Suprising Golf In South Carolina
When it comes to great golf, the Palmetto state is not a one-side wonder
By Danny Freels
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has always thought Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Kiawah Island when thinking about South Carolina as a golf destination. And rightly so: those three Atlantic coast locations have helped make the Palmetto State one of the most popular places on the planet to tee it up - fall, winter or spring. This past May, however - on a trip from the northwest corner of the state southeast to arguably its most historic city - I was surprised to learn that some of the best (and most affordable) golf in South Carolina is not where you'd expect it. And it all started in the mountains. What? South Carolina has mountains?
Yes. And that was another surprise.
Located roughly 60 miles south of Asheville, North Carolina, within sight of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, is a six-county area of South Carolina known as "The Upcountry." The two biggest cities in the area are Greenville and Spartanburg but please don't let the references to "ville" and "burg" mislead you: like Asheville, The Upcountry is as cosmopolitan as it gets. There are museums, theatres and art galleries galore. Revolutionary War history is everywhere. The shopping is superb, the dining is outstanding and the scenery is spectacular. As for the golf ... it's only wonderful.
In the lovely little town of Duncan, not far from the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (soon to be serviced by Southwest Airlines), is River Falls Plantation. The course here - designed by Golf Hall of Fame member Gary Player and opened in 1990 - is really, really good, and for a number of reasons. First of all (except for the opener, which is a bit bland), the holes get better and better as the round goes along. No two are alike, a wide variety of shots are required, and the greens aren't crazily sloped. Secondly (thankfully, in my opinion), River Falls is not a back-breaker in terms of length - only 6,624 yards from the tips. What it proves, though, is that you don't need 7,000+ yards (or nutty putting surfaces) to make a golf course challenging. And River Falls is certainly challenging, with lots of water, sand, trees and elevation changes to contend with. Yet River Falls is also a very fair layout and one that I would think golfers of all abilities will find very playable. The occasional but very handsome homes around the facility - subtly located and sometimes serving as a backdrop to a putting surface - was one of the other reasons I liked this golf course so much. I wasn't sure if the design style of the houses was called "Upcountry architecture," but I was definitely sure that they provided an added touch of tastefulness to River Falls Plantation.
"Tasteful" is also a great way to describe the experience that is Cherokee Valley Golf Club, 25 minutes north of Greenville in Travelers Rest. My goodness, what a gorgeous place this is! Nestled within the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the heavily wooded, rolling terrain is very similar to that found at golf facilities in northern Michigan and Minnesota. Yet there's a touch of northern Georgia here, too (as in: Augusta National Golf Club), and it comes from the numerous all-white rental cottages that are on-site. Fully equipped and beautifully decorated, the cottages at Cherokee Valley (complete with wraparound porches) are available through a number of attractive stay-and-play packages and designed for use by groups, couples or individual golfers. Add in the fact that there is a gourmet restaurant in the clubhouse and it's easy to see why Cherokee Valley is such an appealing destination. The lovely layout at Cherokee Valley, by the way (opened in 1993), is the work of P.B. Dye, youngest son of renowned golf course architect Pete. It's not long at only 6,612 yards from the tips but it's an excellent test, thanks in part to the numerous elevation changes and to the well-bunkered, well-sloped putting surfaces.
Two good choices in the center of South Carolina, not far from Columbia, the state's capital, are Timberlake Country Club and Cobblestone Park Golf Club. Timberlake is a very pretty, fairly flat but very tight layout that meanders along the edges of what was once the largest man-made reservoir in the world: Lake Murray (fishing is BIG in South Carolina, by the way). Designed by Willard Byrd and opened in 1987, Timberlake features tree-lined fairways, lots of sand, small greens, water on seven of its 18 holes and a back-tee length of 6,579 yards. If you're looking for a shot maker's golf course, Timberlake is it. By contrast, Cobblestone Park is much more open but much more difficult. Another creation of P.B. Dye (1995), this big, beautiful layout measures nearly 6,800 yards from the tips and offers lots of water, sand and elevation changes. In addition, its large putting surfaces are well sloped and very demanding. No doubt because of its many challenges, Cobblestone Park is the home course of the University of South Carolina golf teams.
