South Carolina’s best-kept secret in golf? It’s a historic Aiken course, voters say

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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