Though it’s off the beaten path, the golf course at Orangeburg (S.C.) Country Club boasts pristine conditions that have consistently earned statewide and national recognition. “We don’t have the ocean. We don’t have the mountains. But we’re a great stop in between,” says Director of Golf David Lackey.
At first glance, the Midlands region of South Carolina might be not be regarded as a top golfing destination. Those in the know, however, might say otherwise. The award-winning golf course at Orangeburg (S.C.) Country Club (OCC), originally designed by Ellis Maples in 1961 and renovated in 2009 by Pinehurst, N.C., golf course architect Richard Mandell, consistently ranks as one of the best in the state.
Among its many accolades, Orangeburg CC was named one of the Top 30 Golf Courses by the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel (SCGCRP)—a group of 100 golf media, avid players, and industry insiders—in 2019. The property also garnered national attention that year, landing on the Golfweek 2019 Ultimate Guide of the nation’s Top 200 Residential Golf Courses.
The golf course continued its award-winning streak in 2020, when the SCGCRP split up its rankings into classic (designed and created before 1980) and modern categories, to better reflect the type of courses built during each era. Competing with its statewide peers, OCC took the No. 9 spot in the inaugural list of Top 20 Classic Courses. The SCGCRP also placed Orangeburg at No. 43 of its Top 50 Golf Courses in South Carolina, and the Golfweek Ultimate Guide again ranked the property in its Top 200 Residential Golf Courses.
The ratings panel also named Orangeburg’s par-5 No. 18 as the state’s “Most Challenging Finishing Hole” in the Midlands in 2014. “We’re well-known in South Carolina for [that] hole,” says Superintendent Alex Tolbert. With the 137-acre golf course located on the Edisto River, No. 18 runs parallel to the water.
“We strive to have the best golf course in South Carolina,” notes General Manager Randy Carter, a 30-year Orangeburg resident who has been at the facility for eight months. “We have won a lot of awards through the years, and we just try to live up to that every day.”
However, it’s not just Orangeburg members and their fellow South Carolinians who appreciate the golf course at the private facility. As part of the Golf Santee tourism promotion, the property offers package play for non-members as well. Located halfway between New York and Florida, the course attracts many golfers from Canada and the northeast U.S.
“We’re a little smaller and off the beaten path, but we’re lower-priced and more hospitable,” says PGA Director of Golf David Lackey, an Orangeburg native who has worked at the property for 13 years. “The Golf Santee traffic really helps the region.”
Updated Design, Old-School Feel
The course renovation was spearheaded by local businessman and Orangeburg CC member Frank Tourville Sr., who passed away in March of this year, after he bought the property in 2009. Former Superintendent Tom Green oversaw the project that launched the 18-hole layout into the upper echelon of South Carolina golf courses. Tolbert, who will celebrate his 10th anniversary at the property in October, has since kept it among the state’s finest courses.
The initial renovation plans included leveling the tee complexes, converting the cart paths from asphalt to concrete, installing a double-row irrigation system, and renovating and updating the bunkers.
As the project progressed, a decision was made to rebuild all of the green complexes as well, after Mandell used old aerial photos to illustrate how the greens had shrunk by an average of 17%—a common feature in older courses because of changes in mowing patterns. The greens rebuild also included repair of the greenside bunkers.
“[Mandell] wanted to take it back to the original Ellis Maples design with modern-day aspects,” notes Tolbert. “We can do more now with technology and equipment.”
The architect drove the renovation, reports Lackey, who has opened new golf courses as an assistant and as a head professional. His role in the Orangeburg project was to determine the look of the golf course amenities—from the signs, ball markers, and waste cans to the logo and scorecard.
The property also moved the ninth green to install a short-game facility, and relocated the maintenance facility from the corner of the driving range to a corner of the property that is still centrally located.
Tolbert describes the golf course, which has houses on the perimeter, as a wide-open property with an old-school layout and feel, and a lot of parallel holes. The clubhouse divides the golf course, with the front nine on one side and the back nine on the other.
