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  • Writer's pictureDooner

Is Aiken, South Carolina Ready to be The New Pinehurst?

Updated: Jun 26


Old Barnwell, golf club, Aiken, SC, golf trip, golf destination, Brian Schnieder, Blake Conant
While the sun sets over the 17th green at Old Barnwell, it's star - and Aiken's golf scene as a whole - is only beginning to rise!

Unless you've been hiding under a tee marker the past few years, you're probably well aware of the influx of new, high-end golf course builds in and around Aiken, South Carolina. The secret is out and everyone is seemingly itching to leave their mark in the sandy soil that lies beneath the forests of towering pines and fields of native grasses.


Some (okay, maybe just us?) have even dubbed it The New Pinehurst*.


Yes, that asterisk is there on purpose. No need to ask why, that's kind of the entire point of the story you're about to read.


First the similarities. There is nothing 'new' about either city. Pinehurst and Aiken can both trace their roots back to wealthy Northeasterners who desired an escape from the cold and unpleasantness that lingers for a good part of the year. Both of these 'winter colonies' were built atop the same ancient sand belt that runs down the ancient shoreline where the oceans once reached. Railroads easily shipped people by the trainload up and down the coast.


Of course, both had large resorts to house their seasonal visitors on holiday.


highland park hotel, aiken sc, resort, golf
An advertisement for the original Highland Park Hotel that sat above what is now Aiken Golf Club (PalmettoBella.com)

All the same characteristics? Yes. Yet, the asterisk has to be included because of one (and the most important) factor.


The Cradle, Gil Hanse, Pinehurst Resort, NC golf, short course
Rock The Cradle in Pinehurst!

Despite all the new and mind-blowing builds (and renderings of things to come) in Aiken, all of the known projects are of the private variety. This is where Pinehurst - one of the United States' purest/oldest golf Meccas - shines. The Cradle of American Golf remains almost exclusively public.


Being open to the public certainly doesn't mean it comes cheap, but if you know what you're doing, it won't lead to a divorce hearing every time you plan a trip there! Still, Aiken used to have its own resort back in the day and while the course remains, the resort has long been gone.


With groundwork laid, let's beg the question of the day in very general terms...

Can you consider an area a 'golf destination' when you can't get on any of the courses (because they're private)?

Would you consider Long Island or Westchester County a golf destination? Anyone planning a golf trip to Los Angeles or San Francisco? Who has Philly pegged to visit this year? No one would deny the quality and quantity of courses those 5 regions possess are among the best in the world (50% of the top 18 courses and 25% of Golf Digest's latest Top 100 list).


Herein lies the rub... Unless you've got the hookups, you aren't planning trips to any of those destinations. So where does Aiken fall on this scale? You may not know the courses here like the ones in the aforementioned markets, so here's the Aiken golf menu...


(NOTE: we draw the line at the state line (Savannah River) and use that distance from downtown Aiken as the approximate radius. Courses appear in each section in chronological order from when they were built).


THE OLD GUARD (Golden Age - pre-WWII)

  • Palmetto Golf Club (private*) - Dr. Alister MacKenzie's "other" course in the region. A top 100 mainstay and a course about which we've never heard one negative thing whispered. Bucket List invite.

  • Aiken Golf Club (public) - One of public golf's national treasures. Perhaps the greatest value play in the country and arguably the most fun that 5700 yards has ever produced!


MID-CENTURY to MODERN (WWII to 1999)

  • Midland Valley (public) - New ownership is breathing life into an Ellis Maples design

  • Houndslake CC (private*) - Mid-70s Joe Lee design in the heart of town.

  • Cedar Creek (public) - Early-90s Arthur Hills layout reworked in the same style by the same guy (Jim McNair, Jr.) as it's sister course, Aiken GC.

  • The River (going private in June '24*) - This low-lying Jim Fazio course sits along the Savannah River in North Augusta, SC is one of only in area with on-site lodging.



MILLENIUM MADE (2000 - 2020)

  • Sage Valley (private) - Tom Fazio's ode to Augusta National. Top 100 retreat. Elite club also features its own 9-hole, stadium lit par-3 course. Same category at Palmetto.

  • Woodside CC (private*) - 36 holes by Rees Jones and Bob Cupp on Aiken's southside.

  • The Reserve Club (private*) - 36 holes by Nicklaus Design and Clyde Johnston/Fuzzy Zoeller adjacently southwest of, but not a part of Woodside CC.

