The Ritz Carlton at Reynolds Lake Oconee, along with its blue-ribbon cohorts, strive to fashion a glamorous clays shooting atmosphere evocative of a sporting blueblood frolic on the idyllic family estate.
The Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds excels at the indulgent staging courtesy of manager, Welshman Justin Jones. He tapped into his involvement with Scotland’s iconic Gleneagles and the American Greenbrier resort and Barnsley Resort’s Springbank Sporting Club to create the Ritz’s sporting clays course that’s touched by a British aesthetic.
Like many Americans you’ll initially fall for Mr. Jones’ United Kingdom personage, then followed by your surprise at his amazing competence as an instructor. It runs in the family. He’s a descendant of clays royalty. His grandfather and father captained the British Olympic Trap Shooting teams. He started teaching clays at 15 years old, and traveled internationally representing Great Britain in both Olympic Trap and Skeet. And he’s probably the closest you’ll ever get to the British Royal Family, since he spent several years tutoring them in the shotgun sports. In action, Mr. Jones is old-world charming and reassuring – a model of manor-house central casting.
A few of the sporting clays stands at the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
On its own terms, though, the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, carved from the 12,000 lake-rich acres of the Ritz Carlton at Reynolds Lake Oconee, is an offspring of the sporting heritage established by family patriarch, Mercer Reynolds, Sr.
The Ritz Carlton at Reynolds Lake Oconee was originally purchased by the cottonseed oil entrepreneur in the 1920s. He built the rustic hunting and fishing getaway called Linger Longer in the pristine forest of central Georgia for the enjoyment of the Reynolds clan. Come 1979, Georgia Power dammed the Oconee River, forming a 19,000-acre reservoir with 80 glorious miles of lakefront property on the 12,000 acres the family had amassed over time.
Justin Jones watches Shotgun Life Editor Deborah McKown shooting sporting clays, as onlookers wait their turn to shoot.
In the 1980s, Mr. Reynolds’ grandson, Mercer Reynolds III and his cousin Jamie Reynolds started the Linger Longer Development Company. Identifying prime locations on the family spread, they staked out home sites celebrated for designer homes that would approach $3 million. Christened Reynolds Plantation, Mother Nature became a beneficiary through sweeping land conservation covenants. In 2002, the Ritz-Carlton Lodge opened on 30 acres.
This boat house resides on the lake, immediately behind the sporting clays welcome center.
Reynolds Plantation seemed ordained for success. Mercer Reynolds III enjoyed close political and business ties in his hometown of Greensboro – the county seat. His successful fundraising work with George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2001 to 2003. In 2004, he served as finance chair of President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. His wife, Gabrielle Reynolds, was appointed by President Bush in 2004 to serve on the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. With deep pockets and robust political connections, what could go possibly go wrong with Reynolds Plantation?
In 2007, the Great Recession swept in – savaging the economy for about five years. Fingers were pointed at the subprime mortgage industry for causing a calamity in real estate. Although banks “too big to fail” were bailed out by Washington, Reynolds Plantation started hemorrhaging money as homeowners’ and prospects’ portfolios took torpedoes. Imperiled by insolvency Reynolds Plantation was sold to insurance giant MetLife in August 2012, with partner Daniel Corporation overseeing the property.
Shotgun Life editor Deborah McKown in the Grouse Butte station at the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
The media reported that MetLife got a great deal on Reynolds Plantation, but any cynic would say that those insurance folks love their golf – and Reynolds Planation was all about the golf. In fact, the six champion golf courses (117 holes) are collectively called The Reynolds Kingdom of Golf, presented by TaylorMade.
Since its acquisition MetLife has invested tens of millions of dollars in The Ritz Carlton at Reynolds Lake Oconee, with the Kingdom of Golf and the hotel the largest beneficiaries. And although we’ll never see a Kingdom of Sporting Clays there, the new Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds was obviously built on a big budget well-spent by people who know what they’re doing.
A few more of the stations on the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds. The Instruction and Games area includes stations dedicated to particular targets such as rabbits and crossers.
