Bob Gillespie



Bargain golf: New look at Indian River is a result of vision, and fewer trees

Posted 12/17/2012 10:29:00 AM

The newest “look” in Columbia-area golf began the day Ron Simpson looked out from his post at Indian River Golf Club and lamented at what he couldn’t see.

The golf course, located at 200 Indian River Drive in the South Congaree community (its mailing address is West Columbia), incorporates sprawling Lake Frances as part of its 6,507-yard, par-71 layout, with water perhaps 50 yards from the left side of the par-4 18th hole. For years, though, most players didn’t know that because of dense stands of pines between the 18th green and the water.

Simpson, 65, a club member for nearly 20 years and general manager since January 2011, remembers the February 2011 day “I went out on a terrible limb. I was standing in the pro shop saying, ‘It would be great if you could see the lake from here.’” That led him to call owner Jean Gray, telling his boss, “We need to cut down some trees.”

Gray agreed, and the result is a back nine at Indian River that – if you haven’t played there recently – you likely would not recognize.

Some 100 truckloads of pines and “diseased hardwoods” later, the formerly tree-lined fairways of the back nine offer sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Another benefit of the tree removal – much of the timber remains stacked where it fell, though removal by the S.C. Department of Energy for biomass use is in the works – is that Indian River’s once-shrouded fairways and greens are “amazingly healthy” now, Simpson says.

Bottom line: A golf course in the past best described as “good layout, questionable conditioning” is on its way to becoming one of the Midlands’ most dramatic, and enjoyable, tests.

Simpson says the club soon will add 1,800 Cleveland pear and dogwood trees, along with lemon grass and love grass, for aesthetics and to aid depth perception. The clubhouse also will undergo upgrades. All of the greens – many featuring severe slopes and undulations – were rebuilt in 2009, resulting in some of the area’s most challenging putting surfaces.

Built in 1992 by Lyndale Young, Indian River was conceived as a public course, with housing lots for sale along its fairways. But as Young became involved in other projects – notably the Tom Fazio-designed Woodcreek Farms course in northeast Columbia – much of Indian River’s maintenance budget was diverted to the new, higher-end club.

Then, about the time Simpson was joining his long-time club’s staff, Young’s father, who by then owned Indian River, died and left it to his daughter, Gray, who decided it was time to plow money back into the course. That, Simpson says, has made all the difference – to the course, and also for him and other regulars.

“I’ve got a passion for golf, and Indian River is a part of me. I love it,” he says. “To me, this is not a job. And it gives me a lot of pleasure to see the course go through these changes that I recommended.”

While Indian River’s upgrade is still in transition, conditioning-wise, the upside is promising. With a mixture of parkland-style holes (mostly on the front nine) and links-style mounds and rolling terrain (mostly on the back), the course is rich in variety and shot values.

The club’s par-5 holes demonstrate that variety. The short (479 yards from the tips) third hole, with an uphill tee shot that carries over a ridgeline and down to a mound-guarded green, is Simpson’s favorite “because it’s the easiest; I’ve got 11 eagles there.” The dogleg-right, 604-yard 16th hole is one of the toughest and most picturesque, with a downhill approach into a green framed by Lake Frances. The par-4 eighth hole, short but demanding a tee shot through a gap in trees to a tumbling fairway and steeply-sloped green, is surprisingly tough; the 465-yard, par-4 10th is just a long, difficult uphill brute.

“It’s not an easy course, and it was designed not to be easy,” Simpson says. “But I like the challenge. I never get tired of playing it every day.”

Simpson believes others will feel that way once they play it, which brings us to the “bargain golf” part: As of Nov. 1 and continuing through December, Indian River will charge its usual twilight rates ($25 weekdays, $30 weekends, with Monday-Friday senior rates of $22) from opening to closing each day – a savings of $7-$12.

“The theory (Gray) and I share is, we’d rather have 40 cars in that parking lot than five,” he says. “We want a lot of play, and we want folks to feel they got their money’s worth.”

The course upgrades and bargain pricing are boosting business; Indian River has played 28,000 rounds so far in 2012, compared to 19,000 in 2011. “I think improvement in the economy and what we’ve done” are driving more play, Simpson says. Hiring course superintendent Larry Smith, a 40-year veteran at the Country Club of Lexington, also has upgraded overall conditioning.

It’s the combination of playability, aesthetics and service – “you’ve got to have a staff who treats everyone with respect,” Simpson says – that makes Indian River worth a visit. And, he adds with a laugh, the views of the lake from the clubhouse and elsewhere are pretty sweet, too.

For information and/or tee times, call (803) 955-0080 or click here. You can also e-mail