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Golf Getaway: Barnwell’s Sweetwater Country 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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Barnwell County in southwestern South Carolina is known for its small communities, rolling pine-covered terrain and - especially to golfers in the month of April - its proximity (about 30 minutes) to Augusta National and the Masters Tournament.

Not nearly as many Masters-bound fans visit Barnwell as, say, Aiken - just a stone's throw across the Savannah River from the famed golf tournament - but this pleasant rural area has carved out its own niche during the year's first major golf championship. A friendly alternative to Augusta is Barnwell's Sweetwater Country Club, a rolling 18-hole course that is open to the public year-round, not just during the Masters.

"We do get some Masters traffic," says Rivers Johnson, head professional at Sweetwater CC since 2011. "But the last few years, since all the Aiken courses raise their rates (to cash in on the golf-hungry Masters fans), we open our course to their members," who have given up their home-course tee times to the visitors.

Not only does that keep Aiken County golfers happy, but it's also acquainted them with this rustic 1933 design. Sweetwater's first nine holes were built during the Depression with WPA labor; architect Russell Breeden, who left his design fingerprints all across South Carolina, later added the second nine.

"It's short (6,248 yards from the back tees and par-71) but the greens are small, so it's a challenging little course and fun to play," says Johnson, who in typical small-town fashion also serves as general manager and superintendent. He oversaw a 2011 re-grassing of the greens with Mini-Verde Bermuda, and says the course's toughest tests are the approach shots to those cozy targets.

The signature par-4 11th hole is typical of Sweetwater's deceptive difficulty. Just 364 yards from the tips, its sharp dogleg-left fairway forces players to play conservative from the tee. "A lot of players don't get around the dogleg, and they'll bail out on the right," he said. A lone bunker guards the front of the small green.

At the par-3 10th - a downhill shot over water to a wide-but-shallow green guarded by trees on both sides and three bunkers in front - is Sweetwater's signature feature: hedges trimmed to form the letters "SCC." The club logo can be seen from the 10th green, as well as the tee at the adjacent par-3 14th, which plays severely back uphill to a spacious but undulating green.

Besides its 140 local members, Johnson says semi-private Sweetwater draws from Aiken and Augusta, and not just during the Masters. Competitive prices (weekends run around $25 with cart) are one reason.

Another, at least for visitors hungry for more than a clubhouse hot dog, is Miller's Bread Basket, a Mennonite restaurant in nearby Blackville. In business for 30 years, Miller's was sold in 2015 by founders Ray and Susie Miller to new owners - which, conveniently, are also named Miller (husband Mervin and wife Anna).

The tried-and-true menu remains largely the same, with such hearty items as meatloaf, fried chicken and meatballs plus fresh vegetables. The new owners added chicken pot pie, buffalo chicken and pork loin, as well as a salad bar.

As its name suggests, Miller's is best known for its fresh-baked breads, which regulars buy and take home. Hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Sunday.

Johnson, from rural eastern North Carolina (Kenansville, between Goldsboro and Wilmington), is one of those regular diners. "It's a wonderful place, just good ol' home cooking, and a nice friendly atmosphere," he says. "Good food and good prices."

And Miller's breads? "I try not to eat as much bread anymore," Johnson, 60, says with a laugh. Visitors might want to give themselves a dispensation and indulge, especially after a round at Sweetwater.

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.