Everyone knows where to find great golf in South Carolina, right? Just drive east until you run into the Atlantic Ocean.
The beach is the place most visiting golfers think of first. From Myrtle Beach to Beaufort, terrific courses - 100-plus along the Grand Strand alone - are as ubiquitous as seashells and surfboard rentals.
Still, the coast doesn't have a monopoly on great golf. If you limit yourself to South Carolina's coastline, you eliminate more than 200 courses from your potential playlist. And even if you venture away from the beach, you still can miss some wonderful, off-the-beaten-path adventures.
Many corners of the state have are courses that locals enjoy, without the high cost and/or crowded tee times of resorts. Some are quaint, some historic and some as plush as anything you'll find along the coast.
For this first "hidden gems" trip, we go to one of the state's oldest courses; a small-town design by an architect who has produced some of the state's best layouts; and the product of a PGA Tour star in a site so isolated, you'll need a GPS. All are destinations relatively few know about - "secrets" you'll want to experience, and then share.
Aiken Golf Club
555 Highland Park Ave., Aiken
Most golf buffs know Aiken's private Palmetto Golf Club, the nation's second-oldest club (1892), with its links to Alister Mckenzie, designer of Augusta National. But many don't realize that a few miles from Palmetto - and a couple hundred yards from downtown Aiken - a public-access course is nearly as old, with its own links to architectural royalty.
The Aiken Golf Club is a throwback to the time when wealthy Northerners would "winter" at the luxurious Highland Park Hotel (destroyed in 1940) and play its 5,734-yard, par-70 course. Donald Ross, renowned for Pinehurst No. 2 and hundreds of other courses, laid out 11 holes in 1903; his protégé, John R. Inglis, completed the course in 1912 and remained as head professional until 1939.
Second-generation owner and head professional Jim McNair Jr., whose father bought the course in 1959, oversaw a $1 million restoration completed in 1999. Now, with modern Tif Eagle Bermuda greens, improved irrigation and rebuilt bunkers and fairways, Aiken Golf Club is a stroll through the past that also tests current players.
The course has pine-needle-covered rough areas, rustic surroundings and classic Ross-style humpback greens that send errant shots rolling into shaved collection areas.
"The difficulty comes in players reining in their egos," McNair says. "This course is about strategy, positioning off the tee, and accuracy."
While its three par-5 holes offer birdie opportunities, the course's "teeth" are the five par-3s, ranging from 164-194 yards. The par-3 16th "signature" hole plays from an elevated tee to an undulating green guarded by bunkers left and right.
Lovers of golf history can see black-and-white photos in the Legends Grill of LPGA pioneers Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg competing at the club, which in 1916 became the first course to have women's tees. In 2010, Aiken Golf Club staged the nation's first hickory-shafted golf tournament for women, now an annual November event.
"We've found our niche: the little course hidden away downtown," McNair says. A bargain, too, with fees topping out at $38 (with cart) weekends; walkers pay $20-$25.
To truly experience the course, Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger says walking is the way to go. "The overall experience ... was pure joy," he wrote in 2008.
For history buffs and players, Aiken Golf Club is just that.
Edgewater Golf Club
2380 Catawba Ridge Blvd., Lancaster
Head professional Matt Gotto arrived at Edgewater Golf Club in November 2017 after resort stints in remote areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so he's used to a golf course that's off the beaten path. That's a good thing because this hilly jewel of a golf course puts the "hidden" in "hidden gem."
The closest community is tiny Bell Town, a wide spot on S.C. 200, so make sure your GPS is up to date. "For some folks, though, that's part of the charm," said the Pittsburgh native. "They want to get out in the middle of nowhere."
Edgewater gets more residential traffic since being bought in January 2018 by True Homes, one of the top housing builders in the Carolinas. "We're getting more residents all the time," Gotto said.
Charlotte remains the main market, but Columbia tour groups are discovering Edgewater, only about an hour away.
Built on Fishing Creek Lake by rookie architect Bruce Brodsky, the course opened in August 2008. For a time, players assumed it was designed by PGA TOUR legend Fuzzy Zoeller, who had been involved in the surrounding residential community, because it was "player friendly" like other Zoeller courses.
At 7,103 yards from the back tees, with rolling, heavily wooded terrain, elevated greens, large bunkers and slick bent-grass greens, Edgewater is delightful to play. The scenery is often spectacular, with elevation changes that make the course look longer and more daunting than it plays.
Take the par-4 first hole, all downhill, and the par-4 10th, with an elevated tee playing into a valley and then sweeping uphill to the green. Also memorable are the par-3 15th, downhill to a green guarded by a long bunker; the par-4 12th, a dogleg left with a fairway that slopes to the right and ends at a well-bunkered green; and the par-4 seventh, a downhill dogleg left, playing to a green perched on the bank above Fishing Creek Lake.
Trees were removed in early 2018 to open up views of the lake from the seventh and 13thholes, and all the bunkers were rebuilt. Because of its bent-grass greens, Edgewater successfully weathered the 2017-18 winter kill that damaged other S.C. courses.
The course is popular with seniors, who pay weekday rates of $32 ($43 weekends; those under 55 pay $52) and can play tees at 6,102 yards (members) and 5,322 (seniors). Even then, Edgewater remains challenging with much of its difficulty around the greens.
It's "not especially tight, not a lot of forced carries," Gotto said. "There's not a lot of mystery or trickery. The holes are right in front of you."
That's once you find the course, of course.
Wyboo Golf Club
2565 Players Course Drive, Manning
If Bell Town is an unexpected place to find great golf, Manning is a close second. First you have to find the town - take Exit 119 off Interstate 95 and follow S.C. 261, then turn right onto S.C. 260 and drive eight miles until you see signs for Wyboo Plantation.
There, you'll learn that in the Santee Cooper resort area, which has a dozen or so playing choices, Wyboo ranks as Clarendon County's top course. Too, the 6,914-yard (par 72) course is a "signature design" by Tom Jackson, the Greenville-based architect who built the acclaimed Mount Vintage Plantation in North Augusta and The Cliffs at Glassy, near Greenville.
Golfers have been slow to discover this jewel, built in 1999. But that's changing, says head professional Victor Grubb.
"I attend golf shows up north," he said - Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina - "but within South Carolina, we're trying to make people aware what they're coming to, and why it's worth the drive."
When they do venture there, they love "the layout, the conditioning and the very good experience," Grubb said. "The reaction we get is, ‘Wow, I didn't realize there's a course this good in this location. You'll definitely see us again.'"
The South Carolina Golf Association has discovered Wyboo, staging qualifying tournaments there for the S.C. Amateur and junior events. While roomy off the tee, its assortment of greens (elevated and flat, sloping left, right and front-to-back) forces a variety of approach shots. The club's signature hole is the 191-yard, par-3 13th, which requires a long iron or hybrid shot to a green guarded by a tree and bunker on the right, a pond on the left.
Fees run from $28 weekdays during the winter to $52 weekends in the spring. If it were in Columbia or Charleston- it's about 90 minutes from each - Grubb says Wyboo would have all the play it could handle.
In Manning, it's off the beaten track, but worth discovering - a hidden gem, in other words.