Geeked on Golf


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THE WELCOME MAT IS OUT AT AIKEN

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.

The Course

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


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IT’S NOT WHAT YOU’RE LIKE

A Geek Dad’s Diary entry on a trip with one of my very best buddies.

A line is crossed when one drives a long way to play a golf course. Most of us have a course close by that is good enough to conveniently scratch the itch when it arises. Exerting the effort to road trip signals a focus shift from our own play to the experience of the playing field, which adds a dimension to the game. An even brighter line is crossed when one boards a plane, clubs in tow. My son Jack crossed that line for the first time this year on a trip to Aiken, SC, and I had the pleasure and privilege of being his partner in adventure.

Our journey to South Carolina was circuitous to say the least. The original plan was to head to Chattanooga to check out The Course at Sewanee and Sweetens Cove. I was very much looking forward to watching Rob Collins’s creation melt the lad’s mind. Alas, nature and the TVA intervened, flooding the course a week before our visit. We audibled to Pinehurst, intending to play Mid Pines and Pine Needles, two courses that are high on my hit list. An ominous weather forecast and exorbitant flight prices rendered that option untenable. After exploring destinations from Arizona to Alabama, we finally found a flight into Atlanta and arranged rounds at Palmetto G.C. and Aiken G.C. I’ll go to great lengths to play golf, and even greater lengths to make my kids happy. Put the two together, and there was no way that I was going to let Jack down. Off we went.

This diary entry is not about the courses, but a few brief impressions. A visit to Palmetto Golf Club is like stepping back in time. The course was originally laid out by Herbert Leeds, who is also responsible for Myopia Hunt Club. The man knew how to design interesting golf holes. Dr. MacKenzie later enhanced the bunkering and greens, taking the course to new heights. It is one of those golf courses that I could happily play every day for the rest of my life. My feelings about Palmetto are even warmer, after watching Jack work his way around the course, taking in the architecture as his appreciation grows.

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Aiken Golf Club is an entirely different experience, but one that blew us away equally. Owned by the McNair family, the course has received an in-house renovation over a period of years. The result is a meandering golf experience over beautiful property packed with variety, with each hole punctuated by a fun green. We were joined for our 36-hole day by my buddies Kevin Moore and Dave Zinkand, and it is an understatement to call the proceedings a geek fest. We were like four kids out there soaking in this affordable, publicly accessible gem.

Our trip was about much more than golf though. I love Jack. He is a smart kid with a big heart who is growing into a really good young man. I know that he loves me too. We tell each other. I also know, however, that at 16 he is in a tough time in his life. Demands of school and activities are high, on top of the simple fact that coming of age ain’t easy. Jack is fortunate to have a posse of great friends, and it is no surprise that he would rather talk and spend time with them than his parents. My mom likes to remind me that I hardly spoke at home for two years during my early teens.

To paraphrase a wise man*, it’s not what you’re like, but rather what you like that matters. Common interests bring us together and act as a gateway to connecting at deeper levels. I have experienced this progression with kindred golf spirits and members of the Canal Shores volunteer community, who I now count among my closest friends. And I am experiencing it with Jack as his love of the game blossoms. He might not feel like talking, but he is always up to talk golf. He might not want to hang with the family, but he is typically up for grabbing his clubs for a game. Whether it was on the course or on the couch on Masters Sunday, I stayed connected to my dad through golf. The game is playing the same role for me with Jack.

While driving around Augusta looking for food and the entrance gate to ANGC, we explored another shared interest – hip hop. We took turns sharing old and new school favorites and both ended up a little more enlightened about music, and each other. For fun, and to memorialize our adventure, we collaborated on a Spotify playlist, which we now share with you.

With every passing year, my gratitude for the game of golf increases. Personally, it provides endless challenge and enjoyment. Interpersonally, it delivers consistently great people into my life while making my world bigger. Most importantly, it gives me a connection to my sons that will hopefully endure as they grow into their own lives.

Our first buddies trip is successfully in the books. Many more to come.

*John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon in High Fidelity

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf