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