CHARLESTON — On a recent mid-June morning, an SUV was parked in front of the Country Club of Charleston, its license tag bearing the motto, “First in Golf.”
The specialty tags, created years ago as a fundraising project by the S.C. Golf Association, can be spotted throughout the state. But nowhere does such a sighting seem more appropriate than this club.
South Carolina’s claims to being golf’s birthplace in America date to Charleston’s Harleston Green, where the game supposedly was played as early as 1786. “There are ships’ manifests (from that time) showing golf equipment came into the port of Charleston,” said Tommy Ford, a longtime club member.
Though the Country Club of Charleston for years used “1786” as part of its logo, Tommy Ford and head professional Hart Brown acknowledge the club’s traceable origins go back “only” to 1901.
“When the club claimed ties to (Harleston Green),” Ford said, “some of us asked, ‘What does that really mean?’ ”
In fact, he said, there apparently is a 100-year gap in the city’s golf history. The verifiable origin for Charleston is the Belvedere Golf Club, which existed from 1901-24.
Built in the narrow part of the city’s peninsula adjacent to historic Magnolia Cemetery, Belvedere had sand greens and views of marshes and served its purpose until 1924, when Seth Raynor showed up.
Raynor, one of America’s architectural giants of the early 20th century, was commissioned to build the present club on James Island. That project, completed in 1925, occurred at the same time Raynor was building Yeamans Hall Club in Hanahan. No one seems to know which club hired him first, but the results were, and remain, historic.
Perhaps the most renowned relic of the course’s lineage is its famous — some members call it “infamous” — 11th hole. The 186-yard par-3, with its narrow, elevated putting surface angled left-to-right from the tee, is a classic “Redan” green guarded by bunkers on each side. The hole over the years has generated more than its share of strong opinions, but more on that later.
Step inside Charleston’s stately clubhouse, and history abounds. On one wall is a 1919 aerial photo of Belvedere, along with a framed newspaper clipping reporting a visit by William Howard Taft, America’s first golf-crazed president. Black-and-white photos in the bar show Sam Snead playing in 1937 in the club’s Tournament of the Gardens, forerunner to the current Azalea Invitational, an amateur event.
Foremost among the club’s treasures are four oil paintings. Three of the portraits, by the late Ray Goodbred, are of Raynor, Henry Picard and Frank C. Ford Sr. Picard, the club’s pro in the late 1930s, won two majors (1938 Masters, 1939 PGA); Ford, who was 100 when he died in 2005, captured seven S.C. Amateur titles, four Azaleas and a dozen City Amateur crowns.
The fourth painting is a nearly life-sized rendition of Beth Daniel, an LPGA and World Golf hall of famer who began playing at the course at age 6; she is pictured after winning the first of her two U.S. Women’s Amateur titles. She was 18 at the time.
“I’d like them to replace that with something smaller,” Daniel, 55, said with a laugh. “There was a huge push to do the portrait then, but (Ford, Picard and Raynor) had more to do with the club than I did.”
The club produced other champions, including descendents of Frank Ford Sr. His grandson, Frank Ford III, is a six-time Azalea champion and, like Daniel, a member of the S.C. Golf Hall of Fame. Frank
III’s son, Frank IV (known as Cordes), won a Carolinas Amateur title, while Bert Atkinson was a U.S. Amateur runner-up.
“(The club) was the common ground where we all learned and played the game,” Frank III said. “It’s a huge part of my life, for sure.”
The current generations, Frank III and Daniel among them, also lived through some of the club’s more recent — and more difficult — history.
In 1989, club members decided the course was overdue for a restoration. Greens had shrunk and bunkers had disappeared, as often is the case with pre-World War II courses. “Basically, nothing had been done since 1925,” said Brown, who became head pro in 1988.
The original plan was to re-do nine holes at a time. That September, Hurricane Hugo changed everything.
The monster storm “destroyed the clubhouse, knocked down about 1,000 trees,” said Tommy Ford, Frank III’s uncle. Daniel, who returned to visit the course with her parents, said the post-hurricane landscape “looked like a battlefield.”
Members closed the course in February 1990 for a rush-job renovation, reopening in October. That, Brown said, is when problems began.
Greenville’s respected John LaFoy was the architect, but the on-site contractor did a slipshod job, according to Brown and Tommy Ford (LaFoy recommended the contractor not be paid, but he was anyway, Ford said). Collars of greens died because of improper subsurface materials, and irrigation pipes were not installed correctly, among other faults.
“After Hugo, I think it got the furthest away from what Raynor designed,” Daniel said.
For the next 15 years, there was talk of redoing the job. The final straw for Brown came when “I was setting (flag) locations for the Azalea, and I needed to find five (per green),” he said. “The greens had shrunk so much that at No. 12, I could only find three.”
In 2005, seven architects were interviewed, and Brian Silva, known for his work on Raynor and Donald Ross courses, was the choice. Frank Ford III’s son-in-law Forrest Norvell discovered a 1939 aerial photo of the course, and Silva, using that as a guide, added eight lost bunkers, increased green surfaces to original dimensions and, most importantly, restored the holes’ characteristics.
“They ‘re-redid’ it,” Frank Ford III said, “and now it’s what it was meant to be.”
The results perhaps are best seen at the 11th hole, where Ford recalls watching an S.C. Women’s Amateur pre-2005. “I don’t think one (player) put a ball on the green. They couldn’t play the hole, which meant it was a (lousy) hole.
“It hadn’t been built back properly after Hugo. It’s much better now.”
Still, No. 11 always has inspired criticism, even from the best players. That began during the original pro-am when the likes of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson played the course.
Asked once about the course, Hogan said, “It has 17 good holes.” Snead suggested the best improvement for the 11th would be “a couple of sticks of dynamite.” Brown, attending a PGA Show in Florida a decade ago, was introduced to Nelson, and “Lord Byron” asked him, “You still got that (darn) 11th hole?”
Members are fond, and perversely proud, of their infamous “bad child.” Frank Ford III learned how to chip at No. 11 under the watchful eye of his grandmother, another strong player in the family. And in 1988, when he won his third Azalea, the 11th hole was pivotal.
Ford, two-time U.S. Amateur champion Jay Sigel and another player were tied as they stood on the 11th tee. Both visitors missed the green and made double-bogeys; Ford hit his tee shot to 10 feet and made par, then beat Sigel in a playoff.
“Some complained we made it too easy (in the renovation),” Tommy Ford said. “But it was hard for 65 years and impossible for 10 years. Now it’s fair.”
Though she seldom plays the course now, Daniel retains fond memories. A young golfing talent in the 1960s and early 1970s, she said the club was “extremely supportive” of juniors, including girls. Al Esposito, the club’s head pro for 35 years, created a program for kids, who had to learn rules and etiquette before being allowed on the course.
Also always nearby was Picard, who could be counted on for guidance — and juvenile terror.
“I was so scared of him,” Daniel said. “He’d give you a question and give you until the end of the day to figure it out: ‘How do you hit it high? How do you hook it?’ I’d go work on it, come back and tell him.
“I usually got the wrong answer, but if I got it right, he’d just say, ‘Thank you’ and walk away.” She laughed. “It was a major thrill to get it right.”
Today, Daniel passes on the lessons she learned. Each August, she hosts the Beth Daniel Junior Azalea, flying in from her Florida home and, Hart Brown said, “doing it all: marking the course, making rulings, handing out cold towels.”
Growing up at the Country Club of Charleston, “I was always aware of all the history,” Daniel said. Now she’s an important link in that ongoing history.
No matter what year it began.