Atlanta Athletic Club: The Best 36 Hole Club in the South?
This year I’ve made it to a number of famous golf clubs:
Baltusrol, Oak Hill, and Winged Foot – are all extremely special places.
But for all the history of those clubs, there’s another 36 hole club that might have even more history than any of those places.
What is it?
Atlanta Athletic Club, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Bold statement, yes.
And you know what makes it all the more remarkable?
The courses here weren’t built in the 1920s like the aforementioned clubs.
The original 27 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones opened in 1964.
A 4th 9 designed by Joe Finger opened in 1971.
So how can a club whose courses are so (relatively) new, rival the history of such iconic places built decades earlier?
Recently I spent two days at Atlanta Athletic Club, where I was treated to rounds on their championship Highlands Course, as well as the newly redesigned, Riverside Course.
What do you get when you combine two very different courses, unparalleled club history, and world-class athletic facilities?
One of the best 36-hole private clubs in the country.
Today, we’re going to touch on the history of the AAC and how Bobby Jones left his mark there. We’re also going to look at the Highlands and redesigned Riverside golf courses to find out exactly why AAC is such a special place.
History of Atlanta Athletic Club
If you’re reading this, then chances are you know that Bobby Jones was the best amateur golfer that ever lived.
You also likely know that he was instrumental in the creation of Augusta National.
But do you know what his home club was?
Atlanta Athletic Club.
It only takes a few seconds upon entering the sprawling clubhouse to realize how much history lies within its walls.
As one guest in my group said “Man, you could charge a lot of money for tours of this place!”
It truly is like a museum, and AAC is home to the largest collection of Bobby Jones memorabilia in the world.
Whether it’s clubs he used in major events, letters written throughout the years, or unique trophies from his career – I left after an hour of exploring having a much greater appreciation for who Bobby Jones was both as a golfer and a person.
The Early Years…
I posed a question earlier: How can a club whose courses were built in the 1960s and 1970s have a history that rivals that of golden age clubs built in the 1920s?
For starters, AAC was founded earlier than many of those clubs, in 1898.
In the early years, Atlanta Athletic Club had campuses in both downtown Atlanta, as well as at East Lake.
Yes, that East Lake.
East Lake Golf club was originally part of AAC, and was the primary course for their members.
However as the membership grew and the area of town where East Lake resides slowly deteriorated, the club voted to move to the suburbs up north of the city in John’s Creek – which is where Atlanta Athletic Club resides today.
In 1967, the vast majority of the membership was spending their time at the new campus and the club voted on the decision to sell the East Lake property.
So while the current courses have only been around since the 1960s, the history of the club extends way back to the 19th century, and was a prominent force in shaping the golf community across the South.
AAC has done a phenomenal job of capturing and showcasing their history across its clubhouse, and if you ever visit, be sure to devote some time to exploring their wonderful collection of golf artifacts.
You can read far more detail about the history of the club here.
The Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club
The Highlands Course is the more famous of the two courses at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
It was a robust championship pedigree having hosted the:
- US Open (1976)
- PGA Championship (1981, 2001, 2011)
- US Amateur (2014)
- Women’s PGA Championship (2021)
The original 9 of the Highlands was designed by Robert Trent Jones is the current back 9. Joe Finger designed the front 9 in 1971.
Over the years the course had a number of renovations done by Rees Jones, who the club brought in beginning in 1994. Significant work was done to the course ahead of both the 2001 and 2011 PGA Championships, and the most recent renovations were done in 2016.
The Front 9 of the Highlands Course
I first played the Highlands in April of 2016 as it was in the midst of these renovations.
I shot a 104.
It was my highest score of the year, and is a testament to the challenge of the course.
Atlanta Athletic Club sits on 500 acres of beautiful parkland, and walking either of the courses here is an absolute joy.
It was especially picturesque visiting on a couple of perfect November Fall days, as I did on this recent trip.
Upon arriving on the first tee, you know you’re in for a stern test of golf.
The opening hole is a good introduction to elements you can expect to find throughout the course.
Staring down the fairway, you see a wall of bunkers at the corner of the dogleg left.
A well-struck drive could put you in them if you’re long enough – and it forces you to consider playing a riskier shot over the tree on the corner.
There are more deep bunkers surrounding the green, and the areas without bunkers? Expect very tightly mowed run-off areas, forcing a precarious putt or chip back up to the green.
The Highlands has very little in common with Bandon Dunes, save for one thing:
If you’re off the green on a tight lie? Put the wedge away and putt.
As my caddie said that day “your worst putt will be a lot better than your worst chip.”
The 4th hole is the first par 3, and is an introduction to what you can expect to find on all of the short holes on the course: water.
The quartet of par 3s in my opinion are a better version of what you find at Medinah #3. At Medinah, 3 of the short holes feel very similar with forced carries over a lake.