My first impression of Columbia was a good one: clean, modern and very active. A fun choice for lodging is the Sheraton Hotel downtown. Once the site of a bank, the building has been completely renovated and now features 135 cozy rooms, a restaurant in the basement and a bar on the roof. Inside the bank's old vault is another surprise: a martini lounge.
Southeast of Columbia, in an area known as "Santee/Cooper Country", there are more than 30 courses to choose from. The two that I played (both with accommodations on site) were Santee National and Lake Marion. Designed by Porter Gibson and opened in 1989, Santee National lacks the elevation changes of Cobblestone Park but it's just as sturdy. And even though there are plenty of trees lining many of the holes, it seemed more affected by the wind as well, which can make it play a bit longer than its 6,858-yard back-tee length (three others are available). Even so, for short hitters like me this is a challenging but very enjoyable tract - if played from the appropriate set of tees, of course. The forced carries have been kept to a minimum, it's not heavily bunkered, and the good-sized greens are testing but fair. I liked it a lot.
Equally good is Lake Marion, an Eddie Riccoboni-designed layout that opened in 1978. Named for the nearby lake that is the state's largest (have I mentioned that South Carolinians love boating?), this golf course sounds somewhat short based on the scorecard - only 6,474 yards from the back tees. Don't be fooled by this. A number of holes here head uphill and some of the greens are somewhat "perched", often requiring an extra club on the approach. Adding to the challenge of this pretty little layout are water hazards on six of the 18 holes, numerous well-placed bunkers, and putting surfaces that are fairly well sloped. For my money, though, the main difficulty here is finding the fairway; the tall, thick pines that line most of the holes demand accuracy from the tee. At Lake Marion, it's hit it straight or hit it often.
Trust me on this: a trip that ends in Charleston - the big, beautiful and bustling South Carolina city on the Atlantic Coast - is a trip that's just beginning. Condé Nast Traveler magazine agrees, ranking it among the Top 10 destinations in America for 17 straight years and the No.1 destination on the east coast. This high regard is due in part to the dining, architecture and arts and entertainment available throughout this vibrant city, but also to its long and illustrious history (of course, you already knew that the first shots of the Civil War took place here in 1861). Yet, in no small way is it also due to the many fine golf courses that can be found in and around Charleston. Two good examples are Coosaw Creek Country Club and Charleston National Golf Club.
Semi-private Coosaw Creek, in North Charleston, is an Arthur Hills design that opened in 1993. Pleasantly typical of most of the courses I visited, this extremely pretty and well-conditioned layout measures just under 6,600 yards from the back tees. Very untypical of an Art Hills creation, however, are Coosaw Creek's rather small greens. Also unusual (we're now in South Carolina's famous "Lowcountry" after all) are the layout's many elevation changes. Add to it the fact that the course moves from wetlands to woods and back again (water is in play on 10 holes), the putting surfaces are well-protected, well-sloped and speedy, and it's easy to see why the members are so proud of it and why it's a popular choice among visitors and locals alike.
Charleston National, on the other hand (also semi-private), is no doubt popular for a different reason: it's a bear. Built in 1989 and located in nearby Mt. Pleasant, Charleston National is an extremely challenging golf course that measures nearly 7,100 yards from the tips. It's the only Rees Jones-designed tract in the area that's open to the public, and, based on my experience, the epitome of a Lowcountry layout. The fairways are wide but the forced carries are many - over natural areas, wetlands and/or water. It's also heavily bunkered (there are 10 or more on the 10th hole alone!) In addition, since it's located not far from the ocean, the wind can be your best friend on one hole and your worst enemy on the next. This golf course, however, is also extremely beautiful - the abundant wildlife, Palmetto palms and 100-year-old oaks draped with Spanish moss makes it hard to believe the city is less than 10 miles away. And while it would be easy for me to describe Charleston National as "no country for old men" (it ate my lunch and my dinner), I was eager to play it again when I was finished.
And that was one more thing that surprised me.
For more information about golf on South Carolina's "other side", please visit www.TheUpcountry.com, www.scjewel.com, www.santeecoopercountry.com, and/or www.explorecharleston.com
Article Tags: South Carolina Golf
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