Aiken's Palmetto Golf Club Content to Live in Augusta National's Shadow

Palmetto Golf ClubToday Aiken is sleepy Southern city that harkens back to the days of old. On any given day you might find residents enjoying an afternoon polo match at one of the many sprawling fields designated for the sport of kings that can be found just minutes from the quaint downtown. It's not rare for an equestrian crossing to stop traffic and unlike many places where commercialism reigns supreme; things considerably slow down on Sundays.

Each day cars stream down two lanes on Whiskey Road, through the horse district and pass a dignified old golf course that doesn't exactly embrace attention but has a remarkable story to tell.

Located about 25 miles or so from world-famous Augusta National Golf Club, Palmetto Golf Club is roughly 38 years older than the annual home of golf's first major championship and at one time was more popular among the locals.

In the May 1933 edition of the American Golfer Magazine, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who co-designed Augusta National with the legendary Bobby Jones and later converted the Palmetto sand greens to grass and lengthened the course upon the completion of his work in Augusta, paid a dear complement to the old South Carolina course.

MacKenzie said, "The alterations at Palmetto have been such a success that the Chairman of Bobby Jones' executive committee at the Augusta National writes me saying, ‘We have only one serious complaint to make against you regarding the Augusta National. That layout you designed at Aiken is liked so well that the Aiken colony does not seem to be the least bit interested in coming over to the Augusta National'."

In fact, the work at Palmetto used some excess materials from the building of Augusta National. Many of the original Augusta National investors were Winter Colonists from Aiken who also belonged to Palmetto. Now only a few Palmetto members are members at Augusta National.

Rees Jones, Tom Doak and MacKenzie all have had a hand in sculpting what you will now see at Palmetto. The greens at both Palmetto and Augusta National were designed by MacKenzie.

The Palmetto Golf Club traces its beginnings to 1892 when it was founded by Thomas Hitchcock, a prominent sportsman from Long Island, New York. In the era when the club was born, Aiken was truly in another world. The city served as a winter playground for many of the country's wealthiest families.

The names associated with Aiken's Winter Colony read like a who's who of elite society; The Appletons, the Byers, the Hitchcocks and the Vanderbilts to name a few.

In the year Palmetto was founded, polo was beginning to flourish and an overabundance of game made hunting a favorite among residents. Riding horses through what is now know as Hitchcock Woods, which is the largest urban forest in the nation comprising nearly 2,000 acres, was also a popular activity.

Now the club sits on the city's main thoroughfare, Whiskey road, which is often packed with traffic during weekday rush hour and Saturday afternoons. What commercialized Washington road is to Augusta National, Whiskey road is to Palmetto.

When Washington road overflows with Masters traffic, the tee boxes at Palmetto do the same.

Membership and play at Palmetto are private except during the time period when the Masters is in town, the first full week of April every spring, when the club opens for play at a price of $750 per foursome. The club began accepting reservations for tee times on January 1, 2008.

The par-71 course, full of contours and hollows, plays a modest 6,300 yards. It has undergone some significant work since MacKenzie's upgrade in the 1930's but has maintained its basic intergrity.

In a 2007 Sports Illustrated article, Michael Bamberger wrote, "The curse of modern golf, to (Rees) Jones and not many others, is that everybody tries to outdo everybody else. Augusta on TV has a lot to do with that. Palmetto is immune to it."

The price tag during Masters Week is high but to play a course so loaded with history might be worth the hefty sum.

Palmetto is truly one of the birthplaces of the game in American.

The club has been listed by the United States Golf Association as one of the first 100 clubs established in the U.S. Research indicates that the Palmetto Golf Club is the oldest, continually operated 18-hole golf course in its original location in the Southeast and probably the second oldest in the United States, with the Chicago Golf Club being the oldest.

Some of the prominent professionals who have played the course include Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Crenshaw. The legendary Bobby Jones and William C. Campbell, former President of the USGA and one of only three Americans every to be named Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, have also played the course.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Howard Taft have played Palmetto, as have entertainment celebrities Fred Astaire, Phil Harris and Bing Crosby.

George Herbert Walker, great-grandfather of President George W. Bush, a former USGA president and donor of the Walker Cup, is a past president of Palmetto.

Only fourteen months after the USGA was founded, Palmetto became a member. The club's USGA certificate is believed to be the oldest still in existence and is on display at the club. Currently Palmetto Golf Club's USGA certificate ranks 19th in seniority among active USGA certificates.

In 2005, the legend of Palmetto grew as a local added even more history to the club.

Twenty-one-year-old Dane Burkhart, a member of back-to-back-to-back Division II national championship golf teams at nearby USC Aiken from 2003 to 2006, turned in performances for the ages.

On Sunday August 14, he shot a 12-under 59 to set a course record and win the 2005 Palmetto Amateur by eight strokes.

The 59 broke the competitive course record, was the low round in the tournament's 30-year history, helped Burkhart shoot a tournament record 20-under 264 and most importantly added to the lure of the historic patch of land.

"It's unbelievable," Burkhart told the Augusta Chronicle after the round.

The same could be said of the old course, which certainly deserves a visit during the most anticipated golf week of the year even if it struggles to earn a single mention during the other 51. 


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