Palmetto Golf Club: A true treasure steeped in golf history

Palmetto Golf Club: A true treasure steeped in golf history

A litany of noted architects contributed to this magnificent, strategic gem

Reid Nelson Architecture Editor
image (Photo courtesy of Bob Gillespie)
The long par-4 fourth hole at Palmetto Golf Club reveals the crux of its challenges as you approach the green.

AIKEN, S.C. – For 81 participants, the historic course at Palmetto Golf Club is the challenge that stands between them and a trophy in this week’s 44th annual Palmetto Amateur.

But for the other 51 weeks of the year, the Palmetto Club – or simply “Palmetto,” as it’s affectionately known by its many devotees – is ‘home’ for those fortunate enough to be members of a club that is older than the USGA itself.

And once in a while, Palmetto is a rare treat for a guest or two lucky enough to experience one of the game’s true treasures. Over the years, the guest list has included the names of presidents, entertainment giants, touring professionals and heroes from other corners of the sports world, not to mention captains of industry, foreign dignitaries and the like.

Just days before this year’s Palmetto Amateur, the club invited various media to sample the course, and while most writers and broadcasters lack sufficient skill to evaluate Palmetto’s challenge from an elite player’s perspective, even the most casual golfer can appreciate the architectural genius and strategic challenge that personifies Palmetto.

But to understand what Palmetto is today, one has to research the club’s very deep roots, something that could require countless hours. But for the sake of expediency, let us give you just a few highlights here, so we can get to the real star of the story – the golf course.

The Palmetto Club was founded in 1892, fully two years before the United States Golf Association was founded three days before Christmas Day in 1894. And while the present Palmetto layout is truly a masterpiece, it’s difficult to point to any single artist as the painter. Club founder Thomas Hitchcock, a prominent Long Island sportsman, laid out four holes to complement equestrian sports –  polo, fox hunting, horseback riding – that comprised Palmetto’s original raison d’être and remain such a vital part of Aiken’s recreational and social fabric today.

Herbert Leeds, who authored Myopia Hunt Club just north of Boston – a course that hosted four U.S. Opens, all by 1908 – completed the first nine and laid out a second nine, and by 1895, a complete 18 holes had been constructed. In 1932, as he was finishing work on Augusta National just across the Savannah River, Dr. Alister MacKenzie was hired to convert Palmetto’s sand greens to grass and lengthen the course. Since that milestone project, noted architects Rees Jones and Tom Doak have made subtle refinements to the course. And today, Gil Hanse, a Doak disciple, serves as the club’s resident architect.

But more important than the designers who contributed parts is the resultant sum that is today’s Palmetto Club. To say, simply, that the course at Palmetto is a 6,695-yard, par-71 layout is to say the Mona Lisa is a picture of a nice lady. Cut from the same rolling piedmont terrain as the aforementioned Augusta National, but with a sandy soil base similar to the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area, the site seems to have been divinely destined for golf. And everything, every detail that has shaped Palmetto over its nearly 130-year history has only enhanced its pre-ordained fate.

Sure, there are the architects who sculpted the land. But there is so much more. Take the clubhouse, for example. Built in 1902 and designed by Stanford White, who also designed the iconic clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills, the historic structure symbolizes the very mind-set of a club that not only preserves but reveres its heritage.

And why not? The club is thought to be the second oldest 18-hole course in the country still occupying its original location, second only to Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill. Among the club’s early presidents were Eugene Grace, the former chairman of Bethlehem Steel, and George Herbert Walker, grandfather of President George H.W. Bush, great-grandfather of President George W. Bush, and a former president of the USGA and the donor of the Walker Cup.

But as good as all of “that” is – the site, the history, the heritage – it’s the course that makes Palmetto worth any and every effort it takes to get a chance to play it. Why else would Masters champion, course designer and avowed golf historian Ben Crenshaw go out of his way to play Palmetto year after year just before the Masters?

Laid upon the land, as opposed to being forced into it, the course features generous fairways, made to seem less so by brilliantly strategic bunkering. But despite the bunkering, hitting fairways at Palmetto is not the problem.

The real story of the course is its greens. From the tiny  putting surface at the seventh hole – a 180-yard, par-3 bench-cut into a steep hillside to the left – to two- and three-club deep greens at holes like the par-5 fifth or long par-4 eighth, every putting surface and green surround at Palmetto has a character all its own.

Never is this better illustrated than during an early three-hole stretch, starting at the 368-yard second hole. There, a horizontal green that is shallow on one side and deep on the other could be likened to a mirror image of the third green at Augusta National, but with the fall-off to the right, not the left.

The third green features a steep – make that very steep -- false front that abruptly climbs some 4-to-5 feet before an approach shot is safely “on top.” The false front guards a good two-thirds of the entrance to the green, but put the pin back right, away from the false front but behind a steep-faced bunker, and the approach at this 455-yard monster par-4 gets even more difficult.

By contrast, the green at No. 4 is completely devoid of bunkers and looks relatively benign from the fairway. But come up short and you risk being swallowed up by a deep grass swale with a face taller than many of the players it confounds. Yet, play it too cautiously and put your approach beyond the pin and you’ll face a slick, downhill putt that makes two-putting the perfect MiniVerde™ ultradwarf  Bermuda green extremely difficult.

With their variety and character, it’s little wonder why Ben Hogan included holes 3-4 (along with the 458-yard fifth) in what he ranked as “the best back-to-back par-4s I ever played.”

High praise, indeed, but Hogan’s compliment may not be the best ever paid the Palmetto Golf Club. That may have come in the May 1933 issue of American Golfer Magazine, a compliment still included on the club’s website today.

In an article quoting the legendary architect, Dr. Alister 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.’”

If you’re given a chance to play both Augusta National and Palmetto tomorrow, this writer isn’t going to tell you which one to choose. However, it’s safe to say, no true golfer should ever pass up a chance to play Palmetto, one of the game’s rare treasures.

(Palmetto Golf Club is a private club located in the heart of historic Aiken, S.C. It is open to members and their guests, with one notable exception. During Masters Week each year, the club accepts outside play at a rate of $300 per player. Tee time reservations can be made on or after January 1, by contacting the club.)

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