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A Touch of Class

WOMEN’S HICKORY-SHAFTED GOLF TOURNAMENT: The event is hosted by the Aiken County Historical Museum with participants following “first edition” rules.

WOMEN’S HICKORY-SHAFTED GOLF TOURNAMENT: The event is hosted by the Aiken County Historical Museum with participants following “first edition” rules.

Tee time at historic Aiken Golf Club has a time-honored past. Many feet have tread the 100-year-old course, many hearts have dreaded its hazards and many fists have been raised in triumph over its greens. A semi-private club now, it welcomes the public to play, but this was not always the case. Originally an 11-hole layout built in 1912 as an amenity to the prestigious, re-built Highland Park Hotel (its predecessor burned in 1898), it was decidedly private. During its first incarnation, wealthy northerners wiling away the winter months in Aiken’s temperate climate spent leisurely hours traipsing the sandhills.

One of the oldest golf courses in the U.S., for a century it has been an emerald gem set conveniently in Aiken’s downtown. Remnants of the Southern Railway tracks run along holes one through five. Old Aiken homes and cottages, with generous setbacks, overlook fairways. Richland Avenue traces part of the 90-plus acres. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s as much a part of the city’s history as Hitchcock Woods and the polo fields.

Like the early courses on the west coast of Scotland, the unassuming Aiken Golf Club is built on sandy soil, the best terrain for cultivating golf. The routing and construction of the course’s inaugural holes are attributed to the famed Scotsman Donald Ross, acclaimed for his clever designs that tested a player’s skill on the natural lay of the land. Some in the golf world question this connection, yet it’s quite plausible that Ross designed the course for the Highland Park Hotel without ever visiting the site. He was known to use topographical maps to draw up his blueprints accompanied by simple, straightforward instructions implemented by onsite crews.

Jim McNair Jr., current owner, greenkeeper and superintendent, and a golf historian and student of the sport’s lore, reports that Ross indeed visited his creation—maybe for the first time, perhaps not—in 1933 to oversee the transition of the putting greens from sand to Bermuda grass. “Ross was huge in the late ’20s and early ’30s,” says McNair. “In 1934 he had 3,000 people working for him in design and course architecture, construction, irrigation and turf management and research. Through experiments at Pinehurst from 1929 through the early 1930s, Ross developed a strain of Bermuda that would hold up to Southern summers and provide a smooth and reliable putting surface.”

Jim McNair Jr., Current Owner

Jim McNair Jr:  current owner, greenkeeper, superintendent and golf historian

 

Having honed his own golf game on the links lining the North Sea, Ross brought his knowledge of the pure game to America when it was still a novel sport in the New World. Characteristics of his handiwork, and of classic courses of Scotland, are evident at Aiken Golf Club. Ross couldn’t, of course, import the sea winds or the sheep oft grazing the grounds, but he did assure the inclusion of naturally rolling fairways, challenging undulated greens, walkability and a bit of scruffiness that harkens to the game’s spit-shined, as opposed to polished, early days on Scotland’s west coast. In 1915, the Highland Park golf pro, John Inglis, an associate of Ross’s, added a seven-hole loop (numbers eight through 14) to up the course to 18 holes.

Highland Park Hotel and its golf course roared through the prosperous ’20s. In times of plenty, boldness reigns and the Highland Park Course put its indelible footprint on the game of golf. It numbered among the first, some say the first, golf courses in the nation to establish tees for women, which it did in 1916. Whether the response to May Dunn’s (the earliest female golf professional pioneering the way for women in the sport) suggestion to install the forward tees resulted from old-school chivalry or derived its impetus from the swelling suffragist movement, one cannot say, but it definitely changed the face of golf, not just in a small Southern town, but everywhere. Highland Park, by the late ’30s, hosted women’s invitation tournaments, drawing pre-LPGA greats like Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg and Helen Detwiller and further encouraging female interest and participation in the game.

