Attending the masters is one of the great privileges in golf, but there’s only one problem with seeing the world’s best golfers at the world’s grandest cathedral: they’re playing and you’re not. That’s why Masters goers in the know—corporate chieftains, USGA muckety-mucks, even some pros—book a tee time at another course touched by Alister MacKenzie, Palmetto Golf Club.
One of the oldest clubs in America, Palmetto was founded in 1892. It’s located about 20 miles northeast of Augusta in Aiken, South Carolina, and opens one week a year to non-members. The $195 green fee has endowed the club’s capital fund with enough money over the years that members haven’t been hit with an assessment in more than 20 years. It also financed a recent restoration of the course by Gil Hanse, just chosen to design the course for the 2016 Olympics.
“It is such a special design with great details in the green complexes, holes that fit the topography perfectly, wonderful vegetation, and it is such a great walking course,” says Hanse. “The combination of the terrific golf course and the understated nature of the club and clubhouse is perfection in my mind. It’s one of the unquestioned hidden gems in American golf, and I always try to get friends and fans of golf course architecture to go and see the course.”
Although Augusta and Palmetto share a MacKenzie connection, that’s about where the similarities end. One is as lush and polished as possible, while the other is much more rugged and unadorned. That’s clear from the moment you pull into the oddly shaped dirt and stone parking lot and catch a glimpse of the clubhouse. Although the great Stanford White designed it, it’s no Shinnecock Hills. Containing just an upstairs apartment and small men’s and women’s locker rooms separated by a common area, the building, which dates to 1902, has a dollhouse-like quaintness to it.
Even older and more charming is the cramped and homey building next door that houses the pro shop, grill, and trophy room where longtime pro Tom Moore keeps the club’s impressive collection of memorabilia, starting with the oldest USGA membership certificate in existence. It dates to 1896 when Palmetto became the 30th club to join the organization. Other prized possessions include letters from Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and the 41st president, whose grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was an early member. Many items stem from the prestigious pro-am the club hosted from 1945–1953 the Tuesday of Masters week where the pros often made more money than they did at Augusta.
The club began as a rudimentary four-hole course before expanding to 18 holes a few years later with Herbert Leeds, who designed Myopia Hunt Club, collaborating with the founder, Thomas Hitchcock, and first head pro, Jimmy Mackrell. At the behest of some members who were involved with the development of Augusta National, MacKenzie paid a visit in 1933 to convert the sand greens to grass, reshape bunkers, and lengthen the course from 5,833 to 6,370 yards. The club even used the same construction firm that built Augusta National to do the work at Palmetto.
Over the ensuing years, the bunkers lost much of their shape or disappeared altogether, while the greens became lifeless ovals. Using aerial photographs from 1938 the club unearthed at the National Geological Survey, as well as some old photos from multi-generational members, Hanse started a restoration project in 2005 that also included re-exposing sandy scrub areas.
The course can play as long as 6,695 yards, but most members, like those in the daily “Dogfight,” play it at around 6,100. Although there are a few cross-bunkers to watch out for, the fairways are wide enough to hit driver on all the two- and three-shotters. The course’s main defense is its small, slippery greens with many featuring big mounding right out of Augusta. On the uphill, 423-yard 13th players aim their approaches for “Dolly Parton” on the left side of the green. About the only knock on the course is the short par-four finishing hole, which doesn’t offer any risk-reward or thought-provoking options.
The 19th hole sure is good, though, as members sit on the porch of the clubhouse in rocking chairs enjoying a beverage or two and solving the world’s problems.
Oh, there are other more fancy private clubs around Augusta that also welcome outsiders the week of the Masters—Augusta Country Club and Champions Retreat come to mind—but none with the charm or history of Palmetto.