A detour in South Carolina to the Aiken Golf Club, for a round alone on my birthday, was pure joy

Friday April 18th, 2008

Last year, during Masterstime (please feel free to use this new word) I played the wonderful private course within the city limits of Aiken, S.C., an antique gem called the Palmetto Golf Club. The architect Rees Jones, who has done extensive work on the course on a pro bono basis, used a memorable phrase when talking about Palmetto: it is a club that recognizes, he said, that "scruffiness is a traditional golfing value." Palmetto is the anti-Augusta that way. Both are good courses, but Palmetto is way more pure.

And now, a new discovery in Aiken, which is about 20 miles from Augusta: the Aiken public course. (Semi-private, technically, but the public is welcome most of the time.) The Aiken Golf Club opened as a private club in 1912, so I'm ninetysomething years late here. Donald Ross had something to do with its routing and construction, and you can tell. Ross, born and raised in Dornoch, Scotland, brought traditional golfing values — scruffiness, walkability, findyourgolfballability, etc. — to the United States. In Scotland, courses like Aiken can be found in scores of little towns and villages. (Brora and Golspie, north of Dornoch, are prime examples.) In this country, such courses are far more rare. We love the spiffy, and Aiken's not spiffy.

It's a course that measures just 6,000 yards, par 70, and that's all the way back. There's no driving range, no temple-of-merchandising pro shop. There's not even a parking lot, really. (You park on the side of the road.) It's about a mile from downtown Aiken. My afternoon walking green fee was . . . I'll save that for now.

When the owner is the head pro and the course superintendent, the savings may get passed along to you. (The boss is Jim McNair Jr., whose father had the course before him.) The grass on the greens when I played was beautiful, by any standard, anywhere. Some of the greens have wild slopes to them, making for a lot of good-time putting. Chipping's a bear. Bunker play is demanding, because the traps are small and well-edged and the sand has no fluffy quality to it. The first hole shares a green with the 17th. (Can you name another course where this is the case?) When you head out, you don't come back to the clubhouse until 18.

Scratch the fairways with the toe of your club and up comes sand. The lies are tight and the course has a linksy feel. A foursome, holing out and playing the white stakes as is — there's a lot of out of bounds — could easily walk a round in 3 hours and 30 minutes. The course is easy to walk. To my mind, there are only two bland holes. The others are somewhere between interesting and way cool. The overall experience for me, playing alone on my birthday, was pure joy.

The round was 20 bucks, all the holes you can play.

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