Michael Bamberger’s trip to Palmetto Golf Club

April 18, 2008

After his first round in the 1984 Masters, Ben Crenshaw got in a car and drove 20 miles to Aiken, S.C., and the relic of a course there, the Palmetto Golf Club. He parked in the visitors’ lot, an odd-shaped field of dirt and rocks, and walked over to the sagging pro shop manned by Tom Moore, who finds gutta-percha balls on his course after heavy rains.

Crenshaw looked around. No dining room. No tennis court. No swimming pool. A Stanford White clubhouse, but not a big sprawling building like the one White designed for Shinnecock Hills, just a cozy structure that practically leaned onto the 1st tee. Crenshaw headed out, tumbling off the 1st tee and into the 19th century.

Nothing has changed in the 23 years since. “It’s pure golf,” Crenshaw said last week. “Just golf. And so, so pure. The holes fit the land beautifully.”

Palmetto, founded as a four-hole course in 1892, is a private club that opens its doors to the public one week a year, Masters week. For $750, a foursome can play a 6,300-yard, par-71 course, all mounds and slopes and hollows, with solid-steel tee markers made from pieces of train rail. (You don’t kick them more than once.) At Palmetto you’re playing a course that has been shaped by Herbert Leeds, Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Rees Jones and Tom Doak, among others. Since a Ramada Inn in Augusta was charging more than $400 a night for a single last week, paying $750 for a foursome to play the beguiling Palmetto course seems a bargain. Bob Wood, who runs the Nike golf business, was a visitor last week, signing a poster with his name and a swoosh. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s tournament director, was there too. For the modern golf executive, going to Palmetto is like taking some sort of ritual bath, a reminder of the game that first sucked you in.

Palmetto’s roots (the club’s, not the tree’s) are patrician. Aiken was a winter colony for rich Northerners during a bygone time, and the names of the early members are out of the Social Register: Hitchcock, Whitney, Harriman, Byers, Grace (of the steel-producing Graces). Also George Herbert Walker, progenitor of a famous golf cup and, yes, two U.S. presidents. Now the club is populated by area people working regular jobs: plumbing contractors, engineers, the sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle. “If I can get in,” John Boyette, that editor, said last week, “anybody can.”

Rees Jones, who gets to Palmetto once a year, during Masters week, first played the course at the invitation of an old friend, Bobby Goodyear, one of the few Palmetto golfers who is also a member at Augusta National. Jones suggested some changes to the course, mostly in the area of bunker restoration, and oversaw the project. “I did the work for free because I love the place, and they have no money,” Jones says. One of the things he likes best about Palmetto is that the members have no airs.

One year during Masters week old Tom Moore squeezed in the Jones foursome in front of a group of members.

“Who the hell are you guys?” one of the aggrieved golfers asked Jones.

“Well, that’s Michael Bonallack, who runs the R&A,” Jones said. “That’s David Fay, who runs the USGA. That’s David Eger, who runs the USGA competitions.”

“Yeah — and who the hell are you?”

Courses like Palmetto — where golf is simple, interesting, unmanicured and fast in every way — can be found all over Scotland and Ireland. In the U.S. they are double-eagle rare. When you find those conditions in American golf, they’re generally at an old-line club that the public can’t sniff: Maidstone, on Long Island; Newport, in Rhode Island; Sankaty Head, on Nantucket. “You find courses like that where there are people who understand that scruffiness is a traditional golfing value,” says Jones. “Where people are comfortable enough with who they are that they’re not using their golf course as a status symbol.” The curse of modern golf, to Jones and not many others, is that everybody tries to outdo everybody else. Augusta on TV has a lot to do with that. Palmetto is immune to it.

Boyette once brought a relative from California to Palmetto. Boyette called out his lunch order: a couple of dogs from Moore’s hot-dog steamer, a couple of bags of chips, a few drinks. No money was exchanged. The host explained how it worked. The California relative was perplexed: “The honor system?” He had never seen such a thing.

