REUNION, Fla. - A decade later, Bobby Ginn's loss is proving to be Florida-bound golfers' gain.
Ginn was arguably the biggest name in golf-centric real estate development through much of the early 2000s. He built an enviable portfolio of luxe resort and residential communities in several locations, from Florida to the Carolinas and beyond. Brand-name designers shaped his courses and until the market dried up, big, splashy houses and condos lorded over the scene, along with other attractive amenities.
It all came crashing down when the economy declined in 2008. Ginn's shady financial dealings were exposed by this reversal in fortunes, and away went his empire.
Of equal note to Reunion's golf options is its almost dizzying range of accommodations. One-, two- and three-bedroom villas abound; many resorts have these, which serve couples, families or smaller groups of golfers nicely.
But where Reunion really seems to shine is in its rental program, containing dozens of houses that tend to range from "big and nice" to "really big and really nice."
I recently stayed in one of the latter types of homes during a brief trip, and was seriously impressed. To be more precise, the house I stayed in was described to me as “baller.” The word and other similarly enthusiastic adjectives sometimes get thrown around carelessly, but not in this case The house really was baller. It had five bedrooms, each with its own en suite bathroom, with a sixth half-bathroom on the high-ceilinged, open-plan main floor.
The gigantic master suite was on the main floor, with the other four bedrooms upstairs. Out back was a heated swimming pool and hot tub, overlooking the sixth hole at the resort’s Watson course. The kitchen was big and well-appointed, with a large wine rack (perfect for groups of traveling oenophile golfers) and a Miele cappuccino maker (perfect for waking up after a night of wine-drinking).
In other words, it was a paradise for groups of golfers.
If five bedrooms isn't enough, there are houses in the Reunion Resort vacation rental pool as large as 12 (yes - a full dozen) bedrooms and is capable of sleeping as many as 28 people. One 10-bedroom mansion, called Eagle Bay, has a home theater, game room pool and a lazy river to boot. Nightly rental rates for the whole place range from $2,000 to $3,000, which, split per bedroom, works out to $200 to $300 per bedroom, per night. When you consider the quality of these accommodations, compared to a run-of-the-mill resort hotel room, the value is pretty outrageous. "Baller on a budget," you might say.
(Note: Eagle Bay represents the most over-the-top accommodations available at Reunion. Many other large houses, which are awesome but perhaps slightly less opulent, can be rented for closer to $100 per bedroom per night.)
The Reunion Resort house I stayed in, Homestead Sycamore, had a great living room area overlooking the pool. (Salamander Hotels)
Nicklaus Course has personality to match resort's own
The flash and glamor of the accommodations at Reunion are reflected in its golf courses. They would not be confused with the modern minimalist works of Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, but they have plenty of admirers in their own right. I enjoyed the Nicklaus Course, the newest 18, on my visit.
Nicklaus' style has evolved somewhat over the decades, owing both to changes in general course design philosophy and the coming and going of design associates, who handle many of the on-site aspects of construction. Broadly, the Golden Bear's work has grown more player-friendly since his very difficult 1970s and 80s efforts, which left little room for error on any full swing due to narrow fairways, slender, angled greens and deep bunkers. South Carolina's Pawleys Plantation, which I've played more than any other golf course, opened in 1988. It is a relentless test of all parts of a golfer's game - particularly the ability to limit damage and handle adversity.
Into and through the 2000s, though, Nicklaus' courses have particularly widened out off the tee, and putting surfaces have gotten a bit wider as well. With greater putting space has come greater undulation, though, adding a bit more lag-putting to the list of demands. Bayside Resort near Ocean City, Maryland, is a good example of this.
The Nicklaus Course at Reunion is actually a bit different in one of these two regards. It is a balanced and fun test off the tee, with deep fairway bunkers often protecting the best route to the green. Two of the first four holes have pot bunkers in the center of the fairways - should you hit a fade or draw around them or lay up short? A righty fade around a huge fairway bunker off the 10th tee sets up an approach that calls for a draw. If you can sling a right-to-left tee shot down the 18th fairway, you may be able to reach the green of the par five in two.
It's here where this course bucks the trend somewhat. The greens at the Nicklaus Course at Reunion are on the small side. And more like their later-20th-century cousins, many sit at an angle to the line of play. A straight approach that is sky-high should be fine in most cases, but it's best to work an approach along the axis of the putting surface. The par-3 16th is a prime example of this: the green runs from front-left to back-right, and a right-handed fade (a Nicklaus specialty) is the best shot to hit. It's the most intimidating approach shot on a course with its fair share of them.
The Nicklaus Course plays through some of the biggest houses on the Reunion property. Happily, they sit well back from the line of play, making out-of-bounds a very minimal concern.