Columbia anchors midland golf offerings

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Windermere ClubCOLUMBIA, S.C. - It is a disturbing sight, if you've never seen it before. At first glance, it appears to be a cross between a rooster and a Santeria sacrifice. Its neck and tail feathers stream out like tell-tales on a macabre kite; its head buried somewhere deep inside the red plumage.

It is a Gamecock. The ungainly mascot of the University of South Carolina is arguably the most adored figure here in the capital city. Not long ago, a good case could be made head football coach Lou Holtz. But a 5-7 campaign in 2003 including a 63-17 drubbing by arch rival Clemson has tempered the locals' enthusiasm for the ole ball coach.

Their passion for the game of golf and the bevy of local courses that support it, however, remains in tact.

Golf? In Columbia? That's right Hilton Head. You better believe it Myrtle Beach. Listen up Charleston. Contrary to popular belief, the Holy Trinity doesn't have a monopoly on fairways and greens in the Palmetto State. While it will never be mistaken for a hotbed of high end resort golf, the Capital City has the daily fee wherewithal to pluck duffers from long haul markets like Ohio, Michigan and Canada.

Even now, in the throws of summer, you ask? Sure! Provided they don't glance at the weather map. Perched on a plateau that is kindly described as sun "drenched" in the winter months, but earnestly referred to as sun "baked" in the summer, temperatures can reach the mid 90s in July and August. Local area courses combat the heat with the promise of good value. Golf with a cart (sun screen and mass quantities of water not included) ranges between $25 and $45, depending on time of day and day of the week. Long days and affordable golf set up perfectly for the 36-holes-a-day set. Thus follows a blueprint for the perfect three-day capital city golf gorge.

Capital City golf itinerary

Indian RiverDAY ONE - Iron out the kinks at Charwood Country Club, 27-hole facility just chipping distance from the airport. The three nines are patriotically dubbed Red, White and Blue. Differences between the triumvirate are subtle, but existent. The Red nine has a slightly modern bent, with mounded fairways and some elevation changes; the White nine is tight, flat and short; and the Blue nine is pancake flat with wide open landing areas. Taken together, Charwood's 27 holes make for an excellent warm-up op.

Kinks gone? Good. Time to take on Indian River in the afternoon - a track like none other in these parts. Stacked sod bunkers and three zip code greens give the Lynn Young designed layout a linksy feel. Yet the 52-acre lake, thick strands of hardwoods and 200 feet of elevation change hardly smack of the Old Course. Indian River is an approach shot golf course if there ever was one. You could drive an ocean liner through the fairways, but all 18 greens are three putts waiting to happen. Case in point being the 184-yard par 3 ninth - a devilish three shotter with the most severe putting surface on the course.

ColumbiaDAY TWO - George Cobb, a prolific golf course architect whose works are strewn throughout the Southeast, once theorized that Columbia is the perfect place to build a golf course. The soil, Cobb reasoned, is sandy and easily manipulated, the elevation changes are pronounced, yet manageable, and land is still relatively inexpensive. Certain members of the Dye family must agree.

Pete and son P.B., while big fans of the South Carolina Lowcountry, spent enough time in the Midlands to design two of the area's true conversation starters. Northwoods Golf Club is the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to polarizing golfers. Let's face it, you either love blind shots, huge mounds, and crater-like bunkers, or you hate them. The Windermere Club in suburban Blythewood, presents a kinder, gentler Dye family portrait, and thus, off we go.

One small catch - Windermere is a private club. However, the economy being what it is, a few slots on the tee sheet are reserved for the paying public each day. Behind the closed doors, John Q golfer will find a refreshingly playable Dye/Dye design that is eerily close to being a WYSIWYG layout. Yes Virginia, those are actually landing areas you can see from the tee box. Windermere finishes with a 531-yard par-5 that wraps around the lake and finishes just below the throngs of members sipping toddies and watching from the patio.

The Golf Club of South CarolinaThe Golf Club of South Carolina at Crickentree is the afternoon delight of day two. To say that this Ken Killian/Dick Nugent design is a "shotmakers" course would be cliché. So let's go with "Crickentree is a long, narrow golf course chock full of doglegs and water." How long? Crickentree is one of Columbia's only 7,000-yard plus tracks. And with a slope rating upwards of 140, one of the better tests in town, to boot. The course recently swapped its bentgrass greens for TifEagle Bermuda. A full taste of the new grass is available on the massive putting surfaced shared by the ninth and 18th holes.

DAY THREE - Just as golf carts will scatter once they hit the fairway, golfers will disperse to their respective residences on day three. If home calls for a trip north on I-26, Timberlake Plantation is an ideal getaway day course. The Willard Byrd design plays around Lake Murray and sports a par-5 finishing hole to rival Windermere. The one shotters stand out here, as each features either an elevated tee box or sublime views of the Lake.

Golfers heading back Atlanta way are obliged to stop off at Persimmon Hills - a circa 1962 Russell Breeden design with a rep for having consistently excellent conditions. Weary road warriors will take solace in Breeden's trademark flat fairways, gently sloping greens and low profile bunkers. At least until they arrive at the par-5 18th. At 630 yards, course officials claim it's the longest three shot hole in the state. Driver-driver-7-iron, anyone?

The I-77 corridor leads out of Columbia to Charlotte, N.C. and points north. The best bet is to pull up just short of the Queen City at Waterford Golf Club in Rock Hill. The Hale Irwin design clings to the banks of the Catawba River; no hole doing so as gracefully and proficiently as the par-5 second. This double dogleg is separated from the drink by a smattering of hardwoods that barely keep the trout off the fairways.

Columbia by night

College towns are rarely short on nightlife and Columbia doesn't disappoint. For a true taste of how the student body lives (and plays), head to the Five Points area near USC. Graduate back to adulthood at Congaree Vista - a hip and happening swath of urbanity that runs from the state capitol to the river along Gervais Street. Knock back the obligatory golf trip steak at the Blue Marlin or John Paul's Armadillo Oil Company.

Stay and play

Bargain hunters will appreciate the Best Western on Bush River Rd. between I-20 and I-26. Rooms generally range from $55 to $70 a night, depending on the season. The BW offers free HBO, continental breakfast and a complimentary USA Today. Step it up a notch at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel and Conference Center northwest of town off I-20. Golf Vacations of Columbia can package the whole shooting match, from tee times and accommodations to dinner reservations.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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