It's a sad but true fact in the U.S. golf course market: construction of new courses has stalled since the economic downturn, with architects building more abroad than at home. But as the Midlands of South Carolina demonstrates, that doesn't mean there's nothing new to attract locals and visitors.
Many popular area courses have undergone upgrades in recent years to keep them fresh and current, ranging from minor tweaks to complete rebuilds. Whether dulled by time or lack of attention, owners are returning these properties to their earlier status as fun, solid tests of golf.
In Columbia, the prime example is The Spur at Northwoods, previously Northwoods Golf Club. A 1989-design by P.B. Dye, son of superstar architect Pete Dye, the longtime Midlands favorite was bought in 2014 by Charleston-based Empire Sports, which rebuilt greens and bunkers, re-grassed fairways and replaced root-damaged cart paths with new, smooth surfaces.
Empire owner Joe Rice, a Charleston attorney, reportedly spent about $1-million on improvements to Northwoods. Since completion of its upgrades, The Spur (its new, Western-themed logo is a Rice trademark at his private Bulls Bay Club in Awendaw) is again drawing many of the Midlands' top players to its highly-competitive weekly "dogfights."
Near Lexington, Golden Hills Golf & Country Club also underwent changes to deal with a city sewer line and drainage issues. Built in the late-1980s by Florida-based Ron Garl, Golden Hills is one of the area's more interesting designs, notably its signature par-4 10th hole, which plays over water to a tucked green guarded by bunkers.
Indian River Golf Course owners decided to do more with less-less trees, that is. Hundreds of pines were cleared from the property, opening up vistas on the back nine (previously the front nine). Particularly intriguing is a three-hole finish of a short, downhill par-3 with water guarding the right side; the par-4 17th, requiring a blind tee shot through an uphill slot; and the par-3 18th, with its deep, narrow green requiring a carry over a marshy creek in front.
The Columbia market also offers upscale public golf at Oak Hills, designed by former player and TV analyst Steve Melnyk, as well as at a trio of former private courses: Timberlake Country Club, the only course built on the shores of Lake Murray; The Windermere Club, a Pete Dye product with its testing par-5 18th along the shores of Lake Windermere; and Cobblestone Park Golf Club near Blythewood with its 27 holes and elevation changes.
An hour west of Columbia and accessible via Interstate 20, Aiken is best known for horse racing and golf. A timeless classic is Aiken Golf Club, one of the state's oldest courses (1912) and a throwback to early 20th-century, walking courses. Similar to courses in North Carolina's Pinehurst area, Aiken features sandy waste areas and trees bordering its fairways, and while less than 6,000-yards at its longest is a challenge for all levels of play.
Another renovation project is Cedar Creek Golf Course, a hilly, narrow layout bought by the owners of Aiken Golf Club and upgraded in 2014. A special treat is Mount Vintage Plantation, near North Augusta, a 27-hole design by South Carolina native Tom Jackson which once hosted an annual LPGA Tour event. Also in North Augusta-located directly across the Savannah River from downtown Augusta, Ga., in fact-is The River Golf Club, with rolling terrain and marshland coming into play.
Go 45 miles east of Columbia to Sumter, where another renovated favorite is the Links at Lakewood, a testing design with plenty of water and the difficult, water-guarded par-4 ninth and 10th holes. In nearby Statesboro, once the colonial-era capital of South Carolina, is Beech Creek Golf Course, another recently renovated course popular with locals.