Aching for Aiken on the road to the Masters
AIKEN, S.C. -- Have clubs will travel types searching for a golf destination that lacks the madness of Myrtle Beach or the high price points of Hilton Head, might just be aching for Aiken. Where? Think Augusta National, only tack on a par 5 to the northeast. That's right, golfers making the trek to the 2004 Masters will find an affordable, under hyped golf just beyond the shadow of golf's Sistine Chapel.
The Aiken/North Augusta area is home to a respectable collection of pay for play tracks that attract loyal followers from as far away as Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Canada. The supply is limited enough to keep the legions of beach bound duffers away, but ample enough to appeal to golf purists searching for a taste of the territory surrounding Jones and MacKenzie's Master piece.
What's more, the designer rota is impressive for such a diminutive domain: Arthur Hills, Rees Jones, Tom Jackson, and the Fazios -- Jim and Tom -- are all represented. The lay of the land is similar to that of National -- rolling hills, sandy soil, and pine trees and more pine trees. But the pretense is not -- you'd be hard pressed to find a friendlier little slice of golf heaven in the Southeast.
So, come as you are -- fans, patrons and hooligans. Just don't forget the bikini wax.
The Must Plays
Mount Vintage Plantation -- Most locals will tell you that Mount Vintage is the money course around these parts. The Tom Jackson designed layout opened in 2002 and has already played host to an LPGA event. The "Mount" is the most topsy tuvry layout in town, with elevation changes reminiscent of that decent little course around the corner. Replace your divots and fix your ball marks - Mount Vintage rarely has a blade of grass out of place and is one of the few tracks in the area with bentgrass greens.
The River Golf Club -- Duffers who tire of dry land would be well served to pay the River Golf Club a visit. The Jim Fazio designed course debuted Masters weekend 1998 on swath of swamp land smack dab on the banks of the Savannah River. Water, water every where, but for the most part, not in play. Fairways are wide, the bentgrass greens are huge and Fazio's deep bunkers have mastered the art of saving water-bound balls.
Jones Creek Golf Club -- Time was, Jones Creek was headed towards privatization. Times have changed. All signs point to Jones Creek remaining in the pay for play circuit for the foreseeable future. The mid-1980s Rees Jones design is under new ownership and was recently upgraded by Tom Fazio's design shop. The original bentgrass greens were swapped out in favor Tif Eagle Bermuda, but word is they haven't missed a roll.
Houndslake Country Club -- Houndslake is private, and off limits to those who don't know the secret handshake or stay on site at the guest house. Opt for the guest house -- it's easier (and more comfortable). All 27 holes come courtesy of the late Joe Lee, one of the South's most underrated designers and a tour de force in Florida for decades. The Laurel Nine is the newest of the three, and a bit more of a challenge at 3350 yards.
Aiken Golf Club: The AGC appears in Solid Seconds but is a must play for golf history buffs. The original 18 dates back to 1912 when Augusta National hardly a notion. The layout underwent a comprehensive makeover in 1999 and was stretched to just over 6,000 yards.
Cedar Creek: Since opening in 1991, Cedar Creek has emerged as the pride and joy of the Aiken daily fee golf set. The design credit goes to Arthur Hills, a proponent of the minimalist school of design before being such was vogue. Cedar Creek, in true Hills fashion, is simply draped over the land with a few contours and bunkers thrown in for good measure.
Persimmon Hill Golf Club -- Persimmon is an easy-like-Sunday-morning track from Russell Breeden. Its flat fairways, gently sloping greens and low profile bunkers are a superintendent's dream. With a 118 slope from the 6,405 white tees, Persimmon is also an ideal warm-up course.
Goshen Plantation -- Private to public stories always make good copy for traveling golfers. Goshen, designed by Ellis Maples (former protégé of Donald Ross), was closed-door for 30 years but opened to the public in the mid-80s. The facility has changed hands a number of times, with conditions contingent upon who's running the show. When it's in good shape, Goshen is a worthwhile endeavor. >P>
In Augusta, Gordon Lakes is built atop an old circa 1920 Ross course once called Forest Hills Golf Club. The course is now owned and operated by Augusta State University. Augusta Golf Club -- locally dubbed "The Cabbage Patch" -- is a grizzly little gamer with tight fairways and nickel sized greens ... Back in Aiken, Coopers Creek is a good midlevel course for those watching their wallets.
Where to Eat
Hit downtown Aiken and you really can't go wrong. For continental fare, pull up a chair at Up Your Alley. The Aiken Brewing Company anchors the town's limited nightlife with a solid set of microbrews and hearty plates of ribs, chicken and steaks. Head to Malias for the best Italian this side of the Savannah River.
Stay and Play
Houndslake Country Club is the only real stay and play option, but proximity to the Interstate and the Emerald City of golf assures that Aiken has its allotment of chain motels. The Sheraton Augusta and the Ramada Inn Limited are two of the better chains in the area. For a traditional southern lodging experience, try the historic Hotel Aiken, formerly the Holley Inn, (803-648-4265). For all-inclusive golf packages, check out Golf Vacations of Columbia (888-501-0594, gvoc.com). Purveyor and President Rick Saucier has been putting together Aiken golf vacations for years. Packages range from $55 to $125 per golfer, per day.
There is a proud, stubborn side to Aiken that harkens back to the town's Civil War history. In February of 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman and 60,000 Union troops were making their way through South Carolina, fresh off a torching of Georgia. Sherman sent a detachment of the Fifth United States Cavalry under the command of General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to burn Aiken and the all-important cotton mill in nearby Graniteville.
General Joe Wheeler and a wily band of Confederate soldiers were ordered to vehemently oppose the advance and protect the railroad established by William Henry Aiken 1833. Kilpatrick, probably overestimating the strength of Wheeler's makeshift army, decided to retreat and Graniteville and most of Aiken were spared. It was one of Sherman's rare defeats on his infamous march to the sea.
Today, Aiken is small, quaint retirement town tucked among the grassy, rolling hills of southeastern South Carolina's horse country. Thanks to some major restorative efforts, downtown is an interesting mix of quaint shops, businesses, and eateries that one life-long local once described as Norman Rockwell painting on grits and gravy.
April 4, 2004