Located about 20 miles northeast of Augusta, Aiken is where federal and confederate cavalry clashed in the Battle of Aiken in 1865. The city’s resort status was established in the early 20th century with its fame as a “winter colony” created by Northerners who built houses and sports facilities such as polo fields, racetracks and stables. Today it forms the center of South Carolina’s “Thoroughbred Country” and is home to first-class polo, racing and even the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
And golf, too. PGA Tour golfers Kevin Kisner, Scott Brown and Matthew NeSmith serve as modern-day ambassadors for Aiken’s rich golf roots.
Originally known as Highland Golf Club, Aiken Golf Club was the city’s third course when it opened in 1912. The bones of the layout are considered to have been designed by Donald Ross with John Inglis, a Ross protégé, responsible for its construction. Among its claims is being the first course to offer tees for women beginning in 1916, hosting superstars Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg in the Women’s Invitational Tournament from 1937 to 1939, and it’s where Hall of Famer Julius Boros cashed his first pro check.
Jim McNair Sr., who once played an exhibition with Sam Snead, Bobby Locke and Billy Joe Patton, bought the course from the city in 1959. His son, Jim Jr., has brought the “Ross” back to the club in one of the better do-it-yourself course renovations you’ll ever see. There’s a framed quote in the golf shop from McNair Jr. on the course’s 100th anniversary that sums up why he and his family have poured so much blood, sweat and tears into the place.
“The past will lead the future of golf and long after I am gone the Aiken Golf Club will still be challenging golfers and remain a ‘hidden gem’ for those fortunate enough to find her. For that I am very proud,” he said.
At 5,800 yards from the back tees, this par-70 reopened in 1999, still possessing all the little quirks and charm that make up so many of the great older, shorter courses around the country that lie just off the beaten path. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were playing in the Carolina Sandhills at one of Ross’s finest. Take for instance Aiken’s fifth, a 403-yard, tree-lined par 4 featuring sandy waste areas, love grass and a small turtle-backed green. The first hole and seventeenth share a green, and the layout has a challenging set of par 3s, including the downhill 16th where Fred Astaire supposedly danced down the steps with his golf club.
“It’s short and you can shoot a number,” said NeSmith, who grew up playing there, “but it requires positioning your ball properly.”
The charm is evident in the quaintness of its small pro shop, where a credit card receipt still is written by hand, and the hospitality is genuine. It warrants a visit by any golfer who seeks what is good in the game. Michael Bamberger of Golf.com may have put it best in a 2015 article on the course, writing, “Charm is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
Another golf-writing pal, Jim Dodson, had told me to make sure to sample the homemade banana bread sold at The Shack between the eighth and ninth holes in a Ziplock bag for a dollar a slice. Morning made. Aiken Golf Club doesn’t return to the clubhouse at the turn, so it was a good thing we picked up some nourishment.
The city’s downtown shopping center is located not far from the course, and we headed there to refuel after the round. It doesn’t take long to see why Southern Living tabbed Aiken the best small town in the South a few years ago. Just off Laurens Street, we enjoyed The Alley, a popular gathering spot with a cluster of restaurants where open-container laws are suspended. We grabbed a bite at Takosushi. If you go for dinner, you might run into Kisner at Whiskey Alley across the way. I’m also told you can’t go wrong at Casa Bella for Italian or at Prime Steakhouse, a trencherman’s delight and the equal of any steakhouse in the country. High praise, indeed.
Beneath a blue sky and blazing sun, we walked under the archway of live oaks along South Boundary Avenue and window-shopped among the eclectic mix of boutique stores and galleries, spending longful gazes in a chocolate shop that was oh so tempting, but we’d satisfy our sweet tooth soon enough.
We hopped in the car and returned to Georgia’s second-oldest city, situated 150 miles east of Atlanta. Founded in 1736 and listed on the National Register for Historic Places, Augusta remains a vibrant and diverse cosmopolitan center seasoned with Southern charm. How much does the city love its golfing legends? The main expressway is named for Masters co-founder Bobby Jones; James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in contrast, only got a boulevard named for him.
Like Aiken, Augusta was a leading Southern resort city for Northerners seeking mild climes in the winter because the rail line ended in this land of sunshiny days and moonlit nights perfumed with magnolias, dogwoods and azaleas. It was Florida before Florida. Augusta was important enough in its early days to twice be named capital of Georgia. The extension of the rail line to the Sunshine State and the advent of air travel helped bring an end to the glory days of Augusta and Aiken as the preferred winter playground for the elite.
All those annual visits to Augusta and I’d never spent the daylight hours anywhere but walking as close as I could to the sloping fairways at the National. So, we pulled over off of James Brown Boulevard and strolled the Riverwalk, a brick-lined, two-level pathway following the Savannah River. Often called Augusta’s front porch, the Riverwalk is located between Sixth and 10th Streets and neighbors its other old-square gathering place, Augusta Common.
