In the "flower town" of Summerville, inland from Charleston, The Club at Pine Forest (formerly Pine Forest Country Club) was built on the grounds of the Pine Forest Inn's Hunt Club, one of the first resort properties in the U.S. dating back to 1891. Records indicate the Inn had a golf course as early as 1891 - which, if accurate, would make it one of the first seven courses in the country. (Note - The oldest continuously-operating golf course on one site in South Carolina, and second-oldest in the U.S., is Aiken's Palmetto Golf Club, founded in 1892).
Those similar histories, though, are not the reason for Pine Forest's nickname: Little Augusta.
"That tag came from a publication, Washington Golf Monthly," says Marty Mikesell, who with partner Tom Lenz has owned the Summerville course since 2009. "The magazine came out and did a story when the course opened (1992), and the place was filled with azaleas. In the spring, if you look behind the 12th green, you see the azaleas and pine trees."
The par-4 12th is named Little Augusta because early players said the green resembled that of the par-3 12th hole at Augusta National, a wide-but-shallow, heavily undulating surface with water guarding the front. No doubt, architect Bob Spence (who also designed Crowfield Country Club in Goose Creek, would appreciate the comparison.
But perhaps a better comparison for the Charleston area's Golf Course of the Year for 2008 is famed Pinehurst No. 2, site of the 2014 U.S. Opens for both men and women. Besides the obvious pine-themed similarities, Pine Forest features elevated, heavily undulating greens that - as at Pinehurst - are the course's primary defenses.
Here's another similarity: Like Pinehurst, Pine Forest demands the best from the better player, and can be hard on the high-handicapper. Known as a "player's course," it is challenging, deceptively difficult ... and exhilarating, if sometimes frustrating, to play.
"Eight of 10 local players who come here would rather not come back and shoot 10 shots higher (than at their home course)," says Mikesell, who worked with Lenz for Kemper Sports in the 1990s and later at Crowfield and Isle of Palms' Wild Dunes Resort. "So getting repeats from locals is a challenge. Twenty percent (of locals) love it, the better players, and travelers like it also; we get repeats from (golf package players).
"Those players that can manage their distances, (who can) control their ball, love it. The difficulty is the second shot; there's plenty of room off the tee, but the elevated greens and the severity of them, for women and 25-handicappers ... they miss greens or can't hold greens, and every chip is a challenge. You can make any score."
Little wonder Golf Digest in 2002 declared Pine Forest "the hidden gem of Charleston." As with most hidden gems, finding this terrific course is worth the effort.
On a recent visit with local golf promotions man Reid Nelson, Pine Forest treated my double-digit handicap with disdain. Yet even while struggling at times, the simple-but-devilish layout was a delight to play. Pine Forest is "pure golf" - no tricks or glitz, just straightforward, tough golf holes that force you to play your best.
Mikesell gives the 12th hole its due: short but tight, with water left and right off the tee and the aforementioned daunting green. The course's par-3s (Nos. 5, 8, 13 and 17) are terrific, particularly the 17th, with water in front and a severely sloping left-to-right, three-tiered green. The par-4 finishing hole, dubbed "A Long Way Home," is just that: a slight-dogleg right that plays 453 yards from the black tees and is no bargain (410) from the whites, with mounds left, a stream right and a green that towers above the fairway - or seems to - like a castle.
The greens are slick and, with the interior undulations, nerve-racking at times, but always pure and true-rolling. Also like Pinehurst, the course has only a few homes bordering the fairways, giving players a sense of stepping back in time.
For the bargain hunter, the best part of Pine Forest might be the prices. "Because of the difficulty, and getting folks to play it, our pricing is a value," Mikesell says. "The membership understands what we have to do: get people out here." During winter months, rounds can be played for a $28, a great value.
Speaking of members, the course now is The Club at Pine Forest because amenities (pool, tennis courts) are for members only, but the golf is open for public play. "This is a small community, and we don't have funding to market the golf course to visitors," Mikesell says. Play is available through several golf packages, including one for Santee Golf, and Internet word-of-mouth helps, too.
Of course, Pinehurst also used to be off the beaten path, a place you didn't go unless you found out about it. Someday, Pine Forest might have the reputation (if not the resort traffic) that has made Pinehurst a golf destination.
For now, though, that "hidden gem" tag applies. Suggestion: try Pine Forest while that's still the case. For information and/or tee times, call (843) 851-1193 or visit www.pineforestcountryclub.com