There are several acclaimed courses in the Augusta, Georgia region that will require some major connections to get onto...Augusta Country Club, the Palmetto Club... and, of course, Augusta National. If you aren’t able to get a tee time at those vaunted establishments, never fear: Aiken Golf Club, just across the South Carolina border, will gladly have you in.
The history at the property is long and murky, with much debate how much of a role Donald Ross may (or may not) have had on the design. It is solid fact, however, that original professional John Inglis had worked with Ross previously, and almost certainly brought the Scot’s influence with him to Aiken. The club was originally known as Highland Park Club, a resort associated with a hotel founded by a member of the Tufts family (best known for their founding of Pinehurst).
After going through some hard times for a number of years, architect Jim McNair Jr. conducted a hybrid restoration / renovation, which added further Ross features to the course.
Another historical tidbit: May Dunn, the first female golf professional in the United States, suggested that Inglis add ladies tees, which makes Aiken the first club in the nation to have such a feature.
Started in 1912 and claims to be the first golf club in America to offer ladies forward tees. My impression was that I was playing a historic Stanley Thompson design with large very undulating greens, tight tree lined fairways and plenty of bunkers to slow down your momentum. What an honor and privilege to play such historical gem. We only got to play nine but I found that this course plays a lot longer then the par 70 5734 yards score card indicates so be forewarned.
Anyone who has followed popular golf architecture blogs like the Fried Egg or GolfClubAtlas has likely heard of the formerly hidden gem that is the Aiken Golf Club. It is exciting to see that today, Aiken is gaining deserved recognition both for its deep roots as a historic course, and the amazing homegrown restoration by the McNair family.
The city of Aiken is roughly 40 minutes from Augusta, Columbia, and I-20 – an intentionally rural winter retreat for wealthy vacationers. The downtown area is charming with many local restaurants, shops, inns, and beautiful flora. Just a hundred yards or so from this hub of activity you can find the Aiken Golf Club and its amazing clubhouse and locker room. The wood paneling and historic photographs lining the building takes you back in time.
The dichotomy of the golf course hits you throughout the round – it is amazing to reflect both on the history of the routing, and the fact that it was saved by the McNair’s, self-taught architects, who forged holes that now grab national and international attention. Some of the most memorable holes on the course for me include:
• #1: The first hole sets the strategic tone for what is to come at Aiken. Despite playing just over 300 yards, the player must make many choices from the onset. The straightaway par four is anything but straightforward. Rolling over wonderful topography for a golf hole, an aggressive player may think that going for this massive double green with a driver is the smart play. However, with trouble down the left and some slope from right to left, risk is present throughout. Furthermore, with heavy drop offs on all sides of the green, it is almost impossible for an amateur to create enough spin to keep a ball on the putting surface from inside 50 yards. As stated previously, the strategic tone for the round has been set.
• #2: This par “five” plays down a large hill and gives the player a sense of ease for what may be an easy birdie. However, missing this green in the wrong place is deadly. I had 150 yards in for my second shot and missed the green long by 2 yards. Despite having an eagle chip, I left with a double bogey.
• #3: The excellent routing is showcased again with a hole through thick vegetation and a creek. Just when you think there will be width and options for the entire round, you are presented with a brutally challenging tee shot and approach here.
• #5: Fairway bunkering and waste areas create fascinating strategic thinking for the player here. The aggressive tee shot between those hazards is right to left, but anything overcooked puts the golfer at risk of going out of bounds. Therein lies the wonderful risk-reward nature of the hole.
• #6: In general, I prefer holes with interestingly shaped green complexes, and courses that lack houses. If you were to look at the 6th from Google Maps, you would think of it as generic. It was arguably my favorite on the course, despite the green shape being blasé and there being homes. The waste area off the tee immediately plants itself in the player’s mind, and a massive ridge running through the green, creating tiers, made it my favorite on the property, other than the double green.
• #8: After teeing off over a large waste area to a blind fairway, the 8th green is handsomely flanked by interesting bunkers.
• #14: Short par fours are my favorite holes, and this deceptive <300 yarder caught my attention early on the scorecard. The green is shallow and the tee shot requires some shot shaping. With rustic conditioning and no room to go long, options abound.
Before or after your round, you can take advantage of Aiken’s live putting course, and spend time learning more about the history from the welcoming hosts in the pro-shop. While Palmetto may be the more renowned pride of the city, Aiken Golf Club is the type of course every community in America deserves. To think about its significant history leading to today is simply remarkable. I thoroughly enjoyed my round there.