By: Peter Ellegard
If you thought that the best golf in South Carolina was purely along its coast, think again. The four regions that comprise the Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance serve up some incredible golf – and at prices that make golf vacations there an absolute steal. Where else can you stay five nights and play five rounds of golf on top-quality courses for less than US$500 per person, and in some instances less than US$400, including taxes, green fees, golf carts and breakfast?
From state capital, Columbia in the heart of South Carolina to the border with Augusta, Georgia, and right up to the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, you can play over 50 golf courses, including several by famous architects. Throw in towns and cities with vibrant dining and nightlife scenes, history in spades and scenic splendor from fast-flowing rivers and sprawling lakes to forest-cloaked foothills and mountain wilderness areas that are perfect for outdoor adventurers and you have a destination that ticks all the boxes for a perfect stay mixing golf with time off the fairways.
The four regions that make up the alliance are: Lake Murray Country, which encompasses Columbia and majestic Lake Murray, with 650 miles of shoreline; Thoroughbred Country & The Lakelands, which takes in thousands of miles of pristine lake shores in an area called South Carolina’s Freshwater Coast; Olde English District, which harks back to the 1700s and the Revolutionary War and includes Rock Hill, the lively suburb of North Carolina’s Charlotte; and Upcountry, blending the beautiful landscape of the Blue Ridge foothills with the fast-rising city of Greenville.
I have been to South Carolina many times and although most visits have tended to be to coastal areas such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Kiawah Island and Hilton Head. I have played at Cheraw State Park, in the Olde English District, one of the best-value courses you will find anywhere – www.playcheraw.com and Upcountry (on the Walker Course at Clemson University – www.clemson.edu/madren/golf) with a long-time friend who lives in Florence, SC. The round at Walker was particularly memorable as his eldest daughter was getting married a few hours later at the nearby Baptist Church, and the tiger mascot from the university’s Clemson Tigers NCAA football team made an appearance at the reception. It’s hard not to be generous with giving putts to your opponent when he is about to give away his daughter…
The rest of the Mountains to Midlands area I was not that familiar with, so I jumped at the chance to explore it a bit more this past summer on a golfing trip that took me from Rock Hill and Greenville to Aiken, just over the state line to the hallowed gates of Augusta, and on to Columbia.
Rock Hill is regarded as the “Golf Capital of the Olde English district” and is surrounded by more than half of the region’s dozen layouts, most along the I-77 corridor. Among them are Fort Mill Golf Club (www.playfortmill.com), with 18 holes of tree-lined golf that features the front nine by the legendary Donald Ross and the back nine by George Cobb, and Carolina Lakes Golf Club (www.carolinalakesgc.com), set amidst lakes and streams and with six tee positions that include a family tee, making the course a par 55 instead of 72 for the other tees.
Hilton Garden Inn was our base for three nights, chowing down on Southern-inspired dishes in Rock Hill on the first evening at the Pump House on the banks of the Catawba River. Rock Hill area has plenty of other attractions, among them the thrill rides of the Carowinds amusement park, the charm of historic Brattonsville and the natural beauty of Lake Wylie and Kings Mountain State Park.
Our first round took us towards Spartanburg, River Falls Plantation Golf Club, set within a forest, front and back nines looping around the plantation-style clubhouse, this Gary Player Signature Design is both a beauty and a beast. The course layout is stunning but tight fairways and devilishly-positioned lakes and streams make for some nerve-wracking tee shots and approaches to greens. The par-5 9th is one of the trickiest, featuring a tee shot over a lake, more water down the narrowing fairway and a green protected by sand in front and water to the left and right.
Dinner was in Greenville’s energetic downtown at Soby’s, housed in a grand, late-1800s brick building that was once a cotton exchange and specializes in New South Cuisine, finishing with drinks on the patio alongside bustling Main Street.
The following day brought us to the semi-private Windermere Club, a joint design by father-and-son team Pete and PB Dye. It is one of a cluster of courses just north-west of Columbia in Lake Murray Country, which offers golfers 14 courses in all. Windermere is another delight, its grand clubhouse overlooking Lake Windermere. The course is something of a rarity in the Deep South, in that while its fairways are Bermuda grass the greens are bent grass, giving a smoother and truer putting surface. I prefer fast greens and loved putting at Windermere. Water lines several holes, the standout one for me being the pretty par-3 17th that has water on three sides and plays longer than it looks, but the most memorable features are the railroad ties and deep swales and waste bunkers that are a Dye signature. Lose your approach to the par-5 10th to the right and you face a long climb down and back up a steep bank to a waste trap seemingly the size of the Gobi Desert.
We traveled on to Aiken, bordering Augusta in Thoroughbred Country, overnight was the quaint Inn at Houndslake. My room overlooked one of the greens of the adjacent Houndslake Country Club, despite them beckoning invitingly there was sadly no time to play.
Next morning, I fulfilled a long-held dream. Fast forward 15 years and I am sat with my teenage grandson, Teddy (he’s just a babe in arms at the moment). “Were you really at Augusta National?” he asks, in awe. “Sure,” I reply, showing him a yellowing photo of me posing by the sign at the home of The Masters, although in all likelihood it would be a hologram by then.
Ok, so the gates were shut as the venerable golf club was closed for the summer months and other than during Masters week I wouldn’t have got inside the ultra-exclusive, members-only club anyway. But that’s not the point.
It is just 30 minutes from Aiken, Aiken makes an excellent base for visitors wanting to catch some live action there and play on some of the fabulous golf courses in central and upstate South Carolina when the Masters tournament is on, or indeed at any time of year.
The Inn at Houndslake offers special packages during the Masters, while The Reserve Club at Woodside Plantation, where we dined the previous evening and played after our pilgrimage to Augusta National just 14 miles to the south-east, has a Masters Week VIP Package for US$370 per person per day that includes all meals, unlimited golf, exclusive use of a VIP Masters Suite, cigar service and big-screen coverage of the Masters.
Although a private club, the club’s 18-hole Reserve Course, by Nicklaus Design, and nine-hole Hollow Creek Course, by Fuzzy Zoeller and Clyde Johnston, are opened up for visitors to play during Masters week. The Reserve also has a daily Club Package that includes 18 holes of golf, with cart, use of practice facilities and lunch for US$200 if paid for by January 1, 2017, and US$225 after that.
The Reserve Course is the only Nicklaus Design layout in the Augusta-Aiken area and offers a beautiful, sweeping layout with many of the features of its illustrious near-neighbor, such as perfectly-manicured tee boxes, fairways and greens, banks of flowers lining several holes, water hazards requiring golfers to plot their way round the course and pine trees lining holes with pine straw below.
Aiken itself is a small Southern Belle with its grid-patterned streets canopied by live oaks and its environs dotted by grand plantation estates and landscaped gardens, and natural spaces to go hiking, biking and canoeing. This is horse country; Aiken Polo Club is one of the oldest polo clubs in the USA and the town also has horse racing and several stables offering horseback riding.
Our final dinner was in downtown Columbia at the Twisted Spur, a casual West Coast-style brewpub on the city’s hip Gervais Street, just down from the domed and colonnaded South Carolina State house.
One thing’s for sure – I will make sure I return to this captivating part of South Carolina and spend more time discovering its other golf courses and treasures when I return.
For more information, visit www.m2mgolfsc.com.