By Tony Leodora
When most people think of golf in South Carolina, the mind immediately is drawn to the coast. Resort areas such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Kiawah Island and Hilton Head Island are favorite golf destinations of millions each year.
To the great amazement of some, an entire other world of golf enchantment exists in South Carolina. For the purpose of shining the spotlight on the region of golf that stretches from the northern border of the state to the southern border – throughout the interior – the Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance was formed.
“We knew we had something special – both in terms of golf and southern hospitality – so we decided to work together back in 2001,” said Rick Saucier, the marketing arm for the Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance. Or, as it is commonly called, M2M.
“The tough part was bringing together almost 50 golf courses, as well as all of the partners in the region,” Saucier explained. “We got help from four tourism organizations and a number of hotels and, before you knew it, we were opening a formerly undiscovered area to the traveling golfers of America. It has been fun watching this grow.”
A big part of the fun is working with so many passionate people who are ready and willing to welcome visitors to their golf courses, hotels and restaurants. There is no way to hide the joy they share about working in their corner of the Deep South.
To make the trip as realistic as possible, we embarked on an eight-day, 2,000-mile trek that began in the Philadelphia area, then completed a giant circle that brought us to eight golf courses, three hotels and hundreds of smiling faces. The basic route was I-95 on the way down, and I-81 through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia on the way back.
That caused us to reverse the Mountains to Midlands directional suggestion, starting instead in the rolling hills area of the state capital, Columbia.
Obviously, in a fairly large city, hotels are plentiful. We found ourselves in a very nice, and very new, Hyatt Place. It was a short drive to the renovated downtown area that features many trendy restaurants and shops.
It also was a short drive to our first golf course, Cobblestone Park, home of the University of South Carolina golf team. The colors, garnet and black, were everywhere – except on the emerald green fairways.
In fact, two of the nines on this 27-hole layout are named Garnet and Black. The third nine is the Gold nine.
The longest combination is the Garnet-Black course. Don’t let its length from the tips – 6,788 – fool you. With all of the hills and the elevated greens, the course plays much longer and can be a beast.
“If people select the proper tees, the course is actually very playable,” explained Tom Graber, general manager at Cobblestone Park. “There is plenty of room in the fairways and the holes are very much straight-forward.”
Second stop in the Columbia area was Golden Hills Golf and Country Club. This Ron Garl design is a much tighter course, require shotmaking skills on a number of holes. There also is quite a bit of water on the course, including a pond guarding the peninsula green on the challenging 10th hole.
Slightly more than an hour away lies Thoroughbred Country — featuring the quaint town of Aiken and burgeoning North Augusta, divided by the Savannah River from the heralded town of Augusta, Georgia.
The jewel of North Augusta is Mount Vintage Club, considered by many to be among the most scenic courses in South Carolina and the finest venue in the M2M collection.
Another fine course in the area is River Golf Club, designed by Jim Fazio. True to its name, there is plenty of water on this course … and plenty of scenic views over the marshland. For added interest, there is the skyline of downtown Augusta looming just beyond the river.
A short drive away is the town of Aiken. The word “quaint” might be an understatement for this real slice of Americana. Accommodating all of the horse farms and training facilities in the area, some of the streets are still dirt streets. Recent Belmont Stakes winner, Palace Malice, was bred in the area.
But Aiken is not all about horses. There is plenty of great golf courses – Woodstone Plantation, Aiken Golf Club, and Palmetto, to name a few. Also, “The Alley” is a section in town, lined with excellent restaurants and filled with music each evening. Two of the streets – Whiskey Street and Easy Street – bring back memories of the area’s brisk bootlegging industry.
“It’s a great place for a weekend getaway,” said Maryanne Keisler, regional tourism director for Thoroughbred Country. “Couples especially love the town. Plus it is close enough to Augusta, Charleston or Columbia to make it a convenient addition to another vacation or business trip.”
Moving to the Mountains section of the trip, we were led to the next golf course by a succession of orange tiger-paw prints on the surface of the highway. The Walker Course is the home of the University of Clemson golf team.
Director of Golf Brent Jessup sums up the atmosphere by saying, “If it isn’t orange, it isn’t here.” Even the golf carts sport orange paw prints on the front face.
Dominated by a few large lakes, the Walker Course is as scenic as it is challenging. It is a busy course that becomes busier on football weekends. People park at the golf course, play golf in the morning, then walk to the football stadium in the afternoon.
A slight drive north brought us to the very trendy and growing city of Greenville – home to the BMW manufacturing plant and other modern manufacturing facilities. An evening in Greenville unfolds a number of restaurants that appeal to a younger clientele. Our choice – TacoSushi – was a very lively explosion of flavor.
Our other stop in the Greenville area was River Falls Plantation, on the north side of the city. This daily fee course is definitely one of the more player-friendly courses in the area, only 6,560 yards from the tips, with more comfortable distances at 6,131 yards and 5,789 yards. A picturesque course, the views are made even more impressive by the looming Appalachian Mountains in the distance.
Final leg of the trip took us to a combination of Deep South and New South. Rock Hill is basically a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina and has shown great economic growth in recent years. New shopping centers in town, surrounded by old country charm in every direction on the outskirts.
Rather than visit any number of the new chain restaurants, we opted for a country favorite – The Dixie Pig. This barbecue restaurant is voted annually the best in the area … and the line forms at the door almost every evening. Pulled pork, smoked chicken, collard greens and black-eye peas, red slaw, their special mac-‘n-cheese and banana pudding are just some of the staples.
With full stomachs, it was easy to take on the two courses in the area. Edgewater, lies alongside a huge man-made lake. It is part of a planned second-home community.
Tega Cay, also part of a large community, is one of the busiest in the area – both for golf and its bustling social scene. There are 27 holes at Tega Cay but the Grande View nine is the one with most of the scenic beauty and memorable holes – especially the first and last.
The end of the trip left us less than a nine-hour drive from the Philadelphia area, with plenty of scenic beauty to pass the time. A slight diversion off I-81 to the Skyline Drive along the Blue Ridge Mountains is a strong recommendation.
It makes the perfect final chapter to a road adventure throughout the Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance. Golf in the interior portion of South Carolina brings auto travel back into the vacation picture and is a refreshing change from the norm.
For more information, go to www.m2mgolfsc.com.
The Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance will be the subject of the award-winning Traveling Golfer television show during the 2018 broadcasting schedule on NBC Sports.