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How Old Barnwell, a new course in South Carolina, intends to change what a private club looks like

February 19, 2022

Golf hasn’t always done a good job of making newcomers feel welcome or supported. The primary reasons people don’t pick up the sport, aside from a basic absence of interest, are usually lack of meaningful access and opportunity. Cost—green fees, memberships, equipment—is another. There are also cultural obstacles preventing people from taking up the sport, ranging from exposure to outright exclusion.

These issues, the complex tangle of reasons and feelings that drive some people into golf and others away, are what motivate Nick Schreiber, the founder of Old Barnwell, a new club he’s developing on over 500 acres of rolling, sandy land just east of Aiken, S.C.

Schreiber intends Old Barnwell to be a different kind of club with a membership model based on the principle of bringing together people from all walks of life, including those traditionally underrepresented in golf. The mission and identity of the club, by design and process, will be one of openness and inclusion.

“The idea isn’t quotas or anything like that, not it at all,” Schreiber says. “This is not about politics.

“It is about people and creating a really exceptional golf experience at a place where everyone is welcomed and where everyone can be comfortable. I hope that the design of the club, the clubhouse, the staff and the makeup of the golfers who come here really reflects a broader array of folks as opposed to a usual private club experience.”

This will be accomplished, in part, through a variety of supporting and outreach programs. For instance, Old Barnwell will sponsor four aspiring female professional players for 12 months, providing free housing for them in Aiken and unlimited use of the facilities. Schreiber also intends to create a large caddie program for local youths from 14 to 20 years old, who in addition to gratuities and the chance to meet people they ordinarily wouldn’t, will be paid a fee even if they don’t get a loop on a particular day.

Additionally, the club plans to partner with regional historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to provide their teams and faculty with complimentary access to the practice facilities and course, and Schreiber is in talks with different colleges about making Old Barnwell an annual host course for the HBCU national golf championships. There will also be maintenance apprenticeship programs for interested high schoolers, and all memberships are family-oriented and include a variety of programs and amenities geared toward spouses, partners and kids.

It's a given that the goal of the club is to identify people who love the game. More important, however, is to locate those who buy into its message of diversity. Do members respect other people? Do they have a sense of Old Barnwell’s mission and what equality means, both among each other and extended to employees?

“We want folks that want to be part of a community that goes beyond golf. We want people who enjoy meeting and playing with other people,” Schreiber says.

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The course is being built by Brian Schneider and Blake Conant. It is their first solo design, though each has as much experience working on great, sandy sites like Old Barnwell as nearly anyone in the profession. Schneider has been an associate for Tom Doak for the better part of 20 years, helping design and create some of the world’s most acclaimed modern courses, including Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, the Gunnmatta course at The National in Australia, Dismal River’s Red Course, Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes and Ballyneal in Colorado. Conant has also worked internationally on numerous builds for Doak as well as other designers and has assisted Schneider shaping a variety of restoration and renovation projects.

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Nick Schreiber's goal is to create "one of the best golf experiences in the country" on 500 acres of rolling, sandy terrain in Aiken, S.C.

Schreiber spent several years looking for sandy sites throughout the southeast before hitting paydirt in Aiken (he lives in Charleston with his wife and two young children). The hiring of Schneider and Conant is a refreshing development in an architectural universe that has leaned on the names and outlooks of a select few designers for far too long.

The commission could be the first domino to fall in what would be a new era in design, a turning of the page toward broader, or at least freshly visualized, architectural perspectives. Schneider and Conant will also design a second course at Old Barnwell called The Gilroy intended for beginners, families and seekers of more creative ways to experience golf.

Schreiber also pulled off something of a coup when he recently hired John Lavelle as director of agronomy. One of the most respected men in the profession, Lavelle previously worked for Tom Fazio during the major renovations at Augusta National in the early 2000s, then helped develop, grow in and oversee both Diamond Creek in North Carolina (currently ranked 86th on Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Courses) and, most recently, Congaree (ranked 39th), another similar South Carolina creation that opened in 2018.

