A club ahead of its time

Aiken Golf Club is home to a lot of golf history but perhaps none as important as its forward thinking toward women in the sport

 bgillespie@thestate.comMay 15, 2011 

— Jane Covington has seen a lot of history in almost 90 years. Made a good bit of history, too; recognized as the “First Lady of South Carolina Golf,” the longtime Orangeburg resident was a co-founder of the Women’s S.C. Golf Association in 1948, won five S.C. Women’s Amateurs and five Carolinas Women’s Amateurs, and is in both the S.C. and Carolinas Golf Halls of Fame.

It’s hard to stump the octogenarian about many things involving women’s golf. But she laughed with hesitation when asked about playing in the Women’s Invitational at Highland Park Golf Club, an annual event from 1937-41.

“I was traveling with (Columbia’s) Kathryn Hemphill in those days, took trips with her,” said Covington, then the only female on the USC men’s team. “I remember staying in the big hotel” — the Highland Park Hotel, then a winter destination for rich Northern families — “right across the street.

“It was a nice golf course,” she said, “but I putted so poorly that week, I don’t remember too much about it.”

Covington doesn’t have to rely on memory. The course, now Aiken Golf Club, has not changed much since its founding in 1912.

That is a goal for Jim McNair Jr., the course’s second-generation owner, whose father purchased the 110-acre site from the city of Aiken in 1959. McNair Jr. sank about $1 million into improvements in 1999 for “the little course hidden away downtown,” as he calls it — several fairways are lined by neighborhoods and Aiken’s main drag, Laurens Street, is a couple hundred yards away — and hardly a day goes by he is not working on his pet project.

McNair also is a history buff who has lectured at the Aiken County Historical Museum during Masters Week on golf’s rich past in the area. His goal with the club is to recapture the “feel” of golf back then, while putting in upgrades to keep his 5,734-yard course relevant today.

Too, McNair is proud of Aiken Golf Club’s list of historic firsts, including a major one: the first course in the United States to establish women’s tees.

Over lunch on a recent weekend, the lean 50-something owner/head pro pulled out a 1984 Golf Journal article about May “Queenie” Dunn, recognized as America’s first woman golf pro, and pointed out the following paragraph:

“Mrs. A.J. Sweeney, an avid golfer and wife of the manager of the new Highland Park Hotel in Aiken, took the initiative to follow up on Queenie’s suggestion. In March 1916, the Highland Park Golf Club became the first club in America to establish a course for women.”

“I can imagine the conversation the Sweeneys had,” McNair said, laughing. “She probably told him, ‘Get it done.’ Women were a huge part of the clientele then.”

In “1940 or 1941,” Covington saw the result. A photo in the book “Augusta and Aiken in Golf’s Golden Age” by Stan Byrdy shows Covington and Opal Hill of Kansas City, in long skirts and white blouses, competing in the Women’s Invitational. Some time after the Highland Park Hotel was torn down in 1940, the tournament moved to Augusta Country Club and became the Titleholders, one of the LPGA’s iconic events.

“That year, I remember how Helen Detweiller, who was one of the first women pros, because I was playing so poorly, put her hand on my shoulder to show me something,” Covington said, and laughed. “And I moved away because I thought she might be breaking the rules.”

You want history? The course, with its sandy soil, rustic bunkers and pines bordering fairways, looks much like Pinehurst, with good reason: Donald Ross, the legendary designer of Pinehurst No. 2, laid out 11 holes in 1903, and Ross’ protégé, J.R. Inglis, completed the course and remained as its pro until 1939.

In that “Golden Age of Golf,” Highland Park drew many of the game’s biggest names. Patty Berg and Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in the Women’s Invitational, while on the men’s side the Tri-States Open was played here for 17 years. Julius Boros, the 1952 U.S. Open champion, finished second one year to earn his first professional check.

McNair, who played for Clemson from 1976-79, learned much of the course’s history from his father, Jim Sr. But after the city sold the course to the McNairs, it retained rights to buy it back, offering the family little incentive to make major improvements.

Jim Jr. was ready, though, when the city renegotiated the contract, to turn Aiken Golf Club into a showplace — and a historical treasure. He and fellow Clemson alumnus Brent McGee, a former pro at Hilton Head, “rebuilt it, basically, with four of us and volunteers,” McGee once said. “It was Ditch Witches, tractors and a lot of ‘sweat equity.’”

The work continues, and lately the effort has earned far-flung praise. Golfweek last month listed Aiken Golf Club as No. 10 among South Carolina “Courses You Can Play,” and Sports Illustrated golf writer Michael Bamberger, in an “SI Golf Plus” blog, praised its old-school charms. “The overall experience was pure joy,” he wrote.

Though short by modern standards, Aiken Golf Club gets players’ attentions with its five testing par-3s, ranging from 164-200 yards. The 185-yard ninth is uphill to a severe back-to-front sloped green guarded by a tree left and bunker right, while the 183-yard “signature hole” 16th drops perhaps 80 feet from an elevated tee to a deep-but-narrow, undulating green guarded by bunkers on each side.

Surprisingly, given its history, the club has just six women members, “and only three of us have a locker,” Janice Sisson said. She and husband Audie joined three years ago after moving from St. Louis, and said it was Aiken Golf Club’s history and old-fashioned look that drew them.

“We managed golf clubs before, and this was more in line with those than some ‘country clubs’ we looked at,” Audie Sisson said. “Being a shorter course is very attractive to me for business entertaining — you don’t have to swing out of your shoes — but the greens make it challenging.”

Last fall, Janice Sisson took part in another historic moment when Aiken hosted what is believed to be the first hickory-shafted-club tournament for women. “They brought in all original clubs and balls, three each, and we played the original Rules of Golf,” she said. The second hickory tournament will be this November.

Cindy Niland, 64, calls herself “an old broad who plays golf.” She likes that women’s tees began here — “that was such a brilliant idea, and Aiken has that history,” she said — but mostly she enjoys the club’s atmosphere.

“Two of us (women) play in the senior men’s dogfight every week,” Niland said. “The guys, 30-40 of them, couldn’t be nicer, so it’s easy to play here regardless of skill level.”

Niland and the Sissons heap praise on the McNairs and their course. They are particularly fond of Ellen McNair, Jim Jr.’s mother, who “makes the best cookies in town,” Sisson said. “I’m told she used to be a heckuva golfer herself.”

As Jane Covington could tell them, at Aiken Golf Club, that is nothing new.

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