There’s the wooded one-mile loop of 20 stations for sporting clays, but other clays (and shooting) games abound. A luxurious 5-Stand cabin features a fireplace and a mind-blowing water rabbit target where the clay target races across the surface of a spring-fed pond. Three game and instructional 5-Stands for private lessons and corporate events each throw rabbits, teal and crossers. (The dedicated rabbit position could launch three simultaneous targets that would cause your eyeballs to spontaneously combust.)
The 5-Stand at the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
The Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds also has air rifles, archery, hiking and a 40-acre angling lake for catch-and-release from a pier or boat. The prominent Sandy Creek Barn was originally built in the early 1800s then relocated to the site from Pennsylvania in 2007. The rustic, cavernous interior with its commercial kitchen hosts special events. An attached office is the welcome center where the safe is stocked with Berettas of all gauges.
The apparent quality completely belies the bullet-train timetable of development. In January 2017, Mr. Jones received an invitation to design the clays facilities. He was allocated 125 acres. Construction started in July and three months later it was finished.
The Sandy Creek Barn at the Sporting Grounds.
“It seemed like we had every builder in Greene County working on it,” he said. In the end, 20 beautiful stations (most covered) were positioned around a wooded, one-mile loop. Of course he included a sunken grouse butt (called The Shire) and a lovely stone station capped with grass called the Glorious 12th as a nod to the August 12th start of red grouse shooting in the UK.
Our introduction to the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds took place on a storybook autumn afternoon – the air perfumed with pine and cedar. We started with a 15-minute drive from the hotel on a series of roads that continued from planned communities to pastoral panoramas.
Designers of resort sporting clays courses walk a tightrope. Their customers are mostly hotel guests with zero to minimal experience. The targets should allow beginners to relish the adrenaline spike of a fluorescent orange explosion with assistance from a qualified instructor. More experienced shooters, though, want a challenge comparable to the golf course. And at Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, six Signature covered stations are geared toward corporate outings – playing to Mr. Jones’ strength of organizing events for the British consulates in Georgia and Florida through his Miami consultancy, 3 Dragons.
Yes, you can argue that the business opportunities are similar to most clays clubs. We’ve shot at some ratty places with dilapidated PVC stations and bathrooms marked pointers and setters that host charity fund raisers, bachelor parties and car dealership team builders. But those clubs don’t offer cranberry-pomegranate spa treatments, $450 per night hotel rooms, $2,300 lakefront cottages or an on-site steakhouse filet at $50.00 ala carte. At resorts, context is everything.
A quick video of the water rabbit target on the 5-Stand the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
So Mr. Jones and his team have set the Sandy Creek sporting clays targets to address a broad spectrum of experience. We discovered many of the presentations are deceptively tough. Examine the lookers and you think easy-as-pie. But he has infused them with a sleight-of-hand; when the shot is triggered your miss will be close, but a miss nonetheless. (And to illustrate the target setting ingenuity, step into the station and you may notice virtually no clay target shards. That’s because break points are set for debris to fall out of view.)
So for newbies, the instruction is critical.
“I like to enforce the positive side of shooting where I put myself in the shoes of the shooter,” he explained. “Here we use the student’s natural abilities and mold them into shooters using different methods.”
Justin Jones works with a brand new clays shooter at the Ritz Carlton Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.
In our group, Mr. Jones worked with two women who never held a shotgun before and had them break the first target out of the trap machine. When he says “mold them into shooters” it’s sort of literal. He positions the gun, their shoulder, head and hands for their individual body shape and target presentation – encouraging them through positive reinforcement. It’s more yoga guru than shotgun coach, where the acolyte can’t quite manage the Dhanurasana pose until the instructor provides some oomph.
Sorry to report that the clays shooting at the Sandy Creek Sporting Club is reserved for resort guests and community homeowners and their guests. The experience includes a shotgun, shells, trapper/instructor and golf cart. One-hundred rounds of sporting clays starts at $165.00, 5-Stand at $50.00 (25 targets) and a Corporate Flurry of 100 targets costs $150.00. Other packages are available.
By the way, bring your appetite. The food was incredible.
Irwin Greenstein is the publisher of Shotgun Life. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.