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A rendering of what will become Old Barnwell, where shaping of holes will begin this spring.

Courtesy of Don Placek

There’s no doubt that golf could benefit from the kind of extended hand and tone-change that Old Barnwell represents. The influx of open-minded Millennials and Gen Z players over the past five years has already dispersed some of the stuffy protocol that historically hazes the game and helped counter the stereotype of golf as a safe haven where white men go to escape.

But still, what is it specifically that drives Schreiber to undertake such a large and most likely unprofitable mission?

Schreiber describes his background as incredibly fortunate, privileged even. He has an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and a masters from Northwestern. He caddied at several private clubs in his teens, and his family later joined another nearby upscale club.

Golf was always there for Schreiber, who is 37, in the way it is for most who live comfortably: as a beloved pastime and social resource. Looping for well-to-do members of the professional community, at clubs with 100-year-old histories, showed him how golf can be a powerful conduit for bringing together like-minded people, an amplifier of power and connection.

The relationship between privilege and access wasn’t lost on him, nor was the fact that he had an avenue open to him that others, who didn’t grow up in similar situations, didn’t. He began to understand that more balanced outcomes, for everyone involved—in golf, in business, in anything—is impossible without awareness of fundamental inequities.

“That's a big part of the story,” Schreiber says. “I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if it weren’t for my family and my background.” The opportunity to attend premier schools afforded not just elite education but the luxury of time to identify his pursuits. There was an emotional and communal safety net around him that provided the “freedom to fail,” in his words, including when his first startup closed after just nine months.

“I don't mean it to be in any way presumptuous, but it's just like, I have this opportunity to do something different,” he says. “Financially, I can take this risk of creating something that is hopefully one of the best golf experiences in the country, in this environment, and with an approach to maintenance that you wouldn't see except in some of the most exclusive clubs. And then offer it at an affordable price.”

Though the private nature of the club is in itself a barrier, Schreiber says Old Barnwell will offer memberships that are low cost by almost any private club standard. He also intends to have the course open during certain times to some type of public play.

Other factors have also molded his world view, and thus that of the club. It wasn’t long ago that substance abuse and alcohol were primary forces in Schreiber’s life. Though he felt he was hiding it well, the addictions soon became encompassing. He and his wife, Sarah, had just had their first baby, and he knew he needed help. With Sarah’s support, Schreiber entered rehab. He’s been sober for three and a half years.

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It’s hard not to believe his journey into and out of that dark terrain didn’t directly lead to the idea of Old Barnwell. Through a charmed upbringing and ascension to professional and personal heights, it was love and openness and forgiveness that nurtured him through the lows of addiction. Old Barnwell, it can be said, is the embrace of those graces.

The shaping of the course is beginning this spring. To this point, even without much golf progress to show, interest and demand have far exceeded expectations, indicating that the message of inclusion and community is closer to the heart of what many golfers desire than perhaps it’s ever been. The club will not be able to accommodate everyone who wants in, so there’s work to be done to remain true to the vision Old Barnwell projects.

“I will say candidly that I would like to see more diversity in terms of our (prospective) members,” Schreiber says. “I’m not satisfied. We are still getting a lot of, you know, white males who want to join,” no surprise given the site, social media impact, the adventurous zeitgeist flowing through golf right now and the involvement of Schneider and Conant, who are exceptionally well-regarded in architectural circles, which, it must be said, is a domain made up almost entirely of white males.

“And I don't have any problem with that,” Schreiber says. “I just want to make sure that we're available and reaching folks that, again, might not otherwise consider this opportunity, people who don’t already belong to a club.”

Golf, particularly in the United States, has had a long history of putting up gates and fences, and of being closed off. Old Barnwell is meant to be the opposite, or as Schreiber puts it, available. An open hand. And the timing seems perfect. Different is what Old Barnwell hopes to be, and different may well be one of those reasons people begin to choose to play golf.