AIKEN

On the out­skirts of Au­gusta is a small town with some of Amer­ica’s best golf, as Chris Ber­tram dis­cov­ered.

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On the out­skirts of Au­gusta stands a small town with some of Amer­ica’s very best golf. Here’s how to make the best of 72 hours in Aiken.

Amer­ica is of­ten sneered at for a lack of his­tory and that haughty at­ti­tude ex­tends into its pedi­gree in golf. Yet to the north-east of Au­gusta Na­tional is a town burst­ing with her­itage that any con­nois­seur will lap up. It boasts two cour­ses more than a cen­tury old that are far re­moved from the clichéd Amer­i­can park­land course. Harry Var­don has played here, Macken­zie, Doak and Hanse have ad­vised... this is Amer­i­can golf, but not re­ally how we think we know it.

Pal­metto

Pal­metto was founded in 1892 by Thomas Hitch­cock, a prom­i­nent sports­man from Long Is­land, New York. He laid out four holes where the 16th, 17th, 18th and prac­tice ground sit today.

Th­ese were turned into nine by Her­bert Leeds, who also built famed My­opia Hunt in Bos­ton, be­fore Pal­metto was ex­panded to 18 holes in 1895. There is record of Don­ald Ross do­ing work here in 1928 and then in 1932, when Alis­ter MacKen­zie had fin­ished Au­gusta Na­tional, he was asked to draw up plans for con­vert­ing Pal­metto’s sand greens to grass and add length. Many of the orig­i­nal Au­gusta Na­tional in­vestors were Win­ter Colonists from Aiken who also be­longed to Pal­metto and so work at the lat­ter used some ex­cess ma­te­ri­als from the for­mer.

Tom Doak ad­vised the club in 2003 on rein­tro­duc­ing some Macken­zie prin­ci­ples and now one of his pro­tégés, Gil Hanse, is re­tained as con­sul­tant. It’s hard to imag­ine Pal­metto be­ing touched by more ar­chi­tec­tural ex­per­tise.

The course sits in a beau­ti­ful scene of pines, sandy waste ar­eas, and un­du­lat­ing sandy fair­ways tinged with brown in con­trast to the pris­tine green tees and greens. There are wide play­ing ar­eas framed by pine straw, white sand bunkers like a mini Au­gusta. In fact, this is like a less ho­mogenised ver­sion of Au­gusta, with even more his­tory.

So much of the fun is around the greens and this is ev­i­dent im­me­di­ately, with the 2nd green mix­ing steep run offs and mounds in the man­ner of Sur­rey heath­land clas­sic Wok­ing or the 7th at Hamp­shire’s Liphook.

Stand at the low point of the dips around the green and your eyes are just about level with the green sur­face. The 4th is a cool short par 4 of 326 yards played across land that slopes gen­tly left to right to an­other raised green with slopes so dis­tinct you see them from the tee.

Turn­ing round, the 6th sweeps up and left to a com­plex that com­bines sand, mounds and a funky sur­face exquisitely. It plays be­tween pines on ei­ther side and is rem­i­nis­cent of Au­gusta’s 9th, only less steep. In fact AGNC sim­i­lar­i­ties are reg­u­lar around here.

An up­hill par 3, very short at 105 off the for­ward tees, takes you to the 8th, which be­gins a loop of three holes on higher ground. Part of that is the aptly-named ‘Drop’, a short hole like The Car­rick’s 14th or Woburn’s Duke’s 4th.

Pal­metto’s land­scape is al­ways changing slightly, help­ing holes change nat­u­rally too. So it is on 12 as you play around a lake to a hole tucked among pines, while at 15 you thump over a hill – à la Royal County Down’s 11th.

A nat­u­ral gully – à la Hun­ter­combe – snakes across the fair­way on the 14th, ex­em­pli­fy­ing the nat­u­ral land­forms, which again hap­pens on the par-3 16th, with a clas­sic Ross-style Pine­hurst green. Its slopes re­ally are se­vere.

The 17th, af­ter a drive over the brow of the hill, plays to a green pro­tected by large bunkers – but there are few of them, which is an­other theme through­out what must be one of the most fun cour­ses in Amer­ica.

Aiken

There are 1.8 miles be­tween Aiken and Pal­metto, and also only 20 years in age. Ini­tially known as High­land Park, the course was built to ac­com­pany the epony­mous ad­ja­cent ho­tel and opened with 11 holes in 1912. It was full size within three years , with noted PGA pro­fes­sional John Inglis help­ing with the ex­pan­sion. Inglis had worked with the de­signer of Shin­necock Hills, Wil­lie Dunn, as well with an­other famed Scots­man Don­ald Ross in Elms­ford.

