AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA | Normally, the golf world turns its attention to Augusta in spring. But these are not normal times. About all we can now do when it comes to what traditionally is the first major championship of the season is pray that it is only postponed and indeed will be played in the fall.
None of that is to say, however, that I have stopped thinking about that East Georgia Eden, knowing that the dogwoods and azaleas there will be blooming soon. And as we endure that wretched combination of social distancing and sheltering in place, I allow myself to dream of the Augusta National layout, bathed in soft spring sunlight, the closely cropped grasses that cover its hills, dales and undulations as green as the felt on a brand new pool table. I imagine playing the course myself, and also watching the best golfers on the PGA Tour do so that first week in April.
Frankly, there is nowhere I would rather be this time of year. But as I cannot be there, my mind also wanders to what is my second favorite retreat in that region, the Palmetto Golf Club. Located some 20 miles northeast of the Augusta National entrance on Washington Road, just across the South Carolina border in the historic town of Aiken, it is one of the oldest clubs in America, with a clubhouse designed by architect Stanford White, a course fashioned in part by Alister MacKenzie and an aura that is stylish yet restrained – and all about golf.
In the course of covering some two dozen Masters tournaments and making several other visits to the area, I have long heard raves about Palmetto, from fellow journalists, from Augusta National members who also belong to that club, and from tour professionals like Ben Crenshaw, who has snuck up there during Masters weeks, and Kevin Kisner, who lives off the 17th hole. After making my maiden visit to Palmetto before last year’s Masters, I now appreciate what all the hubbub is about.
There are no tennis courts or swimming pool. The main form of post-round relaxation involves rocking chairs that are arrayed outside the modest clubhouse, which opened in 1902 …
I was enticed by the simple dirt lot that is designated for visitor parking, and the quaint, somewhat cramped pro shop that feels more like a golf museum with the memorabilia that hangs from its walls, such as the certificate the club received when it joined the USGA in 1896, a little more than a year after that organization came to be and four years after the founding of Palmetto. There are also framed letters from Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and President George Herbert Walker Bush, whose grandfather was not only an early Palmetto member but also a club president.
The tee markers are pieces of steel rails originally designed for train tracks. The idea of putting them to that use came from another club president of yore, Eugene Grace. He also happened to be the head of Bethlehem Steel at the time, and those first markers were no doubt forged in one of his company’s plants.
There are no tennis courts or swimming pool. The main form of post-round relaxation involves rocking chairs that are arrayed outside the modest clubhouse, which opened in 1902 and, after Shinnecock Hills, is only the second one White built. “We don’t do cards here,” a member says as he settles into a seat next to me, carefully so as not to spill a drop from his drink. “We do this.”
The good people at Palmetto also do golf, and they do it quite well. Their course possesses a stirring mix of holes that are both long and short – and that dogleg left and right. It also boasts deft, MacKenzie-esque bunkering; short distances between greens and tees; interesting elevation changes that put further demands on a golfer’s shotmaking abilities; greens that feature multiple quadrants and roll fast and true; and flora that evokes in many ways the home of the Masters, thanks to the cathedral pines, the magnolias and, of course, the palmettos.
The back tees measure a tick less than 6,500 yards, and most members play the course from the white markers, which come in around 6,100 yards. That makes the layout challenging yet eminently playable, which makes it very hard to beat, as does the premium club leaders put on a proper pace of play.
Palmetto members talk about how Hogan once opined that the third, fourth and fifth holes were the best back-to-back-to-back par-4s he had ever known – and how the Hawk put Nos. 3, 5 and 13 on a list of his favorite 18 holes that he compiled for Golf World magazine. They also recall reports of Jones describing the seventh, which feels a lot like the hole of that same number at another MacKenzie gem, Cypress Point, as best medal-play par-3 he ever played.
I would agree that those all are praiseworthy – and add to that the downhill, par-5 14th and short, uphill four-par at No. 15. Ditto the three finishers, for the way they are routed around the clubhouse and for the fact that they are where three of the first four holes at Palmetto initially were laid out.
Club records indicate that Palmetto was founded in 1892 by Thomas Hitchcock, a prominent sportsman from metropolitan New York, and William C. Whitney, a noted industrialist and investor from Long Island who also raced and trained thoroughbred horses. Those men were among the first northerners to begin wintering in Aiken. They saw a golf club as something that would attract Gilded Age socialites to an area where polo, fox hunting, steeplechase racing and tennis were also popular and where the action at night often entailed cocktail party crawls and ballroom dances.
Hitchcock laid out a rudimentary four-hole course, and a few years later, the club hired Herbert Leeds, who had designed the course at the Myopia Hunt Club north of Boston, to expand Palmetto first to nine holes and then to 18. Assisting in that effort, which was completed in 1895, was the club’s first golf professional, Jimmy Mackrell. Five years later, by which time the club and the overall community of Aiken were prospering, members transferred title of the Palmetto’s land and facilities to the Whitney Trust. That entity continues to lease those holdings to the club and not long ago renewed the arrangement through 2080.
Donald Ross is said to have made tweaks in 1928. He also supposedly helped create a crude but effective irrigation system. Then came MacKenzie, in 1932. He had just finished building the layout at Augusta National, which counted among its initial investors a number of Palmetto members. The good doctor was asked to convert Palmetto’s sand greens to grass as he also lengthened the course and made other improvements. To do that work, the club engaged the same contractor Augusta had used.
Not surprisingly, the two clubs forged a strong bond through the years. For a time after World War II, Palmetto staged a pro-am the weekend before the Masters. It quickly became as popular an event among tour professionals as the Masters itself. They liked the course and the camaraderie, and they especially appreciated the large purses that went to the winners, which included Hogan, Byron Nelson, George Fazio and Henry Picard.
The club made minor changes along the way, mostly in the form of bunker renovations and tree thinning. Rees Jones suggested further improvements to the bunkering, and those were made in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The layout was regrassed in 1995, and eight years after that Tom Doak began restoring some of the design features that MacKenzie had crafted some 70 years before. More recently, Palmetto turned to Gil Hanse to handle such work, and he now serves as its “resident architect.”
The good news is that with all those cooks in the kitchen, the course at Palmetto still ranks among the best member courses anywhere. Combine that with an ethos that is as easygoing as it is deeply steeped in history, and you have one of the greatest clubs in the game.
No wonder I cannot stop thinking about it.
Top photo: The 367-yard, par-4 12th hole at Palmetto Golf Club, David Cannon, Getty Images
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