A look at what makes the McNair family’s Aiken Golf Club a place that any geek would love to call home
A knock against golf in America is that it is unwelcoming. The game itself is intimidating for beginners. Just getting the ball airborne and ultimately into the hole is hard enough, but there are also a gaggle of rules and customs which must be learned to fit in among those who are in the know. Add to those dynamics the socio-economic and gender exclusivity of certain clubs, and the game does not exude a vibe of open arms for the newcomer. Initiatives have popped up with the intent of changing perceptions and bringing more people in, and some are as effective as their flashy marketing would lead you to believe. There are certain clubs and courses, however, where a welcoming spirit comes naturally. Making players of all ages, genders and skill levels feel at home so that they can enjoy the game is their purpose. Aiken Golf Club is one of those places.
Adapt or Die
Use the term “sandhills” and the minds of most golf geeks will likely go to Nebraska. The O.G. of sandhills golf is in the Carolinas though. To be more specific for the cartographically inclined, drop a pin on Ohoopee Match Club in Georgia and then draw an arc northeast up through Augusta (GA), Aiken (SC), Pinehurst (NC), into southern Virginia and you have charted a path through an entire region ideal for building golf courses. Along the edge of a vast coastal plain, gently rolling hills of sand, clay and minerals were built up through thousands of years of rising and falling seas, as the geological processes of erosion and deposition played out.
Zooming in on the Augusta/Aiken area, it turns out that Bobby Jones and Dr. Alister MacKenzie weren’t the only designers to recognize the potential and plant their stakes in the ground. Donald Ross was also active in those parts and in 1912, he and his associate J.R. Ingles routed and built the course that would ultimately become Aiken Golf Club. A long and winding road began there and then, with ups and downs and necessary adaptations along the way.
The course was originally a companion to a popular hotel-resort, until the Depression hit. It then became a muni owned by the city of Aiken. In 1959, long-time golf professional James McNair fulfilled a dream by purchasing the course, changing it yet again to a private club. It thrived through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but by 1995 Aiken Golf Club had again fallen on hard times. James’s son Jim was running the club and in an interview with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg podcast, shared the story of reaching his breaking point. “Our course started to really show its age,” he recounted. “We had to do something drastic. I’ll never forget that day…I was exhausted. I worked 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I walked in and I cried…(My father) said, ‘Son, What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘We have two options. We can either sell it and walk away, or we have to completely redo the golf course.’”
Thankfully, the family opted to go the renovation route. Over the next four years, Jim McNair and three members of his grounds staff would rework every element of the course except the routing, using the guiding principle “What would J.R. Ingles do?” as they went along. The course reopened in 2000 in the form that players find today, although some tinkering continues. The club has changed to a semi-private model, welcoming guest play. “We want to be accessible,” explained McNair. “We want people to come and enjoy the golf course…We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.”
There is a clear tone of gratitude in Jim McNair’s voice as he talks about his family’s course. It’s the depth of earnestness shared by those who have been through a near-death experience, but now live on. “Why the Aiken Golf Club is still here after 106 years is the fact that we have been able to adapt, and we have our own niche,” he reflected. “It may be a small niche, but it’s the history, the routing, it’s walkable…It’s just a charming, quaint golf course with a lot of character.” As the family enters its seventh decade of ownership, the club and course are as healthy as they’ve been since Ross and Ingles walked the grounds.
A professor from the University of Georgia at Athens, an architect from Charlotte, a high school golfer from Evanston and his geek dad convened at Aiken for a memorable winter day. The first loop around was characterized by joyful surprise that this course—with its gorgeous topography, varied hazards and playful greens—even exists. The second loop was spent hitting fun shots while wondering how much better the game would be if every community had a course this good. In between the two rounds was an attempt to pay for the replay at which point we were informed that the $25 walking rate was good for the whole day.
Jim McNair summed our feelings perfectly. “I have a love affair with every hole, because of what went in to each hole,” he mused. “Each hole is so different, yet they all blend together, and they roll you through this crazy ride.” Indeed. Let’s take a quick look at that crazy ride.
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
Aiken opens with a short par-4 over undulating ground that culminates with an elevated green which is connected to the 17th. If ever there was a tone-setter, this is it. The 2nd then plays gently downhill and to the right to a large green set in a hollow.
The next stretch of holes amps up the creativity of hazards and greens and embodies the integration of the course with its surroundings. Train tracks next to the 3rd green, a street crossing after the 5th, and the homes near the 6th and 7th are all facets of the unique Aiken experience.
After another road crossing and a quick stop for homemade bread at the snack shack, players then enter a more spacious section of the property to take on the 8th through the 14th. The course’s two par-5s work over these hills in dramatic fashion, and two tough Ross par-3s also lie in wait.
The closing stretch is no letdown. The green at the short par-4 15th is all-world. The par-3 16th is a downhill stunner. The par-4 17th plays back up to that wild double green, which makes just as big of an impression upon the second visit. And finally, the round is topped off with a one-shot home hole with the clubhouse as a backdrop. It is sublime.
No Tricks, Just Great Golf
As my son Jack and I wrapped up our inaugural visit to Aiken, we noticed a young guy practicing on the club’s putting course. This was no casual putt-putt session—he was clearly serious, and good. We were caught a bit off guard as that same guy walked up to us in the parking lot, hand extended. “I’m George. Heard you were coming and just wanted to say hello and thanks.” It took a moment to register with me that he was George Bryan of Bryan Brothers Golf fame. As we chatted, it became apparent that he shared our love of the course and he delivered us a final helping of Aiken hospitality. Jack and I headed off to the airport in Atlanta, and I couldn’t wait to tell my nine year old Henry that I had met one of the Bryan Bros. The more I thought about the encounter though, the more it made me wonder what he was doing there. A follow-up was in order.
The Bryans hail from Columbia and both played golf for the University of South Carolina. They caught lightning in a bottle with their trick shot videos, but their shared dream was always to make the PGA Tour. Wesley has fulfilled that dream, notching his first victory. George is still working his way up through the ranks of the feeder tours and currently calls Aiken home. “I was looking for a place to play and work on my game during the peak of the Bryan Brothers,” he shared. “Jim let me use his facilities when other clubs turned me away.”
George was grateful for the McNair welcome, and ecstatic about the quality of the course. “It helps you get good at approaches, short game, scoring and going low,” he gushed. “Aiken is refreshingly different than the courses we normally play on tour.” He is now an honorary member at neighboring Palmetto Golf Club, but still spends most of his time at Aiken. In an attempt to repay Jim McNair’s kindness, he has deputized himself to be the club’s ambassador, including telling the story on social media. A vibe this special needs to be shared.
There are those who lament the effect that modern media is having on the golf landscape. “Tis the death of the hidden gem!,” they cry. They go on to wring their hands about groupthink abstractions, and the impact it’s having on design. To the owner-operators of publicly accessible golf courses in America and beyond, this coffee house debate misses the point of what they work so hard every day to accomplish. Their blood, sweat and tears go into providing interesting and fun places for us the play the game we all love, while hopefully remaining a viable business for their families and communities. To find some nebulous overexposure downside in a visit from Matt Ginella or Erik Anders Lang would be an overthought distraction from their purpose of welcoming golfers and reconnecting them to the joy of the game.
For this geek, the media serves no greater purpose than to point people in the direction of good folks like the McNairs, who have great courses like Aiken Golf Club. Put simply by Jim McNair, “We feel fortunate to be able to offer this to golfers…We welcome you. We’d love to have you here.”
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf