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Chester Golf Club

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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Keith McGee keeps a cherished photo in his pro shop office at Chester Golf Club. The picture dates from the day in 1971 when the Russell Breeden-designed course opened and captures two of the dedication's attendees: Johnny McGee, Keith's brother and a sports writer then for the Chester Reporter ... and Mickey Mantle.

The New York Yankees' Hall of Famer was a huge golf fan after his playing days ended, and his presence at Chester Golf Club 41 years ago was a big deal. Alas, Keith McGee, then a high school senior, didn't get to meet him. But he's met other celebrities there, albeit not of Mantle's stature.

"Charlie Sifford came here for the annual Tri-County (Chester, York, Lancaster) Athletic Club Tournament," McGee says of the man who broke the PGA Tour's "whites-only" barrier in 1962. "The tournament has been here for 33 years, since my first year (1979)" as head professional, he says.

And this summer, former South Carolina and Philadelphia Eagles player Sheldon Brown, a native of nearby Lewisville, also played Chester a few times, McGee says. For the most part, though, the club - a 6,811-yard, par-72 layout set amid pine forests and featuring three ponds and a large lake - draws its 28,000-plus rounds each year from its 260 members and players from the surrounding area.

That might change, though, as word gets out about this reasonably-priced, challenging and enjoyable public-access course, located just six miles off Interstate 77 (Exit 62).

"It's very user-friendly, not real difficult, and it's easy to walk," McGee says. Players are allowed to walk after 1 p.m. weekends and any time weekdays. "We're kind of off the beaten path, out in the country, and it's kind of quiet," with housing only adjacent to the first hole.

If the straightaway par-4 opener suggests a vanilla design, the notion vanishes at the par-5 second with its multiple bunkers in the right-hand dogleg and more bunkers fronting the mounded, elevated green. The rest of the front nine features a collection of straight and dogleg holes, with plenty of sand guarding the greens.

Chester Golf Club's signature hole is its par-5 12th, 560 yards from the championship tees, which plays downhill to the first of two legs of the lake that cut across the fairway from the left side. A player's second shot must fly uphill to a crest that overlooks a daunting third shot: downhill to a green that juts out into the lake, with trees pinching the fairway from left and right.

The 18th is a nice finishing par-4 of 421 yards from the back tees, demanding a healthy tee shot to the edge of a pond, then a second shot to a narrow green that slopes severely from back to front. The course also has potentially drive-able par-4s (300-330 from the men's tees) as a nice variety.

Chester Golf Club is one of four area courses under the management of the Leroy Springs Company, along with Lancaster Golf Club, Fort Mill Golf Club and the newest (1992) and most acclaimed, Rock Hill's Springfield Golf Club. Lancaster and Fort Mill both date from the 1940s, with Lancaster claiming a Donald Ross heritage, a rarity in South Carolina.

Chester, though, has something its sister courses do not: bent grass greens. "We were the first to get it and the last to have it," McGee says. The rest switched to Bermuda Mini-Verde hybrid, Lancaster doing so this past summer. McGee says there are no such plans for Chester - yet.

"It's been a rough summer for bent," he says. "I haven't heard anything definite, but (Mini-Verde) is the grass of the future. I think most golfers prefer bent when it's in good shape, but it's too hard to maintain with summers getting hotter and longer. At some point, we'll have to do it, too."

In fact, a few bad spots on some greens were the only drawbacks during a recent round, and McGee expects those to heal when temperatures drop. Bottom line, Chester Golf Club is worth the trip (about one hour from Columbia via I-77) for its conditions, design and price.

And really, it's not that hard to find. Mickey Mantle managed to do so, after all.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.