The Palmetto Course

 bgillespie@thestate.comApril 10, 2011 

— The year was 1932, and Dr. Alister MacKenzie was wrapping up work on a golf course in Augusta with club founder Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones — you know it as Augusta National — when some members asked him to help with another golf course of theirs, some 20 miles away.

That’s how MacKenzie wound up at Palmetto Golf Club, drawing up plans to convert the course’s then-sand greens to grass and lengthen the layout, and how Wendell Miller of New York, MacKenzie’s builder at Augusta National, was hired to turn those plans into reality.

For some courses, such a brush with architectural greatness might translate to legacy. But while Palmetto acknowledges its shared heritage with Augusta National, it’s not as if the oldest course in South Carolina — and second-oldest continuously operated in America — needed McKenzie’s stamp of approval.

By 1932, the small but history-rich course, begun as a four-hole layout by founder Thomas Hitchcock, was 40 years old. Another architect of some acclaim — Donald Ross, creator of Pinehurst No. 2 — had already put his fingerprints on Palmetto, having helped install (according to records) the course’s first irrigation system in 1928.

If by now your head is spinning with all the history, wait until you step inside Palmetto’s clubhouse, built in 1902 from plans by Stanford White, who also designed the iconic Shinnecock Hills clubhouse on Long Island. Or, better yet, take a gander at the mini-museum that is head professional Tom Moore’s pro shop, where he displays vintage clubs and balls, plus photos of the game’s greats (Hogan, Nelson, Picard) who played at Palmetto.

“(1913 U.S. Open winner) Francis Ouimet played here,” Moore said. So did Babe Zaharias, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. There’s living history, too; during Masters Week, “Ben (Crenshaw, two-time Masters’ champion) likes to come over,” Moore said. “Sir Michael Bonallack (former captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) and other members of the R&A probably will be here, too.”

They come for the history, of course. But they also come for the golf course.

At 6,713 yards from the championship tees and par 71, Palmetto is “the longest, toughest 6,700 yards you’ll ever play.” Those were the words of the S.C. Golf Association’s Biff Lathrop to contestants on the eve of the 75th S.C. Amateur at Palmetto, and that remains the case. With small, subtly undulating greens, dramatic elevation changes and bunkers dubbed “diabolical” by many players, Palmetto demands precision and patience over length.

Michael Carlisle, coach at USC Aiken, has seen plenty of college hotshots humbled during the annual Palmetto Amateur.

“You have to hit every club in the bag over 18 holes,” he said. “You never get a level lie; (the ball is) above or below your feet, uphill or downhill. Palmetto doesn’t take the driver out of their hands, but sometimes it’s a smart play to use another club.

“It teaches (players) to think their way around the course. The comment I get from other coaches is that their players rarely get a chance to play a course like that today” in college competitions.

Not surprisingly, the course record of 59, set in 2005, belongs to one of Carlisle’s players, Dane Burkhart, who “made four miles of putts on the back nine,” the coach said.

Still, the draw is Palmetto’s past. What player doesn’t yearn to test himself against Nos. 3-4-5, pronounced “the best back-to-back par 4’s I ever played” by Ben Hogan? Or walk a course once trod by British Open champion Harry Vardon who, the story goes, had to get a dispensation to smoke while playing?

That last tidbit comes from club historian B.T. Barnes, 90, a contemporary of the late Bobby Knowles, an accomplished Palmetto amateur who played in several Masters and was part of its scoring committee that came up with displaying players’ scores relative to par. Barnes, a member since 1955, has records of the club’s annual Devereux Milburn Pro-Am, which from 1946-53 drew the likes of Hogan and Nelson because its $10,000 first-place prize was more than Augusta National paid out.

It also was Barnes who once spent “200 hours” in an Atlanta courthouse, finding the original deed for Palmetto and establishing its claim as second-oldest U.S. club behind Chicago Golf Club.

“I’ve got stuff even the club doesn’t,” Barnes said.

Few can outdo Moore, though, who once displayed a gutta-percha ball from the 1700s at Palmetto until he learned the ball was likely priceless (it now resides “in a vault,” he said). Moore also oversaw club restoration projects starting with an irrigation upgrade in 1984 and continuing with renovations in 1996, in 2003-05 (by architect/MacKenzie authority Tom Doak) and, most recently, in 2007. The last used, at Crenshaw’s recommendation, aerial photos from the 1940s to restore bunkers and greens to original dimensions.

Today, Palmetto is a blend of modern technology and timeless strategy. And if the draw for some during the Masters is its MacKenzie ties, well, Moore can trump that with ease.

“In an old club minutes book, we found where Ross worked on the watering system,” he said. “He was paid $2,800 in 1928, which predates MacKenzie.”

Take that, Augusta National.

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