The roomy Bermuda fairways and large Champion Bermuda greens, with undulations that provide most of the defense for the course, can accommodate a variety of shots. “This is our second stint with Champion Bermuda,” says Tolbert. “We first installed it in 1997.”
The course also features high-lipped, flash-faced bunkers, where the sand rises dramatically up the sides—a Maples signature design feature. The bunkers are used for framing and direction to make them a visual, rather than strategic, element on the course. Diamond zoysia on the bunker surrounds also provides more definition.
Attention to Detail
After the renovation, Lackey reports, “There was a shift in the way we thought about things. We started paying more attention to detail.”
That attitude starts at the top. “The way we maintain the course comes from our owner [an LLC formed under the umbrella of a large local manufacturing company],” says Tolbert. “Everything is expected to be the best it can be every single day.”
One of the most important maintenance inputs is also one of the simplest. “Alex does such a good job of keeping the course neat and clean,” Lackey says. “That’s one of his goals, and he executes it with his team.”
“We try to keep the cleanest golf course possible,” adds Tolbert.” “We clean up pine cones, limbs, etc.”
The golf course includes 80 acres of rough, tees, and fairways, and pine groves separate the holes from each other.
In addition, the types of grasses on the playing surfaces enhance the course. With the Bermuda tees and fairways and Champion Bermuda greens, the height of cut can provide the turf quality and fast green speeds that the members want.
“Warm-season grasses are the only things that are going to survive throughout the year in Orangeburg,” notes Tolbert.
Low-growing zoysia, which also was installed on a few tee boxes in shadier areas such as Nos. 17 and 18, is more shade-tolerant than Bermuda. While the property doesn’t have much zoysia, the different grasses affect the golfers’ eye.
In season, the grounds crew members mow the tees and fairways two or three times a week, and the greens every day in the summer. The staff might take a day off and have a “maintenance Monday” when they verticut the greens every other week and topdress every week. The staff verticuts the tees, fairways, and approaches once a month, and crew members will solid- or vent-tine throughout the growing season as well.
“Off-season, we mow and/or roll the greens as needed,” says Tolbert. “We knock the dew off for early tee times.”
To limit clippings and cleanup after they mow, grounds crew members apply growth regulators on short-cut areas such as tees, fairways and approaches. They use regulators on the greens every week during the season, and every 2 1/2 to three weeks on the tees and fairways.
The maintenance staff waters the greens as needed and uses a hose on them from time to time as well. “We use moisture meters on the greens throughout the week during the growing season,” says Tolbert. “We have indicator greens that we check first.”
He adjusts the irrigation schedule as needed, running different programs for different times of the year.
“Every head is individually controlled so we can adjust each head to a specific time or a specific area,” he says. “We base it on past experience. It’s a work in progress. We make adjustments to those programs weekly or monthly. We’re constantly adjusting those programs, to make sure we’re not over- or under-watering.”
The property’s hybrid pushup greens contain some sand, which helps them dry out quicker. The greens also have all surface drainage. “Drainage is always going to be an issue,” says Tolbert. “We work on it all year, especially in the winter.”
Orangeburg CC also has an outside pond and lake management team that comes to the golf course once a month.
To care for the bunkers, grounds crew members maintain them every other day. They rake the bunkers and touch them up twice a week. “It’s a challenge to stay on top of them,” says Tolbert. “We have to do a little bit more because the golfers don’t have rakes.”
The maintenance staff uses fungicides on the greens bi-weekly during the season, and fertilizes them weekly once the grass starts growing. They also fertilize every two or three weeks in the winter, depending on weather and temperature.
“Summer can last a long time,” Tolbert notes. “The days might be shorter, but it still gets in the 90s in October.”
Pre-emergent chemicals are applied three or four times a year on the golf course wall-to-wall, except on the greens. Controlling goose grass, crabgrass, and poa annua in the winter is a constant battle, adds Tolbert.
The greens are aerified twice a year—once in June and once in July. The grounds crew aerifies the tee, fairways, and approaches once a year in late July.
