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Its history is proud, its pedigree regal, and its 110 acres offer a trip into yesterday. Yet, Aiken Golf Club often gets lost among private clubs or the high dollar courses that line the Palmetto State’s Atlantic seaboard.
That’s all wrong, members of the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel decided.
The group composed of 125 golf enthusiasts representing a diverse range of occupations, handicaps and backgrounds named the venerable Aiken course “South Carolina’s Best-Kept Secret” at its spring awards dinner in North Myrtle Beach.
“We’re Small Town South Carolina,” Aiken Golf Club owner Jim McNair Jr. said. “Golf courses like ours got lost in the shuffle during the golf boom in the 1980s and ’90, and receiving this award is a huge honor.”
The panel’s objective is to promote excellence in the state’s golf course design and operations through competitive ranking, education and public advocacy. The best courses, public or private, are selected every other year (even-number years) and the best courses you can play are chosen in odd-numbered years. Criteria used in the judging include routing, variety, strategy, equity, memorability, aesthetics and experience.
Those who have played the Aiken course, tucked within a 5-iron shot from the downtown business district, agree that the layout completed more than 100 years ago fits that criteria. And the panel’s executive director, Michael Whitaker, said AGC dominated the “Best-Kept Secret” voting.
“We’re short (less than 6,000 yards) by today’s standards,” McNair said, “but we have member who says it’s too hard from the tips.”
Aiken Golf Club, often overshadowed in Aiken golf by even older Palmetto Golf Club, has famed architect Donald Ross in its DNA. J.R. Inglis, a disciple of the man who created Pinehurst No. 2 among his many works, completed the layout in 1915 and remain the club pro until 1939. The course opened in 1912 with 11 holes and Inglis added the final seven.
“We’ve been a resort course, a municipal course, a private club and now we have public access,” said McNair, whose family has operated the facility for 60 years.
Originally named Highland Park Hotel Golf Course to complement the nearby resort hotel, the city of Aiken took over the course after the Great Depression. McNair’s dad, Jim Sr., bought the property in 1959. However, a clause in the deal — the city had the right to buy back the club — left the family with little incentive to make substantial improvements.
An amended contract, the arrival of the younger McNair — and $1 million restoration — changed the neglected layout into a touch of yesterday with modern maintenance.
“I told Dad, ‘We’ve got to do something drastic,’ and we did,” Jim Jr. said. “We had to restore the course, and we did. We upgraded everything with new greens, upgraded irrigation, everything. It’s a perfect site.”
Like most old courses, AGC “has a lot of quirks,” McNair said. “The green complexes are incredible. The course is about strategy, accuracy and position off the tee.”
History abounds. The original course is said to be among the first anywhere to have women’s tees, and high-profile women’s tournaments (1937-39) brought the likes of Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg to compete. Julius Boros, Johnny Palmer and P.J. Boatwright played in men’s events.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re proud of the course,” McNair said. “Being recognized with this award makes it all worthwhile.”
Chip shots. John Obrien (Columbia) edged Dave Amundson (Camden) to win the SCGA’s first 40 Plus Series event of the year. Dennis Guerriero (Lexington) won the Senior Net division over Joel Aaron (Irmo), and Steve Johnson (Hilton Head) took the Super Senior Gross title in a playoff over Steve Pachol (Columbia). ... Dustin Johnson, set to move again to No. 1 in the world rankings next week, and members of Hootie & the Blowfish — Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, Darius Rucker and Jim Sonefeld — were inducted into the Myrtle Beach Golf Hall of Fame on Wednesday at Pine Lakes CC. ... Speaking of Johnson, he is among the players who have committed to play in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island in April.
Top golf courses you can play in South Carolina
Selected by the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel; listed alphabetically
Aiken Golf Club, Aiken
Atlantic Dunes, Hilton Head Island
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island
Cougar Point Golf Club, Kiawah Island
Country Club of South Carolina, Florence
Crooked Oaks Course, Seabrook Island
Dunes Golf & Beach Club, Myrtle Beach
Dye Course, North Myrtle Beach
Grande Dunes Resort Course, Myrtle Beach
Fazio Course, North Myrtle Beach
Furman Golf Club, Greenville
Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head Island
Heritage Golf Club, Pawleys Island
Heron Point by Pete Dye, Hilton Head Island
Love Course, North Myrtle Beach
May River Golf Club, Bluffton
Mount Vintage Golf Club, North Augusta
Ocean Course, Kiawah Island
Ocean Winds Course, Seabrook Island
Orangeburg Country Club, Orangeburg
Osprey Point Golf Club, Kiawah Island
Pawleys Plantation, Pawleys Island
Pine Lakes Country Club, Myrtle Beach
Prestwick Country Club, Myrtle Beach
RiverTowne Country Club, Mt. Pleasant
Robert Trent Jones Course, Hilton Head Island
Tidewater Golf Club, Cherry Grove
TPC at Myrtle Beach, Murrells Inlet
True Blue Plantation, Pawleys Island
Turtle Point Golf Club, Kiawah Island
Walker Course at Clemson University, Clemson
Wild Dunes Links Course, Isle of Palms
Top Course in Each Region
Upstate: Walker Course at Clemson University
Midlands: Orangeburg Country Club
Grand Strand: Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island
Lowcountry: Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head Island