Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)



RADICAL RETHINKING

Two new courses in South Carolina are hellbent on breaking convention

March 01, 2024

Great golf courses are often the passion projects of single-minded individuals. A pair of under-40 entrepreneurs, Nick Schreiber and PGA Tour player Zac Blair, are the visionaries behind two of the country’s most intriguing new courses—Old Barnwell and The Tree Farm—just 25 miles apart outside Aiken, S.C. Perhaps because of the relative youth and inexperience of these innovators—and their counterintuitive choice of designers—the ideology and architecture propelling both properties feel uniquely fresh and more purposeful. Opening simultaneously in the fall of 2023, the clubs embody an emerging ethos in the golf zeitgeist, namely to break convention and embrace the game in more free and culturally meaningful ways.

At The Tree Farm, Blair has attracted a kindred young-in-spirit if not exclusively young-in-age national membership that mirrors his infectious passion for walking, fast play, head-to-head matches and creative architecture, particularly from the approach shot through the green. Most are good players who think nothing of hoofing 36 or more holes a day. One of the club’s mottos is, “Play fast and don’t be a dick.” Another is, “Slow players will be asked to leave the property.”

Blair called his shot to Golf Digest in 2017 for a “different” type of club with a “small pro shop, simple food menu, a grillroom but no dining room and a killer practice facility. We’re talking golf the way real golfers love it, a fun, relaxed place where you won’t get arrested for wearing your hat indoors. It’s going to happen, so stay tuned.”

That idea, called The Buck Club, was intended for a site in Blair’s home state of Utah with updated versions of the template holes C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor made famous in the 1910s and ’20s. While that project sought traction, Blair discovered the 500-acre Tree Farm property—20 minutes northeast of Aiken, previously a pine nursery—that presented advantages the Utah site didn’t, including a 12-month climate, better golf topography, sandy soils and the potential to excite a larger pool of members and investors. Blair acquired the land in early 2020, and the project’s migration from the Rocky Mountains to the rural South prompted him to ask Is this The Buck Club or something else? He ultimately saw The Tree Farm as a new opportunity.

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The Tree Farm’s par-3 fourth is modeled on the daunting fifth at Pine Valley.

Jeff Marsh

Blair selected Kye Goalby as architect, a veteran insider who has worked closely with Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and others (Goalby is the son of 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby). Though Goalby is not well known outside architecture circles, he is admired within, and Blair became convinced he was the right choice after walking the site and spending hours conversing with him. “It became apparent Kye had a great grasp of the kind of greens I wanted and the way I wanted the course to play,” Blair says. “Once he built the 13th and 14th greens, I thought, Yeah, if this is the direction this is going, we’re good to go.”

Blair made several attempts to lay out the course and through Goalby asked Doak, one of the most decorated architects in the profession, for advice. Doak agreed to review the plans, and eventually Blair asked Doak to route the entire course. “I thought to myself that if Tom even had the slightest interest, it would be pretty dumb not to want him to do the whole routing.” (Doak routed the holes but otherwise was not involved in the design.)

The Tree Farm is parts Pinehurst area, parts primitive Augusta National—a gorgeously secluded site full of ridges, valleys and galleries of pine accented with scrub, sand and shades of underbrush. The holes drape naturally over the surfaces to allow the strategic options of each shot, including chances to nip drives over bunkers and the corners of ravines, to be considered as one long perpetual enticement. Other than a resplendent Redan, a wild punchbowl green and some other slight nods to template holes, there was no need to manufacture Macdonald/Raynor-style architecture.

“There was a lot of cool stuff in the ground that Kye and I could just go out and find, so it was very much the idea that we should do as little as possible in terms of moving earth and building above-the-ground golf features,” Blair says. “We wanted the land to be the star and to build it like we were back in the Golden Age.”

Some of the land’s subtlest sections, like the loop through a soothing cove of pines at five, six and seven, may be The Tree Farm’s most evocative, an enchanting sotto voce to the explosive aria of the final four holes that includes the Redan, a reachable par 5 with a corner-cut drive and the deep punchbowl green, a short archery-target par 3 and a downhill drivable par 4 with a split-level putting surface.

Currently, The Tree Farm has just over 300 members and many more that would like to get in (the course opened for limited play this fall, and Blair says he would like to expand to about 350 in 2024). The interest is indicative of how much Blair’s joyous outlook of “let’s just play, then kick it by the fire” resonates to a demographic hungry to move beyond the oak-accented formality of traditional club life.

