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, S.C. 29801
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.
The Patriot Golf Club at Grand Harbor
101 Grand Harbor Blvd., Ninety Six, S.C. 29666
Former PGA Championship winner and 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III says that “modern courses should be designed in the traditional manner.” At The Patriot Golf Club, Love incorporated modern design with South Carolina history, building replicas of the Revolutionary War’s nearby “Star Fort” ruins into the first, 10th and 18th holes.
He also did so in a location that requires dedication and a well-functioning satellite link to find. Built near Lake Greenwood as part of a resort development near Ninety Six, The Patriot is about 90 minutes from both Columbia and Greenville and close to, well, nowhere, really.
Make the trek, though, and you’ll find a club with all the amenities of a coastal resort or high-end private course: a fully-stocked pro shop, bar and a dining room overlooking the finishing hole. Costs are resort-like, too, but the playing experience is worth that – and the drive.
Built on rolling, pine- and hardwood-studded terrain, the course offers challenging holes and stunning vistas. Particularly from the 13th hole on, The Patriot – voted the state’s best new course in 2004 by the S.C. Course Ratings Panel – is one unique playing experience after another.
“The great thing about the course is, it’s a challenge to all levels,” says head professional Tommy Thomas. “We can set it up for ladies, but we’ve also hosted the eGolf Professional Tour and the S.C. Open, and qualifying for the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. It’s a great test for the scratch player, but everyone can enjoy it.”
From the 7,133-yard back tees, The Patriot demands length and accuracy, plus solid short-game skills around its Donald Ross-inspired, elevated greens. The par-5 holes are difficult but exciting – particularly the 580-yard 13th, playing downhill and back up to a hilltop green, and the 554-yard 18th, with its putting surface situated behind a high earthen mound and amid the replica ruins.
The Patriot would fit perfectly into a metropolitan or resort area – but it’s not there. To entice first-timers, the club will offer Masters Week deals ($78) to rival anything within an hour of Augusta; another reason to fire up the GPS.
Wyboo Golf Club
2565 Players Course Drive, Manning, S.C. 29102
If Ninety Six 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.