There are certain places in the world of golf that boast abnormal numbers of exceptional courses for their relatively small footprints, i.e. Westchester County, N.Y. or Philadelphia. Less urban outposts like the Monterey Peninsula, the Hamptons, or the northern Michigan region surrounding Traverse City are other examples.
New hot spots arise periodically, most recently with the burst of new course development in Martin County, Fla., and the area around Austin. The most unexpected may be Aiken, S.C., where a newly announced design to be constructed by Rob Collins and Tad King will join two ambitious courses that opened in fall 2023 and a collection of established clubs that have turned this former winter retreat for the wealthy Northeastern equestrian set into one of the South’s biggest power stations.
21 Golf Club
The new outpost, 15 miles outside the small town (pop. 32,000), is called 21 Golf Club and will consist of two 18-hole courses. The first to be constructed is The Hammer, named for the match-play game showcased by Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth during "Full Swing," the theme of the design. Collins and King, who have built genre-expanding risk/reward sensations Sweetens Cove near Chattanooga, Landmand in northeast Nebraska and Red Feather in Lubbock, Texas, need little encouragement to construct audacious holes that haze the line between destruction and salvation. Their design at The Hammer promises more of the same with Siren-like shots that will attempt to lure players into pursuing more than they can handle.
Note: This image and the lead image are renderings of the to-be-built 21 Golf Club.
Courtesy of the club
The second course, to be constructed later, will be based on the original plans for Alister MacKenzie’s El Boquerón course he drafted in 1930 for Enrique Anchorena, a wealthy Argentinian. It was to be located on Anchorena’s estate in the coastal city of Mar del Plata with 18 temptation-inducing holes played to nine enormous double greens, but the course was never built. Like The Lido, recently resurrected at Sand Valley in Wisconsin, El Boquerón has lived in the imagination of architectural enthusiasts for several generations who have wondered what the course would look like if it realized form (the drawing of the course circulated in MacKenzie’s writings). Should owner Wes Ferrell give Collins and King a chance to find out, they would be an ideal match as they've long experimented with holes that cross and play into shared greens.
Palmetto Golf Club
Golf in Aiken began over a century ago with two in-town courses, Palmetto Golf Club and Aiken Golf Club. Palmetto, founded in 1892, was primarily designed by Herbert Leeds, the builder of Myopia Hunt Club near Boston, with major amendments in 1932 by Alister MacKenzie who was working on Augusta National (just 30 miles away). Ranking comfortably inside our Third 100 Greatest Courses, it’s a polished, jewel-box design draped over up and down topography with one of the country’s great sets of greens full of slick interior movements that slip away into a variety of undulous chipping areas.
Aiken Golf Club
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Aiken is a public course that dates to 1912 when its first holes opened as an amenity to the Highland Park Hotel (closed during the Depression), with several running parallel to the rail line that transported guests in and out of town. Owned by the McNair family since 1959 and just steps from the historic downtown, it possesses the same assets as Palmetto though in less refined form with ocean-surge greens, eccentric bygone shaping, tantalizing short par 4s and significant fairway movements across the hilly terrain. Very few places have more eclectic or expressive golf packed into a $26-48 green fee. Jim McNair, who operates Aiken Golf Club, is also responsible for locating and building The Chalkmine, a nine-hole short course and practice area for The First Tee of Aiken on a defunct sand and chalk mining site that might have some of the most exciting holes in the county.
Courtesy of the club
Sage Valley, 20 miles to the northwest, represents the opulent opposite end of the golf spectrum from Aiken. This stand-alone golf club, designed by Tom Fazio and molded in the image of Augusta National, rolls over an impressive pine-lined property with several lakes and creeks. Maintained to the highest standards, the fairways turn around crisp-edged white sand bunkers and rise into large greens surrounded by carved-out bunkers, fall-offs, water and pine straw boundaries. Once ranked as high at 78th on America’s 100 Greatest Courses, Sage Valley now resides at No. 153.
The Tree Farm
Two newly opened courses have further attracted national attention—and golfers—to Aiken. The Tree Farm, routed by Tom Doak and built by Kye Goalby, is the dream of PGA Tour player Zac Blair and is full of sloping holes cut through pines with wide fairways and gambling approach shots. Old Barnwell, built by Brian Schneider and Blake Conant for owner Nick Schreiber, is more open but possesses steep, formidable bunkers and wild green surfaces.
Why has Aiken become such a flashpoint for new development?
One reason is its proximity to population centers and membership bases like Augusta, Columbia, S.C. and Charleston, with major international airports in Atlanta and Charlotte less than three hours away by car. More importantly, the Aiken area still offers attractive undeveloped land value for parcels of 500 acres or more, large enough to encompass full golf courses and amenities. Many of these are mature pine farms on interesting sites. On top of this, Aiken resides on the western edge of the broad coastal reef of sand that stretches inland from the pine hills of central North Carolina (where Pinehurst is located) south through central Georgia (where Ohoopee Match Club is located) and into Florida, which makes constructing courses both affordable and aesthetically evocative.
The current spike in golf participation that has led to crowded clubs and driven up competition for tee times has also created membership demand. As more people, specifically more people with disposable income, migrate to the south, their affluence is no longer enough to gain admittance to clubs that have no room.
This has led to new course developments beyond Aiken, and the next several years will see a mini-boom in upscale private clubs in South Carolina and throughout the Southeast. In-state, Kyle Franz is currently working on Broomsedge Golf Club in Rembert, S.C. northeast of Columbia. Tyler Rae has plans for a new course near Charleston, as does Beau Welling for an addition to the Kiawah Island Club portfolio.
But for now, Aiken has the spotlight.
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