The 107-year-old club with a course designed by Donald Ross disciple J.R. Inglis dominated the voting by the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel. “Golf courses like ours got lost in the shuffle during the boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Jim McNair, Jr. whose family has owned the club for 60 years.
Its 107-year-old history is proud, its pedigree regal, and its 110 acres offer a trip into yesterday. Yet, Aiken (S.C.) Golf Club (AGC) often gets lost among private clubs or the high-dollar courses that line the Palmetto State’s Atlantic seaboard, The State of Columbia, S.C. reported.
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, S.C., The State reported.
“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 State reported. The best courses, public or private, are selected every other year (even-number years) and the best courses that the public can play are selected 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, The State reported. 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 members who say it’s too hard from the tips.”
Aiken Golf Club, often overshadowed even within Aiken golf circles by the even-older Palmetto Golf Club, has famed architect Donald Ross in its DNA, The State noted. J.R. Inglis, a Ross disciple, completed the AGC layout in 1915 and remained the club’s 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 the Highland Park Hotel Golf Course to complement the nearby resort hotel, the city of Aiken took over the course after the Great Depression, The State reported. 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.
But an amended contract and the arrival of the younger McNair, which spurred a $1 million course restoration, changed the neglected layout into a touch of yesterday with modern maintenance, The State reported.
“I told Dad, ‘We’ve got to do something drastic,’ and we did,” Jim Jr. said. “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 told The State. “The green complexes are incredible. The course is about strategy, accuracy and position off the tee.”
And history abounds, The State noted: The original course is said to be among the first anywhere to have women’s tees, and high-profile women’s tournaments in the late 1930s brought the likes of Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg to compete. Julius Boros, Johnny Palmer and P. J. Boatwright also played in men’s events at AGC over the years.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re proud of the course,” McNair said. “Being recognized with this award makes it all worthwhile.”