Here while they all have that same water element, they feel decidedly unique, and I thoroughly enjoyed each of them.
It didn’t hurt that I hit a perfect 7-iron to 8 feet here on 4.
4 through 8 is one of my favorite stretches on the course.
The 5th is a stout dogleg right par 5.
6 is a fantastic shorter par 4 that asks you to be thoughtful with your tee ball based on the location of the day’s pin.
The green is big, but a miss anywhere will make for a tough up and down.
The par 3 7th has bunkers guarding both the front and the back of the green. There’s a bit of deception as it causes the green to look much more shallow than it is.
8 is a par 4 cape hole which begs you to bite off more of the water than you probably should.
The Back 9 of the Highlands Course
Once you make the turn, you’re back on the original part of the property where the first 27 holes were built.
There’s some wonderful elevation change on this part of the property and you’re able to get glimpses of both the Riverside Course and the Chattahoochee River.
The 11th might be my favorite hole at Atlanta Athletic Club.
A long par 4 with a tee shot that feels pretty straightforward.
But the second shot is a wonderful downhill approach with a pond on the right and bunkers on the left.
It’s both beautiful and challenging, and sticking one close from the elevated fairway is one of the most satisfying shots on the course.
12 is a big dogleg left par 5, which is one of the more precarious tee shots on the course.
The bunkers covering the right-hand side force you to want to play left, but the trees guarding the corner ensure you better make good contact if you want to get to the corner and have a chance at going for the green in two.
There’s a steep runoff from the green into a pond, so you better be confident in your game to attempt that shot.
On 14 more of the challenging Rees Jones bunkering is evident.
You can bomb it over the large fairway bunker for a shorter approach, or bail out left, and leave yourself with 200+ to an uphill green.
The par 3 15th is one of the most famous holes on the course.
It can play as long as 260 yards from the tips. While David Toms aced it in his 2001 PGA victory, Keegan Bradley somehow still managed to win the 2011 tournament, despite making a triple bogey here.
16 is an uphill par 4, that is the most direct way to see the difference between the Highlands and Riverside Courses – but we’ll talk about that in a little bit.
17 is the final par 3, and is a beautiful all-or-nothing water carry – that is the most “Medinah-esque” of the par 3s.
And the finisher is a fantastic par 5 in the shadows of the clubhouse.
Final Thoughts on the Highlands Course
The Highlands Course had much of its work done in an era where the mindset was “let’s make this course as hard as possible.”
We’ve seen a number of courses Rees Jones has had a hand in get overhauled recently (Sleepy Hollow for instance), but honestly?
I think the Highlands is a wonderful golf course. It’s challenging, yes. Some of the elements of the course (such as the bunkering) are done in a style that isn’t quite as en-vogue as it was in the 90s.
But the course has character. It has some beautiful and fun golf holes.
I enjoyed the course when it kicked my butt 6 years ago.
I enjoyed it even more now, while looking at it with a more critical eye for the architecture and shot values.
It truly is one of the best courses in Georgia.
The Riverside Course at Atlanta Athletic Club
The Highlands on its own is a wonderful golf course.
When you take that test of golf, and throw in the history of the club? That’s a special combination.
But for me, what elevates Atlanta Athletic Club to one of the greatest clubs in the country is the Riverside course.
I’ve always been fascinated with how course architects approach designing multiple courses on the same property.
You have 500 acres. The land is very similar.
So how do you create something that isn’t redundant?
How do you design a complementary course that provides a unique experience from one course to the other, despite being on the same piece of land?
As a member, that’s what I’d look for most in a 36-hole club: Two experiences that are unique from one another.
This was one of the things Tripp Davis would have to consider when he got the job to renovate the Riverside Course this past year.
Despite being the less well-known of the two courses, the Riverside has some tournament pedigree of it’s own.
It hosted the 1990 US Women’s Open, as well as some of the stroke play rounds in the 2014 US Amateur (I think).
Mr. Davis was given three primary goals with the new course:
- Update the aging infrastructure to the course
- Utilize the terrain in a more natural way
- Make the course more enjoyable to play
I had the chance to play the course just 9 days after it reopened, and it’s safe to say that he accomplished all of these goals and then some.
All it takes is one look at any hole on the Riverside Course and you’ll immediately see a difference between it and its Highlands sibling.
The bunkering is completely different.
Where the Highlands bunkers look and feel like they were built in the 1990s, the more natural-looking Riverside bunkers feel like a throwback to a Mackenzie or Raynor course from the 20s.
You generally have wider fairways, more options for bailing out, and less severe runoff around the greens.
The best way to see the differences between the two courses is to simply look at each of their 16th holes, which are side by side and play up the same ridge.
The bunkering on Highlands is more severe, the fairway is more narrow, and each shot demands more of you.