“We have a lot of play in the early and late summer,” says Tolbert. “We try to put the best product out there as many days as we possibly can.”
In the past three years, notes Tolbert, the maintenance staff has gotten away from overseeding in the winter. “The transition was so good, we decided we like it better,” he explains. “Winter overseeding was not bringing that much play to us.”
In addition, he says, the playing surfaces have been better in the spring since the crew stopped overseeding.
The biggest maintenance challenges depend on the time of year, Tolbert says. Standing water on the greens can be an issue, he says, but the crew can use blowers and squeegees to remove it. And in the winter, he notes, “Bermuda struggles when it gets really cold.”
He often bases his maintenance decisions on feel and experience, however. “I’m the guy that uses all my senses,” he says. “The grass will tell you what you want to know if you’re paying attention.
“I’m a very visual superintendent,” he adds. “There’s a little bit more art in what I do. I use science, but I use my eyes more than anything else. You need to be out there and observant of what’s going on.”
He also tries to give his crew members as much autonomy as possible. “I try to allow them to do the job how they want to do it,” he reports. “If I want something done a certain way, I tell them. If I just want the job accomplished, I try to empower the guys to figure out the best way to do it so they can be productive. They take ownership then.”
In addition, Tolbert takes the health and safety of the maintenance staff, which includes himself, two assistant superintendents, a mechanic, a spray technician, and crew members, just as seriously as the health of the turf. Through its ownership, Orangeburg CC has a safety coordinator who visits the property regularly for training. The staff goes over everything from heat-related issues to safe equipment operation.
While the parent company of the property helps Tolbert look after his crew, the superintendent works closely with Carter and Lackey to give the golfers the conditions they expect as well.
Carter goes to the property every day, whether he’s there for 30 minutes or five hours, and is always available for Tolbert and Lackey to discuss any concerns.
“They take care of what they need. They work well together. They communicate with each other,” says Carter. “Alex takes care of the grass, and David takes care of the golfers.”
He meets with all of the department heads once every two weeks as well. “Anyone who has a specific need can meet with me right then,” Carter says.
Tolbert sees Carter once or twice a week. However, they still keep in touch by phone, text, or e-mail. “He has other responsibilities. I don’t weigh him down with every single detail, but I keep him in the loop,” Tolbert says.
Carter also makes sure the maintenance staff has the necessary tools to get the job done. “I don’t grow grass. That’s Alex’s expertise,” says Carter. “If he has a need, he does his research and comes to me with two or three options and prices. I usually ask him what he thinks is best. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re going to go with what Alex suggests.”
He also communicates regularly with the membership. “I am not a golfer, but I talk to golfers,” Carter says. “They tell me what needs to be upgraded or addressed, and I will take those recommendations from our regular golfers to Alex and David.
“I put them up on a pedestal,” he adds about Tolbert and Lackey. ”The golf course is an area that I don’t have to worry about. They do a great job.”
Tolbert and Lackey collaborate closely with each other as well.
“David and I work together on a daily basis. We talk every day. Communication is important,” Tolbert says. “He tells me about any golfers’ comments. My assistants talk to the pro shop every day about pin locations, carts. I try to be as accommodating as possible.”
Lackey appreciates the communication from the maintenance staff. “Alex trains his assistants to touch base with the golf shop at some point in the day,” he says. “We need to communicate every day.”
Tolbert and Lackey also make a yearly schedule together, to plan projects as far in advance as possible. Tolbert puts the dates for major maintenance projects on the schedule so Lackey can plan outings around them.
“Aerification dates are the same week every year. Everybody knows when it will be,” says Tolbert.
Of course, flexibility is vital to keep operations running smoothly as well.
“We both know that we need to concede sometimes so we both get our jobs done. If I don’t let him do his job, we won’t have the best product possible,” Lackey says. “We all work as one team for a common goal. Hospitality, the quality of the facility, and the general experience are the common goals. The superintendent respects the golf professional, and the golf professional respects the superintendent.”