One of the pleasures of Palmetto is that you can play to your handicap there. One crooked-hitting visitor last week was pleasantly surprised when he realized he had played 36 holes with a single ball, even though you can hit driver on 14 holes. There’s only one pond on the course, and it’s barely in play. The fairways are generous, especially to righthanded slicers. There’s really no rough. But the bunkers are nasty, and each hole, pretty much, gets more and more difficult the closer you get to the cup. Augusta National’s the same way. The greens at both places were designed by MacKenzie. You can run your ball up to every green at Palmetto, and ladies of a certain age can hit those little line drives that will skip along for 150 yards on Palmetto’s firm fairways. A golf course on which you can find your ball and play to your handicap? What a concept!

In August 2005 an Aiken native named Dale Burkhart, then 21 and competing in the Palmetto Amateur, played the first 14 holes in 44 strokes. The last four holes at Palmetto are hard by the parking lot, clubhouse, pro shop and driving range. A sizable group emerged to see if Burkhart, now a pro, could play the final four in 15 or fewer strokes, to break 60, set a new course record and win the event. Burkhart made his putt for 59 on the last and looked up and took in the crowd for the first time. “And there was Tommy Moore,” Burkhart says, “sitting there, scratching his head.” Moore never thought he’d see the day. There’s nothing easy about Palmetto, especially the putting.

Moore is a wonderful asset, a keeper of the flame. The club’s board of governors plans to spruce up the circa 1900 pro shop, but the refurbishing wasn’t at Moore’s request. He’s perfectly happy with it the way it is, cramped and dark and homey. The shop houses a collection of old balls that he has found on the course, plus the various tributes to the many golfing luminaries who have passed through Palmetto, which used to be a stop on the way for pros heading to the Masters. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson played in a pro-am event at the club that served as a Masters warmup.

Some of the details of those tournaments can be found in a club history published in 1992 called Palmetto Golf Club: The First 100 Years. The club, maybe a mile or so out of Aiken’s charming downtown and in a part of town known as the Horse District, isn’t going anywhere soon. The land is owned by a nonprofit group, the Whitney Trust. The club leases the land from the trust for a nominal fee, and the current deal expires in 2080.

In other parts of Aiken, and in and around Augusta, there are a bunch of fancy-pants country clubs, often attached to housing developments with gates to keep track of who’s coming and going. During Masters week Phil Mickelson has practiced at one, Sage Valley, and Tiger Woods has stayed at another, West Lake. There’s a new one near Augusta, Champions Retreat, with 27 holes, nine by Gary Player, nine by Arnold Palmer, nine by Jack Nicklaus. There are clubs in greater Augusta for which the initiation fee is $75,000. At Aiken it’s $15,000. The greens fee for a member’s guest is 50 bucks. There’s great value to not having your course be bright green all year long. Keeping golf reasonable, for starters. That’s how it is at Pacific Grove, a muni up the road from Pebble Beach, and in much of Scotland and in a few other places, including Palmetto. But if you haven’t had any exposure to Scottish golf, Jones says, “you probably won’t get Palmetto.”

Most weeks, Palmetto is quiet. Sixty golfers a day is busy. Masters week, it’s a foursome every 10 minutes, the Masters-week guest fees almost ensuring that the members will never be hit with an assessment. But during Masters week Palmetto is doing golf a service. The visitors there can go back to their home courses and spread the word: In golf, as in life, less can be more.

“It says in our charter that the golf course is established in perpetuity for the enjoyment of the members and their guests,” Moore said early last week. Not for showing off or torture or anything else-just enjoyment. Crenshaw said the same thing another way: “Palmetto is just fun, start to finish, just so much fun.” Three days after his initial visit to Palmetto, Crenshaw won the first of his two green jackets. Fun week.

While Moore talked the other day, the clubhouse TV was tuned to the Masters. Carnage city. Out on his links, there were golfers having a ball.