We caught up with Zac Blair at The Tree Farm this year. Watch our video below:

Our video with Zac Blair at The Tree Farm

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The par-4 sixth plunges through Old Barnwell’s central bowl.

Jeff Marsh

Five years ago, Schreiber, 39, sold the software company he founded with several partners, putting his family in a secure financial position. About the same time, he entered rehab to seek treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. His emergence from this time helped sharpen his perspective on privilege and chance.

“I was given every opportunity as a kid in a family that, by the time I was born, had been very successful,” he says. “I was on the receiving end of so many fortunate opportunities.” Caddieing at blueblood Chicago clubs also opened his eyes to the power of being in the room. “As a teenager, to see the interactions that take place on a golf course was eye-opening. I always say that as a caddie I didn’t see business deals being made, but I saw relationships being made. That really stayed with me.”

Schreiber founded Old Barnwell to help forge connections and expand “the room” to golfers who might not otherwise be exposed to it. “We want to empower and invite and celebrate people and communities who are underrepresented in golf,” he says. “We want to help create new traditions and a membership of different groups where everybody feels welcome. That doesn’t just mean women and not just people of color, but also families, younger folks, people for whom golf feels like an extravagance.”

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The perilous green at Old Barnwell’s par-3 fourth falls away on three sides.

Jeff Marsh

Old Barnwell’s membership (currently full at 292) is a coalition of golfers of diverse backgrounds who share a passion for developing cross-cultural and professional relationships. The club is partnering with area HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to host practice rounds and tournaments, and to network students with its members. To support women’s golf, Old Barnwell hired Kitty Nicastro as its first head professional and serves as the exclusive sponsor of the inaugural class of ambassadors for the ANNIKA Foundation Development Program, raising tens of thousands of dollars to contribute to housing, tournament fees and facility access for four young aspiring female professional tour players. One of this year’s ambassadors, Katherine Muzi, finished tied for seventh at The Ascendant LPGA tournament in Texas in October.

The club also partners with the Evans Scholars Foundation to provide potential scholarship opportunities to its youth caddies. Currently 22 students ages 14 to 20 are learning to caddie at the club and developing meaningful relationships with members and mentors. “That really brings it all back to where it started for me,” Schreiber says. “We view it not as a service our caddies provide for our members but more as a service our members provide for our caddies.”

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Birdies and eagles lurk at The Tree Farm’s drivable par-4 18th.

Jeff Marsh

The 575-acre Old Barnwell property, 12 miles southeast of Aiken (Schreiber now lives in Charleston), is more open than The Tree Farm with most of the holes playing around and through a large central bowl. First-time lead architects Brian Schneider and Blake Conant used the land around the rim to prop up broad holes that skirt the edges and enhanced the less suggestive parts of the property with an assortment of antique architectural features: high-shouldered greens and hazards; old bathtub bunkers recalling Garden City Golf Club and Myopia Hunt Club; lines of shaggy-grass, military entrenchment-type berms; open waste areas and geometric chasms of sand. On top of this are a set of profoundly contoured putting surfaces that push the limits of playability without crossing into needless ornamentation.

Old Barnwell’s impression is not one of new architects finding footing in a respectable debut but rather of a pair of veteran professionals already operating in high gear. Schneider has been an associate of Doak for more than 20 years, working some of the world’s great golf sites, and Conant has spent the past decade collaborating with them. That experience empowered them (or programmed them) to disregard architectural norms in favor of a design with just three par 3s, three drivable par 4s, three par 5s in the span of five holes and a scorecard par of 73. This kind of off-script creativity is what Schreiber was looking for when he enlisted Schneider and Conant against the advice of many. “I wanted them to have a canvas they felt good about,” he says. “I didn’t care what the par was, and I said I’d rather there be too much going on as opposed to not enough. I viewed it as their opportunity to try some ideas that maybe other people would have rejected. I’ve heard architects say they have ideas that no owner has been dumb enough to let them try. Well, I think I am that owner.”

Shepherding a golf course into existence requires a level of rare, almost stubborn determination. Both Blair and Schreiber have demonstrated that, but their greatest innovation might be the ability to see that golf has more facets to offer than it often exhibits and a growing number of players who want to explore them.

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