Sandlapper Society

South Carolina's Oldest Golf Course

by Bob Gillespie • photo courtesy of Palmetto Golf Club

Tom Moore is a natural storyteller. That’s not a bad trait for a golf club professional, though hardly a necessary one— unless you work at Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, South Carolina’s oldest club continuously operated on its original site and the second-oldest such club in the United States. Then, it probably should be a prerequisite.

Moore, 61, has been Palmetto’s head pro since 1982. That’s a long time to stay in one place— when he came to the club from nearby Augusta, “I was going to be here 2 to 3 years, tops,” he says— but when that “one place” was founded in 1892, 30 years doesn’t seem so long. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a better fit of man and job.

Walk through the front door of Moore’s pro shop, past displays of clothing and clubs, and suddenly you’ve stepped into a golf museum. On the walls hang photos and documents bearing such names as George Herbert Walker, past president of the U.S. Golf Association, namesake of golf’s Walker Cup— and grandfather/great-grandfather of the U.S. Presidents Bush; Laura Curtis Bostwick, as in the Curtis Cup; and Francis Ouimet, the first American-born U.S. Open champion (1913).

A display case holds Moore’s collection of old golf balls and clubs; a dinner napkin from a 1940s Masters Tournament is autographed by Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, even Babe Zaharias; and letters from visitors to Palmetto include those by Hollywood golf fiends Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. Nearby a photo, circa 1942, shows long-time Palmetto member Bobby Knowles with legendary golf course architect Donald Ross, who reportedly did course work at Palmetto in 1928. 

Yes, Moore has plenty of material for his stories. Such as the time a visitor spotted a particularly ancient golf ball of Moore’s— a “gutta percha” dating to 1850, donated by a member— and wanted to buy it. “It’s not for sale,” Moore said, but the man persisted, offering up to $2,000, trying to get Moore’s wife, Kathy, to pressure him to sell.

Later, Moore found pictures of clubs made by the ball’s creator, but where a photo of the ball should’ve been were the words, “No known example.” Meaning? “You don’t know what it might be worth,” Moore says. The ball now resides “in a vault,” he says.

Visit the quiet club alongside Whiskey Road and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time a century or more. Moore’s wooden shop, even after a 2007 renovation, seems straight out of the late 1800s. So does the clubhouse, which in fact was built in 1902 and designed by famed architect Stanford White, whose signature work was at New York’s Shinnecock Hills, site of past U.S. Open Championships.

And yet Palmetto is no dusty artifact, but rather a course that, despite measuring a mere 6,695 yards (par 71) at its longest, regularly proves it can hold its own. Ask Michael Carlisle, golf coach of three-time NCAA Division II champion USC Aiken, Palmetto member since 1987 and the only three-time winner of the Palmetto Amateur. Each spring his team hosts the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Intercollegiate, where young pros-in-waiting look at the course’s modest length and imagine a pushover, then learn differently.

Carlisle recalls a story— told by Moore, of course— of two Georgia Southern University players playing for the first time. “They’re leaving the first tee, looking at the scorecard: par 71, (then) 6,400 yards,” Carlisle says. “One says, ‘Man, all you need is a driver and a sand wedge. We’re going to burn this place down!’ Afterward, Tom checked their scores: 78, 78, 79, 81.”

The course remains deceptively difficult, notably due to its small, undulating greens and fiendish bunkers. “The great thing about Palmetto is, you have to hit every club in the bag over 18 holes,” Carlisle says. “You never get a level lie; the ball is above or below your feet, uphill, downhill. It doesn’t take the driver out of your hands, but sometimes it’s the smart play. It teaches (players) to think their way around the course and puts a premium on accuracy over length.”

When the South Carolina Golf Association staged its 75th S.C. Amateur at Palmetto, director of competitions Biff Lathrop told competitors, “It’ll be the longest 6,700 yards you’ll ever play in your life.” The tournament, not surprisingly, was won by Jeff Goff, a USC Aiken player. The course record of 59, set at the 2005 Palmetto Amateur, also belongs to a former Pacer, Dane Burkhart.

Palmetto has stood the test of time for 118 years, starting when New York sportsman Thomas Hitchcock laid out four holes where the 16th through 18th holes and the practice range are today. A.H. Fenn, the first American-born golf professional, won the first Southern Cross title at Palmetto, and often played in the winter against Charles B. Macdonald, one of America’s great architects.

In 1932, when members wanted to convert their sand greens to grass, they enlisted Scottish architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who had recently completed a project nearby: Augusta National. “Fifteen of the founding members at Augusta were from Palmetto,” Moore says. From 1945–53, the Devereux Milburn Pro-Am, played on the Tuesday before the Masters, was won by green-jacket champions Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Henry Picard, who competed in part because the event paid $10,000 to the winner, more than the Masters or any other PGA event.

If anyone knows more about Palmetto than Moore, it might be B.T. Barnes, the club’s “official” historian. Now 90 and a member since 1955, the former field director for the S.C. Tax Commission hasn’t played in seven years due to “a balance problem after going deaf in my left ear,” but remains devoted to the club. Barnes has records from the Devereux Milburn that fill 13 three-ring binders, stored safely at his home, as well as a list of all past club presidents. “I’ve got stuff even the club doesn’t have,” he says. It was Barnes who, soon after World War II, discovered the original deed for Palmetto in an Atlanta courthouse, documenting the club as the nation’s second-oldest behind the Chicago Golf Club.

A contemporary of Barnes was lifelong amateur Bobby Knowles, a two-time participant in the Masters. A Palmetto member starting in 1934, Knowles (who died in 2003 at age 88) was on the Masters’ scoring committee that came up with the system of displaying players’ scores relative to par, using red (under par) and green (over) numbers.

By 1980, when Knowles hired Moore as only the seventh pro in Palmetto’s history, the club was showing its age. “It was not in good shape,” he says. “They had fewer than 100 members, and we played 6,500 rounds the first year vs. 40,000 at West Lake. It needed building back.” Together with board members, Moore installed a $134,000 watering system in 1984, and the course was renovated in 1996 and again in 2003–05, the second time by architect Tom Doak, a MacKenzie courses authority.

In 2007, after a suggestion from two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, aerial photos from Department of Defense archives were used to restore bunkers on several holes, while architect Gil Hanse resurfaced greens with modern MiniVerde grass.

As a result, membership now numbers 300, plus 200 “national” members who live 75 miles or further from Aiken.

Today, Palmetto has the best of yesterday and today. Moore is the common thread, welcoming players and telling stories from the course’s past. A favorite is from the 1930s when Eugene Grace, president of Bethlehem Steel, played at Palmetto, a time when caddies earned $1 per round and 25-cent tips were big money.

Palmetto’s par-3 seventh hole, called by Bobby Jones the “best medal-play par-3” he ever played, then required a blind shot to an elevated green. Because Grace tipped a dollar every time he made a hole-in-one, caddies holding the flag learned to rake close shots into the cup, then shout, “A hole-in-one, Mr. Grace!” According to Knowles, Grace recorded at least 25 holes-in-one, all on No. 7.

On a recent cloudy day, Moore digs through a closet filled with drawings, maps, scorecards and— suddenly— a hickory-shafted club stamped with the name of British Open champion Harry Vardon. “A doctor from Philadelphia knew Vardon played (at Palmetto) and sent it to me,” Moore says, shaking his head. “It’s going on a wall when I get around to it. There’s so much of this.”

At Palmetto, there always has been.  


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