Discover Aiken: Aiken County home to some of the top golf courses in the Southeast

·6 min read

Sep. 26—When the Winter Colonist discovered Aiken in the late 1800s, the wealthy visitors from up North made sure to bring their favorite leisure activities.

Those activities primarily revolved around horses and equine activities, but it also included golf.

Today, with a rich blend of traditional and newer layouts, Aiken County can boast about being home to some of the top golf courses in the Southeast. Being close to Augusta, the home of the Masters Tournament, brings an influx of visitors each spring who enjoy the courses around Aiken County.

For decades, though, Aiken's golf scene revolved around two distinct but decidedly different courses that were separated by Hitchcock Woods: Palmetto Golf Club and Aiken Golf Club.

PALMETTO GOLF CLUB

Thomas Hitchcock, the namesake of the urban forest located in the heart of Aiken, is credited with bringing golf to Aiken.

In 1892, Hitchcock laid out four holes on the property off Berrie Road. Palmetto Golf Club soon evolved into a 9-hole layout and then a full-fledged 18-hole course by 1895.

Palmetto is recognized as the oldest continually operated golf course at its original location in the Southeast. It also is second only to Chicago Golf Club for the same distinction nationwide.

While Hitchcock, Herbert Leeds and James Mackrell get credit for the early design of Palmetto, the course underwent a significant transformation in the early 1930s.

That's when Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who was in the area to design Augusta National Golf Club, converted the sand greens to grass.

Clifford Roberts, who co-founded Augusta National and the Masters with Bobby Jones, said that Palmetto's board of officers reached out as construction on Augusta National neared completion. Several members of Palmetto were also members of Augusta National.

According to Roberts, Palmetto only raised about $25,000 for the project. That was well short of what was needed, but he wrote that MacKenzie volunteered his services free of charge. Augusta National also was able to provide Palmetto with course supplies at lower rates.

"In short, our construction organization, with a little help from us, accomplished the almost unbelievable task of modernizing the Palmetto Golf Course at a total cost of $25,000," Roberts wrote in "The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club."

With the start of the Masters in 1934, it didn't take long for the world's best golfers to discover Palmetto and Aiken. The Devereux Milburn Memorial Trophy was first held in March 1945, and a strong field of professionals teamed up with their amateur partners in the one-day event.

The Devereux Milburn event wasn't an official part of the pro schedule, but the stakes were high. Byron Nelson and his amateur partner Eugene Grace, chairman of Bethlehem Steel, teamed for a score of 65 to win.

A big attraction for the professionals playing in the Devereux Milburn was a chance to earn money from the betting pool, commonly known as a calcutta. Nelson had earned $1,500 for his 1942 Masters win, but the Devereux Milburn victory was far more lucrative.

"It was customary for the member to split the calcutta pot with the pro," Tom Moore, pro emeritus at Palmetto, said. "Eugene Grace and Byron Nelson won it in 1945, but when he won it, Eugene Grace signed the whole check over to Byron. It was $10,000. That's like a million dollars now."

Palmetto has seen plenty of restoration work in the decades since MacKenzie visited, but is still faithful to its original design. Noted golf architects Tom Doak and Gil Hanse have consulted on restoration work, and today the course features many of MacKenzie's design characteristics.

AIKEN GOLF CLUB

Take a short jaunt from Palmetto through Hitchcock Woods, and you'll find yourself at another golf course that is more than a century old.

Aiken Golf Club started out as an 11-hole layout that was created in 1912 as an amenity for the nearby Highland Park Hotel.

John R. Inglis, the club's pro from 1915-1939, finished off the course design to make it an 18-hole layout. Inglis designed the seven-hole loop — now Nos. 8 through 14.

Like Palmetto, the course had a signature event that attracted many of the top players in the game. The Tri-States Open was created after World War II and was held until the early 1960s. The course also held a Women's Invitational in the late 1930s that attracted such stars as Patty Berg and Babe Zaharias.

The City of Aiken took ownership and renamed the course Aiken Golf Club in the late 1930s. That lasted for 20 years until Jim McNair Sr. purchased the course and changed the name to Highland Park Country Club.

Under McNair's direction, Highland Park was a family destination with a club that offered such amenities as dining and swimming. He passed ownership to his son, Jim Jr., in the 1980s.

The public course, though, lacked proper infrastructure and was in need of a makeover. In the late 1990s, McNair Jr. hopped on a bulldozer and made significant changes.

The course is relatively short by modern standards — right at 6,000 yards from the tips — and there weren't any good options to increase its length. So McNair made the green complexes challenging by putting plenty of contours in them.

And he changed the name back to Aiken Golf Club.

With new irrigation and improved aesthetics, McNair's hard work paid off. Visitors to the area discovered the hidden gem, and it received plenty of accolades from golf publications and organizations.

"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," Bradley S. Klein wrote in Golfweek.

Inglis and legendary golf course architect Donald Ross get most of the credit for Aiken Golf Club's design. But when the club celebrated its centennial in 2012, special recognition was given to McNair Jr. to add him as a course designer.

Did you know?

—In 1916, Aiken Golf Club gained fame as the first in the nation to offer women's tees. Mary Dunn, the first female golf professional in the U.S., made the recommendation during a visit to the club.

—George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of President George H.W. Bush and great-grandfather of President George W. Bush, was a president of Palmetto Golf Club. He also served as president of the U.S. Golf Association and was the donor of the Walker Cup, the biennial competition for amateur golfers between the U.S. and Great Britain & Ireland.

—Houndslake Country Club, opened in 1974, was designed by architect Joe Lee. The course played host in 1977 and 1981 to the S.C. Golf Association Amateur Championship.

—Woodside offers the largest concentration of golf in Aiken County. The original club, Woodside Country Club, features two 18-hole courses that were designed by Rees Jones and Bob Cupp. The Reserve Club at Woodside also offers two courses: the Reserve Course and Hollow Creek Golf Course.

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