘shooting station’ memorable and different, just like on a golf course.”
My experience is one of a variety of options available at the Sandy Creek Sports Grounds, which has archery, a colorful air rifle range for kids, and a “five stand” cabin shooting range above a spring-fed pond and games area which allows for a flurry of 40 targets to be launched at one time for a group of shooters. Corporate outings, celebratory gatherings, and yes, golf groups with no experience or sharpened skills visiting Reynolds Lake Oconee can enjoy shooting together and comparing results in fun competitions.
The historic, circa-1800 Sandy Creek Barn is a colorful building with great ambiance for wedding, culinary dining, and “après-shoot” gatherings. Jones and I recounted the days’ shoot over dinner at The Oberlook Restaurant in the clubhouse of the Great Waters golf course, one of Reynolds Lake Oconee’s gourmet restaurants. We sat at a table where golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who designed and renovated the course, lunched only days earlier.
We both chose an astonishing 16-ounce crab cake created by chef de cuisine Craig Elwood, who said he’d spent years perfecting the recipe and texture of the dish, which contains very little else but crab.
“You won’t ever see a crab cake like this anywhere else,” said chef Elwood before explaining the secret of how he gets so much crab and so few breadcrumbs to hold its’ shape.
Between bites my conversation with Jones consisted of him insisting that, for a newbie, I was a very good shot; and me insisting he was merely flattering me. The very colorful Jones regaled me (humbly) with international tales of guiding the Royal family in shoots at Balmoral and Sandringham back in Britain and how he spent days with business moguls and big name celebrities.
The overall shooting experience felt both sophisticated and macho. And as a subject of Her Majesty who is blending the shooting and golf experiences, he Jones should remember that in 1457, Scotland’s King James II banned golf in the very country it was invented.
Because Scotland’s archers were weakening the army by playing golf rather than training! All these years later Jones, and his Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, are reversing the interest.
Log into ReynoldsLakeOconee.com or call (800) 901-1204.
Michael Patrick Shiels is a radio host and travel writer. Follow his adventures at GoWorldTravel.com/TravelTattler. You can contact him via MShiels@aol.com.