AIKEN, S.C. – It’s horse country here in this small city of about 31,000 in the western part of South Carolina. World-class training facilities have made Aiken an equine mecca since the 1950s, when non-stop train service from New York brought horses and their owners to winter in the mild southern climate.
But Aiken is a golf mecca of sorts, especially for those with a nose not only for history but for one of the finest examples of the game’s classic architecture. Palmetto Golf Club, founded in 1892, is the second oldest golf club in the country that sits on its original site. Only Chicago Golf Club is older.
Those are gems from the musty past that are likely to be lost on the 78 players — nearly all college-age golfers — who will begin the 46th staging of the Palmetto Amateur, July 8-11. The defending champion might have taken an interest in yellowed newspaper stories that hang on the walls in the pro shop and locker room, had he returned this year.
Tyler Strafaci, last year’s Palmetto Amateur champion, is himself a line in the history books. The former Georgia Tech golfer won the 2020 U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes, about a month after winning the Palmetto. And Strafaci’s grandfather, Frank Sr., captured the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 1935.
But Strafaci is now a professional, looking for sponsor exemptions to attempt to accumulate enough FedEx Cup points to qualify for his PGA Tour card without having to go to the Korn Ferry Finals or the Korn Ferry Qualifying Tournament. He has made one cut in three starts since May.
Palmetto Golf Club was formed by Thomas Hitchcock of New York and Long Island’s William C. Whitney, a wealthy industrialist who also trained and raced horses, which was his connection to Aiken. They believed a golf club would serve as an added attraction to horse owners from the North.
Palmetto was formed two years before the birth of the USGA and according to Tom Moore, the pro emeritus at Palmetto GC who has been with the club 40 years, Palmetto would have been one of the original USGA members had it not been for its location. In fact, the club has the oldest known USGA membership certificate.
Four holes were constructed in 1892 and Herbert Leeds, who designed Myopia Hunt Club near Boston, was hired to complete the first nine holes. The course was expanded to 18 holes in 1895. Alister MacKenzie gets credit for most of the design work that makes Palmetto what it is today. He made the 20-mile trip to Palmetto in 1932, shortly after building the layout for Augusta National. He was hired to change the sand greens to grass and to lengthen the course.
He did the work at Palmetto perhaps too well. In an article quoting MacKenzie, he said, “The alterations at Palmetto have been such a success that the Chairman of Bobby Jones’ Executive Committee at the Augusta National writes me saying, ‘We have only one serious complaint against you regarding the Augusta National. The layout you designed at Aiken is liked so well that the Aiken colony does not seem to be the least bit interested in coming over to the Augusta National.’”
In fact, Moore says had it not been for Palmetto, Augusta National might have been built in Atlanta, instead. Twelve of Augusta National’s founding members were also Palmetto members and they wanted the club in Augusta so they could be nearby Aiken, as well.
For years, Palmetto GC was one of golf’s best kept secrets. Ben Crenshaw was famous for visiting Palmetto each April either before or after the Masters. In fact, it’s because of the year’s first major championship that Palmetto is a secret no more. The club opens its doors to the public during Masters week and this spring, from April 4-12, starting times were available for $300 per player with the stipulation that the entire foursome be purchased.
The offer attracts corporate leaders and their clients, golf cognoscenti and even USGA committee members and staff. The club started taking reservations on Jan. 1 and every tee time for every day was completely sold out.
The revenue allows the club to take on important golf course projects without assessing its members.
A new Palmetto Amateur champion will be crowned next week and the hope is, given the rich pedigree and history of the place, he will realize the significance of his accomplishment.