If not for COVID-19, musicians likely would have been warming up for an evening concert at the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, an 1,800-seat venue perched off the Riverwalk at Ninth Street Plaza, where the entertainment is said to be rivaled only by the majestic river view. We had an ulterior motive for stopping here after being told by John Bush, a PGA Tour media official who was born and raised near Augusta and still calls the area home, to visit The Boll Weevil Café, famous for its desserts and five-layer cakes. The restaurant, located in an old cotton warehouse, is not to be missed unless you’re diabetic. We ordered two slices of cake – red velvet, that simple Southern classic, and canary lemon, layers of moist lemon cake with lemon custard and homemade cream cheese icing – big enough to feed a foursome.
Afterward, we retreated to our lodging for the next few nights, the wonderful Champions Retreat in Evans, Georgia. This private club on the outskirts of Augusta opens its doors to the public during Masters week and knows how to cater to out-of-town guests. The club’s cottages – 16 in all with four to eight bedrooms each – greet you shortly after you drive through the gates, and we’d spend many an hour shooting the breeze in the rocking chairs out back.
A group from my home club is in its fourth year of hosting what it calls the Birthday Cup weekend at Champions Retreat. The three-day golfapalooza each November has grown to 40 guys on two teams spread over eight to 10 houses. Richard Clark, one of the ringleaders, said they consumed $40,000 in booze and burned six cords of firewood last time. They eat, sleep and talk golf non-stop without ever needing to leave the property. It sounds like a hoot.
“It’s simply cathartic for golf nerds like us,” said William Palmer, one of the birthday boys for which the Birthday Cup was named.
The course, which is woven into stately Georgia pines, mature hardwoods and wetlands along the Savannah River, opened for play in 2005, featuring three nine-hole loops. It has grown in stature as the host of the first two rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, for which the final round is played at Augusta National. Initially, it was planned to be a Gary Player design, but as Player explained, “We pivoted to make a one-of-a-kind experience that had never been done before.”
Player chose the 1999 Masters Champions Dinner as his setting to recruit Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to share in designing the layout. With three distinct sections of the property from which to choose, Player decided to divvy up the land “scientifically,” and wrote Island, Creek and Bluff on the back of three index cards. Palmer was granted first pick as the senior member of the group. He drew the Island card and landed the most scenic of nines. Nicklaus went next because he had won more green jackets than Player and pulled the Bluff card, leaving Player with the Creek property.
For the ANWA, the Island serves as the front nine and Bluff as the back. Arnie’s loop begins with a pair of par 4s, then the next five and a half holes are played on an island created by the confluence of the Savannah and Little rivers, with the tee shot at No. 8 struck over water from the island to a green back on the mainland.
The fourth on the Island nine starts from the creek and plays out to the majestic Savannah and an approach around a giant oak guarding the center of the fairway. It is considered the signature hole of the 27-hole complex, and it’s easy to see why. This is a stout par 4 measuring 453 yards, where the caddies will advise aiming for the broccoli-shaped tree in the middle of the fairway. And make sure you take part in the club’s “tradition unlike any other” of trying to hit a ball from the back tee of the par-3 sixth hole across the Savannah River, which acts as a border between Georgia and South Carolina some 230 yards away.
Player’s Creek nine is player-friendly and considered by many to be the favorite of the members, highlighted by a Redan green at the par-3 fourth hole. Nicklaus, meanwhile, moved little dirt in making the Bluff because he found the holes fit nicely with the existing rolling terrain and surroundings. The sharp doglegs, uneven lies and undulating putting greens on his loop will give competitors fits, beginning with the gnarly false front at the par-3 second, which led my caddie to shake his head and say, “These greens will make you dyslexic.”
Perhaps they will be easier to read after the club replaces the bent grass on all 27 greens and the practice green with TifEagle in a project slated for this summer.
Due to COVID, our dinner options were limited and we grabbed take-out that night and nibbled on leftover cake. But the Augusta restaurant scene is ever improving and more than just the endless fast-food restaurants and strip shopping centers along Washington Road that seem as if they are the only option during the Masters. To our dismay, neither Sconyers Bar-B-Que, located in south Augusta and serving its famous brisket from Thursday to Saturday, nor Frog Hollow Tavern, known for its farm-to-table dining and extensive wine list from Wednesday to Saturday, were open during our visit. Scott Brown called the latter the best restaurant from Charlotte to Atlanta, and Scotty Cameron ranks it as his favorite restaurant while traveling the Tour – he recommends the pork chop and the mac n’ cheese.
My mainstays during Masters week are Abel Brown, a Southern kitchen and oyster bar frequented by Henrik Norlander and located in the Surrey Center (along with popular Masters hangouts French Market Grille and American bistro Finch & Fifth) and TBonz on Washington Road, which brands itself as the unofficial 19th hole of the Masters. All you need to know about the latter is that Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champ, scribbled a note over a framed photo of himself that hangs prominently on a wall near the entranceway that says, “I always look forward to the Masters, but it’s the steaks at TBonz that make it such a great week.” Mark Cumins, one of the co-owners, presides over what has become a family of friends that gather at his establishment from across the world for a memorable week every year. One pal of mine calls it their “annual meeting,” as if it were the gathering of the board of directors of a public company.