The Highland Park Hotel, a casualty of the Great Depression, was torn down in the early ’40s. Then known as the Sports Center of the South for its equestrian events and golf, the city of Aiken bought the golf course, opening it for the first time to the public. Essentially, it popped the bubble of elitism that had surrounded the game of golf and invited everyone to partake of its mysteries. The city renamed the facility Aiken Golf Club and hired Joe Frasca, John Inglis’s assistant, as the initial pro for the municipal course. He kept a remarkably thorough scrapbook, now part of the Aiken County Historical Museum collections, during his tenure. It’s a definite must-see for golf enthusiasts.

Aiken Golf Club

AIKEN GOLF CLUB: Jim McNair Jr. and his wife Vicki received the Stewardship Award from the Historic Aiken Foundation in recognition of the course’s renovation and restoration of the clubhouse to its 1914 face.

 

Twenty years later, in 1959, the golf course changed hands, and names, again. McNair’s father, James McNair Sr., who incidentally still holds the course record of 58, which he shot in 1947, and who had been a renowned amateur golfer, purchased Aiken Golf Club from the city. Inspired by the Highland Park subdivision located adjacent to the course, and probably to reframe the place in bankable cachet, he officially christened it Highland Park Country Club. McNair Jr. spent his childhood side-by-side with his father caressing the greens and fairways into picturesque tests of skill on some days and sweet-talking them into giving back strokes on others. While Ross sharpened his golf game on classic coastal courses of Scotland, young McNair groomed his in this place that so closely resembled those of Ross’s homeland.
Today it is a public access 18-hole course that outstrips many of its private-course counterparts. Ranked 13th among South Carolina’s public access links, it takes top honors of those in non-coastal areas. Golfweek magazine named it among the Best Courses You Can Play in both 2011 and 2012.

In the early ’40s the city of Aiken bought the golf course, opening it for the first time to the public—popping the
bubble of elitism that had surrounded the game.

In 1997, McNair instituted a massive renovation of the approximately 5,800-yard Highland Park Country Club course. It was a tricky balance between preservation of its distinguishing characteristics and modernization of its infrastructure that was not completed until 1999, at which time he returned the course’s moniker to Aiken Golf Club. Though many of the courses Ross brought to fruition have been revamped to improve ease of maintenance and ease of play, Aiken Golf Club retains its unique character reminiscent of Old World golf. Those who play the game there taste the flavor of the authentic links without crossing the Atlantic. In response to McNair’s efforts, and in particular the restoration of the clubhouse to its 1914 face, he and his wife Vicki received the Stewardship Award from the Historic Aiken Foundation “in recognition of outstanding upkeep of a key historic property.”

Women's Golf

Women’s Golf: In 1916 the Aiken Golf Club was one of the first courses in the nation to establish tees for women. By the late ’30s it drew such pre-LPGA greats as Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg and Helen Detwiller.

 

With a nod to its past, the club hosts the Aiken County Historical Museum’s Annual Women’s Hickory-Shafted Golf Tournament. Participants follow what we’ll call “first edition” rules of the game and play with golf clubs that have, as described by the tournament name, hickory shafts. Wood shafts pre-dated metal shafts and the now wildly popular titanium shafts. “Everybody’s got a handicap,” says Mary White, the museum’s assistant director, “and it’s the clubs.” With the field leveled by the equipment, the competition becomes rooted in finesse. It’s not about how far a player can drive the ball, it’s about the touch she puts on it.

Touch. That’s what it takes to make it in the highly competitive golf-course industry, particularly here, in the southeastern Mecca of golf. McNair, however, intuitively understands that Aiken Golf Club’s success doesn’t depend on keeping up with the Jones’s. It’s about capitalizing on the wealth within; it relies on embracing the 100-year history, not only by remembering the past, but also by putting people’s feet on it.  He strives to provide a golfing experience for Aiken Golf Club’s members and guests that combines the best qualities of today’s game with the architecture of its origins. •

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