AIKEN, S.C. – Maybe it’s the torpor of Southern air.
Or the way the canopies of magnolia and live oak trees drape the land and wrap it in green vellum. Somehow, history lives on here undisturbed, fending off the modern world and taking comfort in timeless ways.
At 5,800 yards from the back tees, par-70 Aiken Golf Club might seem an anachronism. But golf in its traditional form has a long shelf life. A century, in fact, which is precisely the age of this lovely, gracious, rambling little daily-fee layout.
During the same week that long- hitting Bubba Watson was blasting his way around Augusta National Golf Club, a group of Golfweek course raters paid a visit to this quiet enclave 22 miles to the east. We found a golf course that, despite being about
100 yards per hole shorter than the home of the Masters, still tested, teased and entertained us. Its compelling topography and tree-lined fairways were just enough that we shot about the same scores we normally record on courses 1,000 yards longer. But we did it stress- free, and along the way we rediscovered the simple pleasures of rough-hewn, friendly golf.
The course dates to an 11-hole layout done in 1912 that was part of a big resort. The club claims Donald Ross paternity, though that link lies somewhere between tenuous and unprovable. The real documented connection is through golf professional John R. Inglis, who appears to have supervised construction of a few Ross courses in the Southeast before settling in at Aiken (1915-1939) as teacher, promoter and designer/ builder of a seven-hole loop (Nos. 8-14) that completed the course’s out-and- back routing.
When the resort failed, the town took over the course in 1939 and ran it for two decades until selling it to James McNair Sr. in 1959. Among the many fine examples of his golf stewardship, McNair enlisted his 8-year-old son to serve as the irrigation man (or boy).
Today, James McNair Jr. oversees the entire golf operation, including maintenance on admirably efficient terms – at an annual budget of less than $300,000. He also personally undertook restoration of the course. Armed with a lifelong enthusiasm for golf-course architecture and the encouragement gleaned from a half-day visit by Bill Coore in 1997, young McNair recaptured lost putting surfaces, exposed covered waste bunkers and sandy scrub, and opened the tree canopies that had threatened to shutter the course.
The ambiance in the lodge-style clubhouse overlooking the first tee and 18th green makes guests feel as if they are visiting a small-town general store. A land plan from the 1920s wisely provided for generous setbacks for the few houses that dot the golf corridors. And the holes sit naturally on the land, with fairways ambling up and down a densely wooded site with 120 feet of elevation change.
A remnant train line from the old Southern Railway parallels the first five holes and serves as an idle legacy of a once-grand era when the resort town of Aiken was linked to Atlanta and Pinehurst, N.C. With golf like this, it’s no wonder they flocked here.
And still do.
Rater’s notebook: Aiken Golf Club
1.) Routing: 8
Out-and-back routing, nonreturning nines, with a number of parallel fairway corridors. An early version of classic real estate, without the incursion of homes on golf corridors.
2.) Quality of shaping: 7
Features sit naturally, with few level lies on fairways or in rough.
3.) Overall land plan: 8
Only 92 acres (40 acres of maintained turf) with 120 feet of elevation change; feels like a parkland version of a links golf land plan that sits on Carolina Sandhills topography.
4.) Greens and surrounds: 6
First green – a double putting surface that also serves the 17th hole – sets the tone for what follows. Greens are interesting but not large and have enough contour and wayward slope to make it difficult to control and stop approaches. Moderate speeds keep them playable.
5.) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 4
These are really the only holes that demand long approaches to reach in regulation. All fall within 183 to 200 yards and don’t offer much variance. The fourth and ninth holes are identical: both steeply uphill and over-treed on the right. The par 3s on the back nine are more diverse, especially the downhill 16th.
6.) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 6
Only one par 4 longer than 385 yards (the 403-yard fifth), but you enjoy the lack of distance only if you keep it in play. Back-to-back drivable par 4s at 14th and 15th holes offer lots of options and risks.
7.) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 4
At 442 and 446 yards, the two long holes are only nominal par 5s, but so what? They are fun and make you feel like the PGA Tour guys must feel when they reach long holes with two solid shots.
8.) Trees and landscape management: 5
For all they’ve done in recent years opening corridors and angles of play, more work is needed.
9.) Conditioning: 6
It’s impressive what can be achieved with only 327 irrigation heads – a fourth or less of what most modern systems provide. The TifEagle Bermudagrass greens are overseeded, but not the 419 Bermudagrass fairways. Lies are a little uneven, the roughs somewhat rougher (as they should be), but conditioning is good enough to let you play.
10.) “Walk in the park” test: 8
An easy walk, only one mildly stressful climb – at the par-3 fourth – and lots of shortcuts for dropping off your bag before walking back for the next tee shot.
Overall rating: 5.9
Aiken GC sits at No. 13 among public-access courses (resort and daily fee) in South Carolina, making it the state’s highest-ranked public layout not in a coastal setting. It also deserves its place on the National Register of Historic Places. In a region dominated by private-club giants such as Palmetto Club, Sage Valley, Augusta Country Club and Augusta National, Aiken stands out for its simple virtues.