  • Mount Vintage (public) - 27-hole Tom Jackson outpost just a few minutes to the NW in North Augusta



NEW GOLDEN AGE

(2021 - NEAR FUTURE)

  • The Chalkmine (private*) - This magical 9-hole short course & practice facility, built by Jim McNair, Jr. in an abandoned mining site, is the golf playground for the USC Aiken Golf Team and The First Tee of Aiken. Playing opportunities for donors exist.



  • Old Barnwell (private*) - Brian Schneider & Blake Conant's first project is out of this world. Playing it this winter felt shockingly similar to how it felt to play our first Mike Strantz course in the early 2000s - it challenges what a golf course COULD BE!?! Its that good. A kids' course is under construction now for a late '24/early '25 debut, with another championship 18 planned before the end of the decade.


  • The Tree Farm (private*) - PGA TOUR pro Zac Blair's dreamchild, built with Tom Doak, is what The Buck Club turned into. Early returns of the easternmost course on this roster are glorious!


Tree Farm, Zack Blair, Aiken SC, golf course
The Tree Farm (Top 100 Courses)

  • Cypress Shoals - A planned 36-hole private destination club in North Augusta, SC. The first course, designed by Tom Watson, is planned, though highly debated on when (or even if) it will break ground.

  • 21 Golf Club - Another planned 36-hole private club. King-Collins of Sweetens Cove fame drop "The Hammer" course first, with plans for a lost MacKenzie design to be built afterward (a la The Lido at Sand Valley). The renderings are ridiculously cool!


If we put an asterisk on The New Pinehurst* label as a whole, we've added a * to all but one of the private* courses in the list above. Why? Because all of the *'d courses do allow for public play in some form - most famously on Masters Week. Remember how we said Pinehurst also wasn't cheap? Masters Week tee times down in Aiken can cost you a percentage of your annual earnings. If you really have to scratch the itch, make sure you pack a healthy line of credit with your clubs.


Old Barnwell, Aiken, SC, Evans Scholar, Caddie
As a walking only course, Old Barnwell boasts a fledging Evans Scholar Caddie Program

As far as Old Barnwell and The Tree Farm are concerned, there have been a number of opportunities for non-member play. The Broken Tee Society and The Fried Egg have/will soon again visit OB, while TTF was built with community in mind through event's like "The Ringer", Blair's initial golf Kickstarter for what this club became. Both clubs have unique membership models, so be on the lookout for the chance.


Now that we have the data and the knowledge, let's ask the controlling question again:

Is Aiken, South Carolina a golf destination or is it simply a burgeoning private course paradise?

This may sound lame - but the answer right now is probably someplace in between. If you have a deep enough wallet, you can probably go now and have the time of your life for 4-5 days at a time. If you don't, do your homework and be patient. It may require a perfect storm to come around, but it's there if you're a savvy golf trip planner.


If you're neither of those two, we certainly appreciate you reading this far down the page (...or you're one of our moms).


Aiken Golf Club's quirky greens & sandy expanses are reason enough to make the trip here!

All we know is this: it can be done really well right now on a short run (3 days/2 night variety seems right). Inside of 48 hours, we were fortunate enough to play Aiken Golf Club, The Chalkmine (3 times around), Old Barnwell and The First Tee of Augusta's 6-hole short course. We had planned to play Augusta State University's Forest Hills course as well (to feature along with The Chalkmine in our College Golf Landscape piece), but severe weather ran us out of town early.



When you go is also important. We went in mid-January. It's not exactly peak season in Aiken that time of year. Yes, the courses are in dormancy (for our Northern friends that's when the Bermuda Grass turns a whitish-brown for the winter). Shorter days meant less time to play as well (69 holes total). When we did our Pinehurst 100 trip back in 2018 - we went right after the 4th of July. Not their peak time either, as it's often near triple digits that time of year in the Sandhills.


Old Barnwell, Brian Schnieder, Blake Conant, Aiken, SC, golf club
Old Barnwell - in its entirety - from behind the start of the back nine

If you're willing to embrace the elements that you encounter, fate may reward you accordingly! Or... you might tee off at Aiken GC in 38 degree weather after a severe winter storm that left 25+ MPH sustained winds behind and no power in the pro shop.


#PlayGolf & may the Golf Gods shine upon thee. They're sure shining upon Aiken right now. If someone saw fit to give the resort concept another go down there - something with an Inn, 36 championship holes and a short course - Aiken might just become The New Pinehurst after all... without the *.


Sincerely Fores,

The Golf Crusade


P.S. If you see this guy walking around the property, please thank him & Blake Conant for building such a groundbreaking tribute to the game.

Old Barnwell, Aiken, SC, Brian Schneider, Blake Conant, Golf Club
One half of Old Barnwell's design team, Brian Schneider, out enjoying / inspecting his handywork.

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