In celebration of American Father’s Day, Global Golf Post Plus has shared a collection of stories on how the bond between fathers and their children is strengthened through the game. Today, Jim Dodson writes of a love of the game that has become something of a family tradition.
“I sometimes stand out here and think about my father,” admits Jim McNair Jr. “He’s the reason we’re here, after all. I believe he would be blown away by this project. It’s going to be incredible, like Pine Valley on steroids in places.”
McNair, a lean and youthful 63, sitting astride his mud-spackled John Deere Gator, waves a sun-tanned hand over a 13-acre tract of rolling land where he and longtime superintendent, Gary Frazier, have spent weeks on bulldozers pulling pine trees and sculpting a combination nine-hole short course and dual practice areas for the Aiken, South Carolina, First Tee organization and the golf squad of the University of South Carolina Aiken. Brent McGee, long an associate of McNair’s, also is a partner in the project.
At a time when modern golf courses tend to be built by teams of specialized workers and multiple design experts, McNair is something of an unapologetic throwback – a fellow who sees the project in his head and prefers to create it by his own hand, serving as both designer and crew boss.
“For better or worse,” he says with a laugh. “It seems to be in the bloodline, something of a family tradition.”
Thirty-five years ago, McNair returned home from his job as a promising PGA assistant pro at Harbour Town to help his father, Jim McNair Sr., run the venerable Aiken Golf Club, a charming public course with a Golden Age pedigree that his father saved from oblivion in 1959.
After Jim Senior handed off the course to his son in the mid 1980s, Jim Junior embarked on a decade-long solo rebuild of the golf course that transformed Aiken Golf Club into one of the most charming and beloved courses in the American South. If you doubt this, just Google it and read the reviews for yourself.
Thus, when the younger McNair caught wind that the local First Tee chapter and the USC Aiken hoped to eventually construct a joint practice facility on 300 forested acres donated to the school by the late Graniteville Company, he introduced himself to the First Tee director and learned that the organization had been trying to raise the estimated $2.5 million cost of building such a facility for several years.
“That’s when I opened my big mouth and said, ‘I could do the project for half that,’ ” he explains with a laugh. “He invited me to dinner to hear more.”
The McNair father-son story bears all the elements that make golf such a wonderful game, a passion to nurture and grow the game on the grassroots level, passed along from a father to a son who made it happen.
Located within a couple miles and the metaphorical shadow of renowned Palmetto Golf Club – the 1892 masterpiece shaped by a host of architects that included Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, Perry Maxwell and lately Gil Hanse – the far lesser known Aiken Golf Club began life as a simple hotel course called the Highland Park Golf Club, built by an early visionary named John Inglis, who played a role in the creation of Shinnecock Hills.
At the time of its opening in 1912, which some evidence to suggest Donald Ross played a role in designing, the course was meant to be part of an ambitious vision of Pinehurst’s Richard Tufts and his family to create a string of luxury golf spas down U.S. Highway 1 from Pinehurst to Camden to Aiken, which in those days was the winter playground of the Northeast’s wealthy sporting elite.
Among other things, Inglis, who grew up with Chick Evans and enjoyed wide connections in the game, was an early promoter of women’s golf. When the female manager of Highland Park approached him in 1916 to suggest that female guests needed their own exclusive set of tees, for instance, Inglis created the first set of ladies’ tees in America, a fact confirmed by the USGA.
Though the crash of Wall Street in 1929 eventually dealt the hotel a deathblow, the Highland Park’s golf course managed to struggle through the lean years of the Great Depression using workers from Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration. Among other things, they built an extraordinary set of stone steps on the par-3 16th hole that became the course’s signature feature. To this day, the story still circulates that actor Fred Astaire, a member of Palmetto who had a son enrolled in a local school, once soft-shoed down the dramatic steps with his putter.
In 1939, the city of Aiken purchased the struggling golf course, changed its name to the Aiken Golf Club, and ran it as a public facility for the next two decades. At that point, Jim McNair Sr., the 1958 PGA Pro of the Year, then head man at Charlotte Country Club, along with his wife Ellyn, decided to chase Jim’s dream of owning his own course. They reportedly purchased the worn-out Aiken Golf Club for $29,000, in 1959.
“That was less than we paid for our first house,” feisty Ellyn McNair liked to tell paying customers over the years.
