Jay Huggins has worked since the 1990s with golf courses in South Carolina's Pee Dee region. After a seven-year hiatus from the business, his first new project - restoring The Links at Lakewood in Sumter - made him wonder if he'd made a career mistake.
The Links at Lakewood, built in 1989 by respected architect Porter Gibson, was in need of major renovations. Prior to Jay Huggins revitalization of the course, there were drains stopped up in the bunkers, standing water, and fairways with no grass. Previous owners cut back on expenses because of debt, and golfers had quit coming.
Indeed, one 2011 online review of Lakewood, while conceding its solid design, described a course with "crabgrass and other weeds in fairways, mole tunnels all over the course," as well as greens damaged by fungi and a lack of irrigation.
A July 2014 restoration project by Huggins and new course superintendent Alvin Andrews has turned Links at Lakewood into a well conditioned, challenging design - a true "hidden gem" among Pee Dee courses.
Huggins, the course's head professional, and Andrews restored bunkers, cleaned out 200-300 trees to improve air flow and grass growth, added 72 palmetto trees to help define holes, and repaired damage caused by neglect. Most significantly, they resurfaced the course's elevated, undulating greens with mini-Verde Bermuda hybrid, a modern grass noted for its durability and quickness.
"We were fortunate to get our hands on it, because it's a good track," Huggins says. Owner Don Brown, who in recent years also bought Bishopville Country Club and Florence's Oakdale CC, pumped $750,000 into Lakewood's repairs, and the result was money well spent.
Brown bought Lakewood in November 2013, operating it for seven months before closing it for repairs. About $150,000 was spent on irrigation - a remote-control system lets him operate it from the clubhouse, Huggins says - and another $150,000 went into the greens. The course reopened Aug. 1, 2014.
"The first month was great, mostly by word-of-mouth. That surprised me," given the course's recent reputation, Huggins says. With warm weather (and green grass) coming, Brown hopes to build up play in 2015, drawing from the Sumter market and tourists at nearby Lakes Marion and Moultrie.
"We knew it had a ton of potential," Huggins says. "Layout-wise, it's a good product, and once the greens soften, I think it's going to be really fun to play."
At 6,826 yards from the back tees, it has ample fairways for high handicappers, but approaches - and those slick greens - can also challenge better players. Lakewood offers a number of memorable holes: the par-5 fifth, a straight-away hole with water (in play on nine holes) and a large oak tree factors on the approach shot; the par-3 13th, which plays to an island green; and a two-hole stretch of Nos. 9 and 10, both long par-4s, that rank as the course's Nos. 1 and 2 handicap holes.
The 14th, a double-dogleg par-5, can require a third shot over the corner of a fairway bunker to an elevated green guarded by water left and a huge front bunker. One of the more interesting holes, the dogleg-left par-4 16th, features a mound on the left that tempts players to cut the corner - but hides a pond which will grab many of those shots.
Fees at The Links of Lakewood are competitive with the nearby Santee Cooper courses, and Huggins expects to compete for players once word gets out. "We've just got to treat the course good and then put it in as many hands as we can," he says. "I think the potential is unlimited."