Day One: On the Road to Augusta
COLUMBIA, SC -- A golf writer once asked legendary golf course architect George Cobb if he could pick just one site to build the perfect golf course, where it would be. Cobb, to the surprise of everyone on hand, said Columbia.
Turns out, Cobb knew what many other course designers already knew, but what most golf writers didn't: when it comes to moving earth, there's no topping the sandy soil and shallow rooted pine trees of the Capital City.
And while no one was going to confuse it with the scenic coastal marshes of the Lowcountry, or lush hills of the Upstate, Cobb believed this sun-baked plateau smack dab in the center of the South Carolina Midlands had something to offer the golfing world.
What Columbia offered on this day was a target; a place to shoot for on the first day of a proverbial golf road trip from Charlotte, NC to Augusta, Ga. for the playing of the 2002 Masters. Augusta sits about three and a half hours southwest of Charlotte by way of the Eisenhower Interstate system, and Columbia is almost exactly the midway point.
The ride to Augusta National from the Queen City allows one just enough time to cue a couple of Edwin McCain CD's, guzzle down a six pack of Mountain Dew and do some major damage to an extra large bag of honey roasted peanuts. Not exactly getting ones kicks on Route 66, but what it lacks in distance, the trip more than makes up for in potential free time.
Simply put, if you ain't driving, you can be driving.
Get Your Thrill in Fort Mill
The trip lays out as simply as a well designed par three: I-77 from Charlotte to Columbia, I-20 from Columbia to Augusta, spiced up by a half day excursion to the quaint burg of Aiken where Norman Rockwell meets grits and gravy. With two full days to get to the promised land, and only 3.5 hours needed to do it, the golf road trip began in earnest just five miles south of Charlotte in Fort Mill, SC.
Ft. Mill has managed to put itself on the map by housing the soon-to-be-departed Charlotte Hornets' practice facility and the Chicago White Sox's AAA affiliate, the Charlotte Knights', stadium. The town is also home to one of the area's better public golf courses, the Regent Park Golf Club, as well as the region's newest upscale daily fee track, the Springfield Golf Club.
Eschewing the upscale modern facilities of south Charlotte, we opted for the venerable, walkable, and affordable fairways of the Fort Mill Golf Club. The Fort Mill city limits brush right up against Charlotte, and thousands of Charlotteans go in and out of this little border town every day without realizing it.
Legendary Scottish golf course architect Donald Ross designed the front nine, which opened back in 1947, just a year before Ross' death in 1948. Cobb picked up where Ross left off and designed the back nine, which opened in 1970.
Fort Mill GC may be one of the last remaining "hidden gems" in the Charlotte metro-golf scene. The clichĂ© is so overused when it comes to out of the way golf courses, but it actually applies in this case. The course is as well conditioned as many private facilities, and with two of golf's greatest architects represented in one course design, variety is the name of the game.
Ross's front nine is a bit more wide open, whereas Cobb's back nine plays through the rolling hills of the lower Piedmont. As you might expect, the greens are tougher than the Sunday crossword. Ross has provided his typical turtle shell putting surfaces, and Cobb's larger greens offer only a slight reprieve.
The entire experience at the Fort Mill GC smacked of our youth, taking us back to a time when we just used to show up at the local muni in the late afternoon, lay $10 bucks on the counter, grab a dog with onions on the way to the first tee, which invariably, was always waiting for us without a single other golfer in sight. Of Gamecocks and Maurice's BBQ
Columbia is the epicenter of the Midlands region of the Sandlapper State, and home to one of the south's least forgiving weather patterns. If temperatures in the western Piedmont of North Carolina are hovering around 85 degrees in the summer, you can bet it will ten degrees hotter in Columbia.
Conversely, if it is a balmy 60 degrees up in Charlotte in the winter, look down I-77 at Columbia on the weather map, and chances are the mercury is hanging around 50. Not exactly a Chamber of Commerce meteorological endorsement, but look at it this way: if it were 70 degrees year around, you'd stand a better chance of getting a ticket to the annual Clemson/South Carolina football game than you would a tee time.
As we soon found out, the old mantra, "wherever you go, there you are," could very easily be altered to "wherever you go, there is a Russell Breeden golf course" in these parts. The venerable, no-frills designer is well represented in the Columbia area, which should come as no surprise to Carolinians who are used to seeing his name pop up like rye grass in late October.
Far be it from us not to stop in for a friendly 18 on a Breeden designed track. The Mid-Carolina Club is open to the public on the weekdays, and reserved for members or guests of members on the weekend.
If you like mature, Breeden-designed courses, Mid-Carolina will not disappoint. For a Midlands course, there are actually some elevation changes on the back nine. And as was the practice before the proliferation of golf carts, Breeden designed the course to play just 6600 yards from the back tees, making it quite walkable.
We didn't necessarily travel all the way to Columbia to play a muni, but if you are on a tight budget and need a great track for the money, check out Breeden's LinRick Golf Course. Many locals describe LinRick as one of the best courses in town, muni status be damned. The locals we talked to mentioned "solid" conditions, "mature" trees and "lots" of water.
From the old to the new. Or at least, from the Traditional to the Modern. Northwoods Golf Club opened back in 1990, and was designed by P.B. Dye - son of, you guessed it, Pete Dye. After a round on this Dye-abolical track, we were quick to declare Northwoods a must-play course if you ever stop in Columbia on the way to Augusta (for whatever godforsaken reason).
With its deep bunkers, deceptive landing areas and massive, undulating greens, Northwoods is not a course that you would want to play everyday. But once around this track during your Midlands golf pitstop is well worth your time and money.
Also be sure to check out: Oak Hills Golf and Country Club, an excellent modern course designed by Steve Melnyck and D.J. DeVictor and Timberlake Golf Club, another modern style course designed by southeastern mainstay Willard Byrd. Where to Stay in Columbia
Adam's Mark Hotel - One of the largest hotels in Capital City, with 301 rooms fully equipped with cable television, king size beds, a lounge, Jacuzzi and health club all located right in the heart of downtown â€¦ Claussen's Inn (803.765.0440) was our digs of choice. A Columbia landmark is this B and B located in the (in) famous Five Points district, the heart and should of the town's college bar scene.
Where to Eat in Columbia
"Norm!" At least, that is what we thought we'd hear as we walked downstairs into The Sherlock Holmes (803.779.3659) off Mainstreet in Downtown. Not your typical pub fare, however. Dig in on pot roast, veggie lasagna and other hearty chow â€¦ Hey, we couldn't afford it, but we heard that Hennessy's Restaurant and Lounge (803.799.8280) was the best white tablecloth joint in town. Reservations required. You know the drill.
Deep Masters Thoughts after a few pints at The Sherlock Holmes
Charles Howell III or Vijay Singh will win the Masters, unless Tiger Woods does. Phil Mickelson will finish in the top ten, but will never win a Green Jacket. He'll win one British Open when he's 35, and that will be his first and last victory in a Major. Stick a fork in Justin Leonard, he's done. The former British Open and Players Championship winner will never win on Tour again because the courses are getting longer, he is a short hitter, and his recovery short game is mediocre at best.
Did we mention that John Daly would win the Masters, unless Howell III, Singh, or Woods does? Daly seems to have things straight in his head (which is more than we can say after a few pints at the Sherlock Holmes), he can still hit short irons into Augusta National's ridiculously long par fours, reach mot of its par fives in two, and he has the brilliant short game to recover when needed.
April 8, 2002