The new owner had his own stellar rep in the game, having been the best player on a Duke University team that featured Mike Souchak and future Masters winner Art Wall. Jim McNair Sr., in fact, never lost a match as a collegian and beat both Harvie Ward and Billy Joe Patton to claim the Carolina’s Amateur title – twice. Unable to secure funding for a run at the professional circuit, however, he opted to become a club pro, working his way from Florida to Charlotte – and ultimately Aiken. When the first Heritage Golf Tournament was held down at Harbour Town in 1971, Jim McNair was on the team that won the pro-am.
Jim Junior was a year old when his parents took their daring plunge into golf course ownership.
He picks up the tale from that point: “The course was in really terrible condition. Among other things, the city had covered up the famous steps on 16 and the greens were all but dead. That didn’t matter. Dad loved this course, poured his soul into improving it and brilliantly brought it back to life on a shoestring budget for the next 20 years. It was a real family affair.”
Ellyn McNair did her part by running the course’s halfway hut, where she sold cold drinks and, in time, became famous for slices of her banana bread, cookies and other home-baked delicacies for a buck apiece.
By age 8, young Jim was allowed to water the course’s push-up greens and move sprinklers on weekends; by 12 he was mowing greens and fairways with a tri-plex mower. “It was five or six in the morning for five dollars an hour. Pretty good money for a 12-year-old, huh?” he says.
Winning the Carolinas Junior Amateur and several earlier strong finishes at Pinehurst’s Donald Ross Junior Championship plus a pair of runner-up finishes in the South Carolina Junior and Amateur championships earned him a full ride at Clemson in 1976, followed by a stint on the mini-tour circuit “until I realized I couldn’t putt and these guys were out-driving me by 40 yards.”
It was during his college years, however, that Jim Junior first broached to his papa the idea of someday comprehensively rebuilding Aiken Golf Club. “I remember he told me, ‘Son, that would take millions. Who could we get to do the job right for the kind of money we could offer?’ ”
Jim Junior had a simple answer: “We could do it ourselves.”
Following his own brief odyssey through the working golf world, the son returned home to Aiken in 1985 with his wife, Vicki, to begin the next generation of ownership, with his dream to rebuild the golf course high on his list of priorities.
He wrote Bill Coore several letters inviting him to come take a look at the bones of the old Aiken course. “Frankly, I was kind of a pest but I wanted to see if someone like Bill Coore thought it was worth fully restoring. To my surprise, he showed up one day and rode around the course with me, saying almost nothing until the end. He told me he thought it was a great course that deserved to be rebuilt.”
The homegrown rebuild got underway in 1996 with the removal of thousands of trees, followed by several years of rebuilding greens and deftly sculpting land on a bulldozer, one hole at a time, entirely self-funded. The work was completed in 1999.
Jim Junior and his young superintendent, Gary Frazier – a recruit from Pete Dye Golf Club in West Virginia – did most of the labor themselves. “During those years, Dad helped in the shop and got to watch it all happen. I think he was very pleased by the transformation, which really began with him saving the place way back when.”
Jim Senior passed in 2001.
Ellyn McNair continued running the hallway shed until a couple years ago. She recently turned 87. She still makes killer banana bread.
The remarkable rebirth of historic Aiken Golf Club – today ranked in the top 10 by South Carolina raters, now called the “most charming golf course in America” by several national golf pundits – led Jim Junior to acquire Aiken’s semi-private Cedar Creek Golf Club in 2012 and begin an ongoing restoration of the popular Arthur Hills layout.
Which brings us back to the soulful rolling land McNair and Frazier are transforming into a nine-hole short course with dual practice ranges and short game areas that is scheduled to open sometime this fall. The longest hole will be 125 yards, the shortest 60 – set masterfully among rugged dunes and gorgeous outbursts of native Kalmia shrubs, a wild mountain laurel that grows profusely on the site.“Who knows? It may become our little tribute to Pine Valley and Augusta National,” McNair quips before firing up his Gator to get back to building the ninth green.
Given the family tradition, a final question seems obvious. It concerns a third son of the game, James McNair III.
His dad smiles. “He helped me out for a year or two and certainly loves golf. But his real passion is writing and performing country music. He’s really something. I told him I would help pack his Tahoe because he needed to go to Nashville and make a name for himself.”
James the Third did just that, signing on to write for Florida Georgia Line and other rising country music stars. He recently penned Luke Combs’ ninth No. 1 hit, “Lovin’ on You.”
“He even worked golf into the lyrics of the song,” notes his proud papa.
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