Golf

Bob Gillespie

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Back (Nine) Stories: If you build it, they will come … to Penny Branch

Posted 3/22/2013 11:46:00 AM

Few businesses get the sort of immediate feedback that often occurs when golfers walk into the clubhouse/converted farmhouse at Penny Branch Golf Club.

Even rarer: The feedback comes in the form of a song.

The words, “Every round at Penny Branch Golf Club starts with a beautiful drive …” are the opening to a jingle that the McKenzie family bought from a Texas-based marketing group to advertise their golf course. Soon after a Savannah TV station began airing the ads, “people were walking in, singing it,” says club manager Wendy McKenzie Wolverton. “They get it stuck in their heads.”

Much the way that Penny Branch gets stuck in their heads, too.

First, though, they have to find it. Located in the tiny community of Furman, in rural Hampton County, the golf course is “in the middle of nowhere,” says Truett McKenzie, the family patriarch, on whose former farm Penny Branch is located.

Then players have to get their heads around the notion of a family-designed and -built course, just over an hour from Hilton Head, where big-name (and high-dollar) golf abounds. Chris McKenzie, Truett’s son and Penny Branch’s “architect of record,” likens the course’s origins to the “Field of Dreams” baseball field cut out of cornfields.

“It’s amazing. It is like the movie,” says Chris, who nowadays commutes weekends from his Columbia home to tend to the course. “You build it, and people (after playing) run their mouths about it, and next thing you know, others show up.”

They’ve been showing up for nearly 15 years. And not just from within the family-dictated 100-mile advertising radius. “Germany, Ireland, Japan, Canada,” Wolverton says.

Some of that is word-of-mouth. But a few years ago, Penny Branch went “viral” after Golf Channel decided to profile the course – along with Harbour Town Golf Links, Kiawah’s Ocean Course and Caledonia in Pawleys Island – in a feature about South Carolina golf.

“Then we had people come from all over, saying, ‘We saw you on TV,’” Wolverton says. Reactions? “Mostly, they’re surprised how much better it is than they thought – how it’s difficult, yet playable – and what good shape it’s in.”

If they ask, visitors also can learn the course’s amazing history: how it started as a sort of golf “experiment” and evolved into a 6,641-yard, par-72 testimony to Chris McKenzie’s vision – and his family’s faith in that vision.

For decades, Truett McKenzie, who grew up a stone’s throw away, farmed the 250-acre property, raising soybeans, watermelons – and yes, corn. But in 1984, with crop prices falling, he decided to quit. The family then sold golf course equipment as well as maintaining and applying chemicals to courses, in 1990 forming a construction company, TruMac Sales, to do irrigation work for, among others, PGA Tour player/course designer Davis Love III and Florida-based architect (and Irmo native) Bobby Weed.

Chris McKenzie says the biggest headache then was finding skilled labor. “All the guys we hired were farm boys (who) didn’t know anything about a golf course,” he says. So in 1998 Truett and Chris built a golf hole for employees to use for practice. Not long after, they built two more – a par-3, par-4 and par-5 – where Chris, a single-handicap player, could “play each hole six times for par-72.”

Soon, three holes became nine, and by 2000, they had a full 18. “Chris did the design; my input was the money,” Truett says, laughing. To save on costs, Truett repurposed a pair of flatbed trailers ($100 each) into bridges on the course.

Still, anyone who thinks, “Great, another ragged, countrified course,” hasn’t played Penny Branch. Chris, who his sister says “designed holes on a bulldozer” – a method also used by renowned architect Pete Dye – produced a variety of wide and narrow fairways, extensive mounding and bunkering, and slick, fast greens that feature world-class undulations.

Bottom line: Penny Branch makes players think before every shot and putt, the ultimate compliment in golf.

The course’s most striking holes are its five par-3s. The fourth (at 140 yards the shortest) has an island green modeled on the 17th hole at TPC at Sawgrass, only with more elevation changes. The eighth has an amoeba-shaped green with bunkers all around, which Wolverton refers to as “craters on the moon.” No. 11 sits in front of Penny Branch Creek with grass bunkers guarding the roller-coaster green; the 14th’s mounded green sit 10 feet above the surrounding surface; and the 17th, longest at 203 yards, is surrounded by Scottish-style grass mounds and a surface that slopes severely in several directions.

Since, as Truett McKenzie says, “about 0.001 percent” of Hampton residents play golf, the family relies on tourists to pay the bills, as well as regulars from Walterboro, Beaufort and Barnwell … and Hilton Head players anxious for a change of pace. With 15,000-20,000 rounds annually, that pace is rarely hectic.

The demographic trends to older players, who “like the quietness, and the fact they’re not pushed” by impatient players, says Susan McKenzie, Truett’s wife. Still, players from nearby Patrick Henry Academy and Wade Hampton High School also enjoy the course.

Why not? Chances are all their lives, they’ve been hearing that familiar jingle: “Every round at Penny Branch Golf Club …”

Drive south on U.S. 601 to Furman, turn left on Town Hall Road and left again on McKenzie Trail. Or look for the “Public Golf Course” signs. Either way, it’s a beautiful drive.

For directions, rates and/or tee times, call (803) 625-0222 or go to www.pennybranchclub.com.