Aiken Golf Club: Short on yardage, long on pure golf pleasure

Aiken Golf Club: Short on yardage, long on pure golf pleasure

Reid Nelson Architecture Editor
image (Photos courtesy of Bob Gillespie)
The landing area on the 17th hole at Aiken Golf Club is dotted with old-style fairway bunkers (old-style, because they're actually in the fairway).

AIKEN, S.C. — Arguably the most accomplished and acclaimed architect in the history of golf, Donald Ross had a favorite and oft repeated quote that characterized the game as he saw it:

“Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance.”

Though Ross’ signature is on more than 400 courses in North America, it isn’t clear whether he had a hand in Aiken Golf Club or not. The Donald Ross Society, the foremost authority on the works of the legendary Scotsman, doesn’t list it among his credits, either as an original design or as a course he revised in some fashion.

In fact, exactly who designed the original 11 holes at Aiken Golf Cub remains a subject of debate even today. But bottom line, who really cares?

The fact is, given his own definitive criterion, were he alive today, Ross no doubt would be proud to call the quaint and curiously contradictory course his own.

It’s hard to imagine any golf course—regardless of its name or reputation—delivering more pure pleasure to anyone who sincerely loves the game and appreciates its storied history and nuance. That’s because Aiken Golf Club is pure pleasure, with emphasis on the word “pure.”

Unless you’ve traveled to ‘out of the way’ villages in Scotland or Ireland and stumbled upon a little-known layout—one you’d never heard of before but a course that “made your trip’—you’ve not likely experienced a course like Aiken. But without fail, once discovered, such a course, be it carved from ‘the olde sod’ or sited just blocks from the very heart of one of South Carolina’s more charming small towns, leaves the true golfer asking, “Why don’t we have more courses like this?”

Built in 1912 as an amenity to the upscale Highland Park Hotel, Aiken Golf Club is now nearly a decade into its second century, but it’s still holding firmly, not to mention proudly, to its original persona. At a time when countless owners and operators are spending millions to lengthen, toughen and otherwise modernize classic layouts from golf’s “Golden Age,” Aiken Golf Club stubbornly embraces what makes it unique.

For the record, Aiken Golf Club, as it exists today, is a par-70 layout that “stretches” just 5,795 yards—from the tips! (That is not a typo.) But before anyone thinks the numbers tell the whole story, think again.

Aiken is no pushover. It’s not an executive golf course, not a pitch-and-putt.

In fact, until you experience Aiken Golf Club for yourself, it’s hard to fathom how less than 6,000 yards can present the challenges—both strategic and physical—that this delightfully puzzling routing repeatedly unveils over the course of 18 holes. Yes, it’s short. But armed with today’s most technologically advanced equipment, it’s a better-than-50/50 bet that few who play Aiken for the first time will play to their respective handicaps.

Christened Highland Park Golf Club when it opened in 1912 with just 11 holes, the course was expanded to a full 18 by John Inglis shortly after he was hired as golf professional in 1915. A founding member of the PGA of America and the “summer” pro at Fairview Country Club in Elmsford, N.Y., Inglis had worked with such noted designers as William Flynn and Howard Toomey, famous for Shinnecock Hills among others, and a fellow named Ross—yes, the same aforementioned Ross—before coming to Aiken.

Inglis was close friends with many of golf’s leading talents of the day, among them U.S. Open champion Chick Evans and May Dunn, the first female golf professional in America, and hosted many of the game’s best at Highland Park during its early years. It was a visit by Dunn, at Inglis’ invitation, that sparked course owners, at her suggestion, to create forward tees specifically designed to accommodate female players. Highland Park was the first course in the country to do so.

With the Great Depression, Highland Park was forced to open its doors to public play and with the move, it was renamed Aiken Golf Club. During the late ’30s and ’40s, the course played host to top-notch competitions for both genders, with the Women’s Invitational drawing such pioneers of the ladies’ game as Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg and Helen Dettweiler, while, on the men’s side, the Tri-States Open attracted the likes of Julius Boros, Johnny Palmer and P.J. Boatwright.

Today, Aiken Golf Club isn’t likely to host a state open or even a state amateur, for that matter. And in a way, that’s a shame. But facts are facts, and one undeniable fact of today is the game, at its elite level, has outgrown a course where two of three par-5s are shorter than 450 yards and where only two par-4s stretch beyond 400 yards, and one of those, the gently bending, dogleg left fifth, covering that distance by a scant three yards.

But once again, the numbers don’t begin to tell the story of Aiken Golf Club.

The course makes that point abundantly clear, right from the first hole. There, a long iron and a wedge is all that’s required to reach the left half of a double green, shared with No. 17 (photo). But if you’re more than 15 feet from the hole, you’re likely going to have to negotiate undulations conceived and created when green speeds were likely in the mid-single digits on the Stimpmeter.

If you’ve ever played the first hole at National Golf Links on Long Island, next-door neighbor to Shinnecock, you know exactly what the first green at Aiken is like. If you haven’t, think 18-to-24-inch elevation changes that occur at almost 1:1 ratios.

To say the greens at Aiken are the course’s ultimate defense is an obvious understatement. To say that they are fun, even more of the same. But more than fun and challenging, the putting surfaces at Aiken serve to underscore how bland—even, dare we say boring—modern green designs, with their predominant two-percent back-to-front slope, have become. But don’t blame modern designers; blame the Stimpmeter and the cancerous quest for green speeds well into double figures for the extinction of stimulating green design like that found at National Golf Links, Yale, Chicago Golf, Fox Chapel and, yes, Aiken Golf Club.

Another facet of architecture that’s nearly disappeared from modern course design is the fairway bunker. Oh, yeah, modern courses have plenty of bunkers guarding driving areas, but the overwhelming percentage of them are in the rough. Not real fairway bunkers of the sort you must deal with at Pine Valley, Baltustrol, Seminole and the like.

That’s not the case at Aiken. The long—relative term, given the course—uphill  par-4 17th hole is a great example, with small but deep bunkers, set on a left-to-right diagonal, tightening an already demanding drive.

Literally, we could talk about the strategic brilliance of nearly every hole at Aiken—the reverse Redan green at the par-5 10th, for example. We could talk about the variety of design elements—the severely uphill par-3 ninth vs. the serenely beautiful “drop shot” par-3 16th. We could discuss and debate the intricacies and details of the course ad nauseam. And while all would be interesting to amateur architects who consider themselves students of strategic design theory, we would be missing the “big picture” that is Aiken Golf Club.

That’s because, at its most basic level, Aiken is a living, breathing piece of golf nostalgia.

It’s a step—make that a journey—back in time, a chance to walk through the game’s infancy on this side of the Atlantic without having to don plus-fours and swat ‘gutties’ with ‘hickories.’

It’s old-school design dressed up in modern turf grasses and near-perfect agronomic preparation unachievable a century ago.

It’s all the challenge the handicap golfer wants or needs disguised in an impish 5,900-yard footprint.

It’s also an unbelievable value in today’s marketplace. (Did we mention that daily-fee rates are never more than $35, including cart, or that walkers can play for less than $25, even in prime time?)

Aiken is all of this, and more.  A course whose challenge dwarfs its dimensions, whose value overwhelms the cost and whose very persona refuses to age with the passing of the years.

A curious contradiction? Indeed. One that any serious golfer worthy of the title simply most play to appreciate.

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