Inglis was a mag­net for top play­ers and May Dunn, Amer­ica’s first lady pro, was one; she rec­om­mended that High­land Park be the first in the US to have ladies’ tees.

The ho­tel strug­gled in the De­pres­sion and the course was made pub­lic, be­fore be­ing bought by an­other pro, Jim McNair in 1959. In the face of in­creased com­pe­ti­tion in the city, McNair de­cided an over­haul was re­quired in 1997 and two years later – and now named Aiken – the course you can en­joy today was un­veiled.

It oc­cu­pies the same ap­peal­ing site as Pal­metto, all sandy waste ar­eas, pines and pine straw. The bunkers are sharper edged than its neigh­bours and many are less se­vere. Some are of­ten lit­tle more than tea cup saucers and smack of hav­ing been added in more re­cent times. The green com­plexes are con­sid­er­ably less se­vere too, of­ten act­ing as a cush­ion to nudge your ball back onto the green rather than the un­for­giv­ing nature of Pal­metto’s. Once on the greens, the sur­faces are of­ten very flat. So if you are fraz­zled af­ter Pal­metto, you might well re­gain your mojo here.

There are a few res­i­dences on the out­side and the nar­row road that winds through it feels quite cool; a course at the heart of a town.

Aiken starts and fin­ishes on a grand scale more akin to St Ge­orge’s Hill. The 2nd has a down­hill tee shot that turns left to right and a green as un­du­lat­ing as any­thing at Au­gusta. The next is tight be­tween trees with a ditch up the left and a plateau that kicks balls into it. Mean­while 17 turns right and up­hill, a strong hole to an el­e­vated green; there’s a lot go­ing on here, in­clud­ing weath­ered sleep­ers, half col­lapsed with pine straw sprout­ing out.

And un­like oth­ers here, the green is so slopey there are very few pin po­si­tions. It is a dou­ble green shared with the 1st, whose por­tion is ar­guably even more funky.

While it’s not in Pal­metto’s class, Aiken is in­du­bitably worth­while.

Sage Val­ley

If you have a bit more time, it is very tempt­ing to ex­tend your trip north to Pine­hurst or south-east to Hil­ton Head Is­land. Un­told riches await at both.

How­ever, there are still lots more op­tions in Aiken if you aren’t in­clined to move far.

One is Sage Val­ley, a pri­vate mem­ber­ship club which is a lit­tle more ac­ces­si­ble th­ese days. The course is sur­rounded by sev­eral thou­sand acres of south­ern pine for­est of­fer­ing a serene set­ting.

The sug­ges­tion is that the owner – it was built in 2001 – wanted to recre­ate Au­gusta and in this re­spect Tom Fazio – who con­sults at the Mas­ters venue – has suc­ceeded im­pres­sively.

It is 7,344 yards of im­mac­u­lately main­tained golf course, set on rolling ter­rain punc­tu­ated by ma­ture pines and wa­ter. There are cot­tages on site too.

For some­thing a lit­tle less ex­clu­sive and pricey, you can play Aiken’s sis­ter course, Cedar Creek. Orig­i­nally de­signed by Arthur Hills and opened in 1992, it is laid out in two loops of nine on a sim­i­lar site.

High­lights in­clude the key­note par 3 at the 5th, the short­est and most aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing hole on the course. It asks you to fire a short- to mid-iron over the epony­mous creek as well as the front bunkers and stone wall that fronts the green and to its left. It’s a birdie op­por­tu­nity but also has the po­ten­tial to run up a big score very quickly.

On the back nine, the 14th is a strong par 4, al­beit much more playable if you are brave off the tee and find the left side of the fair­way. That helps you with the op­ti­mum an­gle from which to ap­proach a green that sits di­ag­o­nally front left to back right. Try­ing to find the green from the right waste area is a tough ask with bunkers left and right and sharp drop-offs too.

When it was ac­quired by McNair in 2012, it un­der­went a huge over­haul and is now by no means a poor re­la­tion to its sis­ter. Cedar Creek is a re­ally friendly place to play, with great food in the club­house.

116 Golf World March 2018 Aiken gives a chance to re­gain your mojo.

Sage Val­ley’s owner wanted to recre­ate Au­gusta.

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