On Riverside, you still have a risk-reward decision to make with your line off the tee, but overall you have a bit more breathing room.
The Front 9 of the Riverside Course
The course starts out with an excellent par 5.
There’s a fairway bunker just barely peeking out, which can cause you to pause before deciding your line.
There’s nothing overly difficult about the hole, but you’ve still gotta hit good shots to make a score.
The second is one of my favorite holes on the course.
There are beautiful cross bunkers down the right-hand side. Take them on, and you’ll have a better shot at most hole locations on the green,
If this were the Highlands, the back right of the green would all be closely mown run-off areas.
But here, the rough off the green is far more friendly and playable. So if you miss the green, or don’t want to take on the more highly guarded left side, you’ve got options.
Tripp got a reputation among club members for hating lakes.
While that’s not entirely true, he did take out multiple lakes on the course, with the one on 3 and 4 being among the most prominent.
The third is a brand new par 3, with the 4th being a par 4.
The greens aren’t severe on the Riverside course – but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.
They’re subtle but have much more movement than you’d think at first glance.
The 3rd green is a great example of this.
It’s pretty wild to think that despite bordering the river in multiple spots, the banks were so overgrown you could barely see it.
On the 5th tee, you get a peek of the newly opened up Chattahoochie River.
6 is a par 3 over water that feels similar to the short holes on Highlands, yet more forgiving. Especially if you’re playing from some of the forward tees which give you an easier angle into the green.
RTJ originally did the Riverside design, and the 7th hole has vibes that are reminiscent of some of his best work at places like Peachtree and Spyglass Hill.
The finisher on the front is one of the most challenging holes at Atlanta Athletic Club.
At 462 from the blues, even a well-struck drive will likely leave you with 200+ into the green.
Back 9 of the Riverside Course
The back 9 of Riverside may very well be my favorite 9 on the entire property.
You have a little bit of everything, and it’s a beautiful walk.
10 is a fantastic par 4 that gives you all kinds of options. You can play driver to give yourself a short iron in on your approach, but risk ending up in a fairway bunker on the right.
A more conservative tee ball can take those out of play, but give yourself a longer approach, which can be especially tricky if the pin is left, as it brings the lake into play.
The 11th is my favorite par 3 on the Riverside Course, and it’s also the most scenic.
In talking with AAC members, 12 was the most common answer I got when I asked “what’s your favorite hole.”
It’s easy to see why.
The par 5 gives you all kinds of options for how to play the hole. There are multiple places to lay up your second shot depending on the pin position, and with a solid drive it’s reachable in two if you’re willing to be aggressive.
The river comes back into play on 13 and 14.
Before the renovation, you could hardly see the river from the course. But Tripp and his team opened up over 1000 yards of riverfront, adding great views and a sense of openness to the course.
Coincidentally, I used to be a member of a course called Riverside in Portland, Oregon. There is no river to be found there, either.
14 is a drivable par 4, with a subtle double plateau green. You don’t see many of them these days, but the 9th at Fishers Island is in my top 10 favorite greens in the world – so it was great to see Tripp’s rendition.
One of the main design briefs for the Riverside Course was to have it better utilize the natural landscape.
You really notice this around holes 15 and 16, where you’ve also got views of the Highlands Course.
Specifically, the tee boxes.
The Highlands tee boxes are raised on most of the holes. So if you’re looking across the course, you can clearly see where the tee boxes are.
The Riverside takes the opposite approach. The tee boxes are lower, so they blend into the landscape better.
And when you’re walking the course at sunset like I was, this approach to blending the course in with the natural landscape truly pays off from an aesthetic standpoint.
17 is the last and arguably toughest par 3 on the course.
Like holes 3 and 4, 18 also saw the removal of a lake, which makes it a little bit easier to justify being aggressive on the closing par 5.
But just because there’s no water, that doesn’t mean the greenside bunkers won’t provide a challenge.
Final Thoughts on the Riverside Course and AAC
If you’d told me this course was built in the 1960s, I wouldn’t have believed you.
It really does feel like an homage to an earlier era of golf, while still having character all its own.
The members at Atlanta Athletic Club should be proud of the work that was done here, and as the course continues to mature it’s only going to get better over time.
While you could say the Riverside is the “easier” of the two courses at the Club, that doesn’t mean it can’t have some teeth.
Grow out the rough, speed up the greens, and play from the tips? This course will challenge even the best of golfers.
But having such a playable course to complement the challenging Highlands Course makes for a wonderful addition to the club.
I knew Atlanta Athletic Club was a memorable place.
But it wasn’t until I was able to truly spend some time soaking in the history, while also playing the two courses back to back that I was able to realize just how special of a place it is.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that AAC is the best 36-hole club in the State, if not the entire Southeast region.
If you have the opportunity to play, you won’t regret making the time to do so.
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