CAMDEN — The golfer sent his approach shot to Camden Country Club’s 11th green over the target and into the gnarly underbrush, perhaps 40 or 50 yards too long.
“He must have had the wrong yardage; I don’t believe I have ever seen a ball that far back there,” said Matt McCarley, who grew up at the club and now is its general manager and head pro.
“Watch me play,” the golfer said, “and you will see a lot of things you have never seen before on a golf course.”
The light-hearted exchange Wednesday during a qualifying round for the Carolina Golf Association’s Four-Ball tournament defines the site. Come to Camden Country Club and discover a gem of a golf course loaded with elements not often seen these days.
Sandwiched by horse country — a training track is adjacent to the 11th fairway, and the Springdale Race Course, home of the Carolina Cup, is a couple of Bubba Watson drives away down Knights Hill Road — thousands have passed by and do not realize the history close at hand.
During a time when real-estate-driven courses dominate golf, this place is a throwback. During a time when modern layouts are long on length and flamboyance, this beauty has subtleties and character. During any time, this antique called Camden Country Club is one of the state’s golf treasures.
Where else can a layout produced by two of the game’s famed architects be found?
Where else does an active railroad line — complete with old-fashioned warning signs, but no flashing lights or clanging bells — separate two holes from the other 16?
Where else can 6,327 yards be so demanding?
“The longest 6,300 yards most golfers will ever see,” said Happ Lathrop, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association.
Members delight at today’s bomb-and-gouge players who check the yardage, begin their rounds with visions of grandeur and arrive at the 18th green sadder but wiser for the experience. Camden, one said with a chuckle, must lead the world in bruised egos.
“We’re proud of this course,” Camden member Paul Branham said. “It’s a tough little booger.”
Those who take the challenge say, “Amen.”
Camden of the early 1900s was a popular winter destination for the wealthy, and the Kirkwood Hotel provided suitable accommodations. An adjoining golf course, reportedly rather primitive, gave visitors an avenue for recreation.
The need for a higher-quality course became evident, and the hotel owners hired Walter Travis, a three-time U.S. Amateur champion, to design Kirkwood Links — now Camden Country Club — in 1922 on the existing layout and adjacent property.
Travis decided to introduce undulated, sand greens to his only South Carolina project. Putting surfaces in those days came in two forms: flat sand, which rolled true, or undulated turf, which provided a coarse surface that rolled unevenly and required re-grassing each year.
Travis’ sand-with-contours greens earned rave reviews, but they would soon be outdated; advancements in cultivation made grass greens popular by the 1930s, and Kirkwood Links officials decided to convert the putting surfaces to Bermuda grass in 1939. They hired Donald Ross, best known for his work at Pinehurst No. 2.
One of the most celebrated golf architects in history, Ross spent more time than usual on his Camden project. He tinkered with Travis’ design, re-routed the course and installed his trademark crowned greens with runoff areas. The result: The only 18-hole Ross course in South Carolina includes some of Travis’ concepts.
Amazingly, some of Ross’ original plans survived. The framed plots on graph paper and his hand-written notes hang in the clubhouse grill room.
“They found all the papers in an original member’s attic when they were cleaning it out,” McCarley said. “It’s unbelievable how well preserved they were.”
Keeping the course true to Ross’ genius is the club’s passion, McCarley said. Longtime course superintendent Danny Allen oversaw the change of greens to a Bermuda hybrid called Tift Eagle, upgraded drainage and an improved irrigation system, but maintaining the original contours was paramount.
“You don’t want to mess with Mr. Ross’ work,” McCarley said, “and we don’t.”
Short length, big test
Golfers step to the first tee and find a straight par-4, which plays anywhere from 270 to 380 yards. Don’t blame them if they get a smug feeling about bringing this short Ross course to its knees.
“They get a rude awakening on No. 2,” McCarley said.
The downhill second plays no more than 167 yards. Pine-tree limbs “lean” into the fairway area, creating a tight look, winds swirl, and the green appears to be no bigger than a bath towel from the tee.
“It’s the world’s hardest par-3 to get on the green in ‘2,’ ” Ray Novicki, a CGA official who has conducted a Four-Ball tourney at Camden for 20 years, said with a laugh. “Really, if the tee shot misses the green, chances are the second shot will, too.”
On No. 5, a player encounters what Gene Sarazen called “one of the best short par-4s I have played.” The hole stretches 320 yards from the back tees, but the tee shot must be well placed on the left side of the fairway for an approach to a green that slops toward a bunker.
“The world’s shortest par-5,” Novicki said with a chuckle, referring to the most common score on the hole.
The challenges continue, especially on the greens, and, Allen said, “We can make it (with pin placements) where they can’t keep the ball on the greens.”
Novicki agreed, saying, “I can make the course setup (on the greens) fair but exceedingly difficult.”
The increased challenges come with improvement in agronomy. Ross designed the greens for his time, which meant slow putting surfaces. Those same contours with today’s grasses make for lightning-fast putts.
“If anything is wrong with your putting stroke, it will be amplified at Camden,” Novicki said. “It’s always interesting to see (four-ball) teams come in here thinking they will tear up the course and they can’t figure out why they’re only at even par. It’s the longest short course they will ever play.”
Steeped in history
The course became Camden Country Club after the Kirkwood Hotel closed in 1944, and members have been generous in offering the venue for tournament play. The CGA has staged its Four-Ball tournament here for more than 50 years, and South Carolina’s best have tackled the course in the 1957 and 1990 State Amateurs.
“My dad Joe won in 1957, which makes that one extra special,” Matt McCarley said.
The reason they keep coming back? “The players absolutely love the challenge of the golf course,” Novicki said.
Of course, that affection receives a challenge if a CSX train on the track separating the 12th and 13th holes from the others blows its whistle during a backswing. “No mulligans,” McCarley said.
The track and the golf course share their location for the same reason: the original Kirkwood Hotel.
“The hotel was right there,” Allen, the course superintendent, said. “People got off the train at the hotel, and the hotel had the golf course on adjacent property.”
Golf and railroads usually co-exist with no problems. The stop signs and “private railroad crossing” and “look” notices might startle a first-time visitor; after all, who expects railroad tracks on a golf course?
“It’s just a matter of letting the trains pass,” McCarley said.
Time passes, but Camden clings to the Ross legacy. The same course that pros such as Julius Boros, Porky Oliver, Mike Souchak, Ed Furgol, Art Wall and Bob Rosburg played in annual Four-Ball tournaments between the late 1940s and early 1960s is much the same as the one the finalists in the CGA Four-Ball will challenge today.
The experience is unique, and, McCarley said, “That’s what we want.”