GREENSBORO, GEORGIA | The newest course at Reynolds Lake Oconee was not laid out by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio or Rees Jones, who all have constructed other tracks at this north Georgia retreat. Rather, it was designed by a Welshman named Justin Jones, and golf aficionados can be excused if that name has no meaning to them, for Jones knows little about the royal and ancient game.
Jones is, however, a champion shooter, and what he recently created here is a 20-station sporting clays course that is as delightful a place to test one’s shotgun skills as it is demanding. Opened this past fall and routed on some 50 acres of land, it is the centerpiece of the new Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, which also includes a superb Five Stand course as well as air rifle and archery ranges and a 40-acre lake that teems with bass and bream. And they give visitors to Reynolds, which features 117 holes of golf, a sumptuous Ritz-Carlton hotel, a 19,000-acre lake that offers some of the best fishing, swimming and boating in the state as well as tennis courts, swimming pools and a well-appointed spa.
The idea at Sandy Creek was to create a sporting clays course that simulated both the fun and challenge of a classic British-style shoot, with clay targets launched at a variety of speeds, trajectories, angles, elevations and distances. Much like golf, each sporting clays track is different, and the stations are as diverse as the holes on a regulation layout. And Jones’ goal was to produce something here that would appeal to novices and experts and give shooters of all abilities a sense of the different targets a person might find in the field, whether a soaring woodcock or a high-flying grouse, a dart of teal or a pair of flushing pheasant.
I have shot clay targets since I was a young boy and took my first spin around a sporting clays course nearly 40 years ago, just as it was becoming a popular recreation for shooters in the States. I fancy it as much as any outdoor activity, even golf, and I fell hard for what Jones has fashioned on the rolling terrain at Sandy Creek, which included stands of firs and hardwoods, expansive meadows, an abandoned pecan orchard and hollows in which spring-fed ponds had formed.
We traveled from station to station in a customized, all-terrain golf buggy after Jones had outfitted me with a 12- gauge over-and-under from Beretta that boasted a stock with dark mineral lines and lovely marbling and an action with intricate etchings. And at each one, Jones started by pulling a single target and then gave me a pair on report (with the second clay “pigeon” launched on the sound of the first shot) and a true pair (with the two birds launched simultaneously).
As a lifelong duck hunter, I especially liked No. 15, where I had to take my shots over a pond. I also loved the stands that made me feel as if I was trying to take down hard-flying grouse on the Scottish moors as well as those that offered targets that bounded quickly across the ground like a speedy hare. And I appreciated the gentle but very informative ways in which Jones, who is available for private instruction, advised me on how I could increase my percentages of “dead birds” by increasing my lead on crossing shots or making sure I kept my head down on the stock when I swung.
It took us about 2½ hours to complete the course and go through four boxes of shells. But I was not even close to sated. So, we headed over to the Five Stand, which is a sort of compact version of sporting clays that has shooters moving among five stands in a rustic, open-sided structure overlooking another pond.
The set-up is less elaborate than the course I had just shot but every bit as enjoyable, and I convinced Jones to let me shot two more boxes. That gave me a total of 150 targets for the day, and gave us plenty to talk about when we put my gun away and retired for an adult beverage to the Sandy Creek Barn, which was built in the 1800s and relocated to the Sporting Grounds from a Pennsylvania farm a decade ago. And as we stood at the bar that afternoon, I could not help but think that of all the courses at Reynolds Lake Oconee, this one might well be my favorite.