‘Home Away from Home’
Other amenities at Orangeburg CC include an award-winning chef, four clay tennis courts, and a pool with a pavilion. But the coronavirus pandemic brought the significance of golf to the forefront.
“The golf course is what drive country clubs,” says Tolbert. “I think COVID last year showed a lot of people how important your golf course is. That’s the one thing people were able to do. The golf course was busy last year.”
Carter agrees. “Golf was an out for so many people. We didn’t have much indoor dining, but the golf course didn’t have to shut down,” he adds.
Lackey calls golf the cornerstone of the property. The days that the golf course is closed for maintenance projects such as aerification, he says, “there’s very little traffic around the facility.”
When the pandemic hit, Lackey notes, Tolbert’s position on the Board of Directors for the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association provied to be a valuable asset for the club. “He was the liaison to the property,” notes Lackey. “He knew exactly what was going on through the governor’s office and the legislation.”
Improved pace of play was another positive that came out of the pandemic, Lackey notes. “Play got faster and pace-of-play issues disappeared,” he says. “People like to play here because they can finish in under four hours. It’s something everybody talks about wanting to do; we actually do it.”
That’s just one more aspect of their jobs that the staff takes seriously, to increase the golfers’ enjoyment of their rounds.
“We take pride in making golfers’ experience what it’s supposed to be,” says Tolbert. “Pace of play is a high priority.”
“We don’t mind if you play slow, as long as you let faster groups play through,” Lackey adds. “We let people play at their own pace.”
By offering pristine golf course conditions and exemplary service, the Orangeburg staff strives to make members and nonmembers alike feel welcome at the property. “For many of our members, this is a home away from home,” Lackey says. “We don’t have the ocean. We don’t have the mountains. But we’re a great stop in between.”
ORANGEBURG COUNTRY CLUB
Location: Orangeburg, S.C.
Club Website: https://orangeburgcc.com
Club Type: Private
No. of Members: 425
Year Opened: 1922 (moved to current location in 1961-‘62)
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designer: Ellis Maples; 2009 renovation – Richard Mandell
Golf Season: Year-round
Annual Rounds of Golf: 20,000
Greens: Champion Bermuda
Honors and Awards:
• 2014 – Top 50 Golf Courses in S.C. (#45) (unranked before renovation) and Most Challenging Closing Hole in the Midlands by South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel (SCGCRP)
• 2015 – Most Improved Course/Best Renovation or Restoration since 2005, Midlands Region, by SCGCRP
• 2016 – Best Private Club Value in S.C., by SCGCRP
• 2018 – Golfweek’s Ultimate Guide: Top 200 Residential Golf Courses (#178)
• 2019 – Top 30 Courses You Can Play in South Carolina by SCGCRP
• 2020 – Top 50 Golf Courses in S.C.
(#43) amd Top 50 Classic Courses of S.C. (#9) by SCGCRP; Top 200 Residential Golf Courses (#193), Golfweek’s Ultimate Guide.
Years at Orangeburg CC: 9
Years in Golf Course
Maintenance Profession: 20
• Providence Country Club, Charlotte, N.C.
• The Cliffs Valley, Greenville, S.C.
Education and Training: A.S. Turfgrass Management, Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, N.C.
Certifications: S.C. Commercial Applicators Licenses
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
ORANGEBURG COUNTRY CLUB
Other Manaagers: Richard Brown, Senior Assistant; Jason Smith, Assistant Superintendent; JR Rasmussen, Mechanic
Irrigation System: Rain Bird Stratus 2; 860 heads
Water Source and Usage: Well
Equipment: Owns Toro equipment
Technology: Frost GPS system on Toro 5800 and Multipro WM spayer
Maintenance Facility: Star Building Systems buildings; chemical storage and mix station; dry fertilizer
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Greens aeration – June, July; fairways, tees, and approaches aeration – July. No overseeding
Duties and Responsibilities: Maintain 137-acre golf course, 8.5-acre driving range, 2.5-acre short-game area, and clubhouse grounds