Palmetto GC, Aiken. Herbert Leeds (1892) with changes by Alister MacKenzie (1932).

#1 plays downhill from the clubhouse

The number of famous hands this remarkable course has had on it is something. Leeds laid out the course’s 18 holes but MacKenzie stopped by while working on Augusta National and converted the sand greens to grass and built bunkers. Donald Ross is said to have done work here sometimes in the interim and lately both Tom Doak and Gil Hanse have done restoration work. Sometimes, such a course becomes a mishmash of too many different things, but Palmetto is not that—the overriding feeling is very much MacKenzie of his Augusta period. There are bunkers and greens that you look at and, with the surrounding hills and trees and foliage, it’s not hard to imagine that a more rugged early version of Augusta National looked a lot like this.

But don’t mistake this for an Augusta clone. It’s a truly fine course in its own right.

The bunker lines and rolling green at #3 are very reminiscent of another Dr. Mac course just across the river

The fourth is a wonderful natural par 4 that plays downhill off the drive to a fairway that tilts left-to-right. Keeping the drive to the left provides a better angle for the second shot, but you must negotiate the hillside and a bunker on that side of the fairway. There’s no obvious trouble for a drive to the right, but the green is shallow coming in from the right side with a steep slope short protecting it.

The fifth is another hole that plays down then up but this one is essentially straightaway. Here, though, the challenge is really all in the green, which is distinctly three-tiered. At 440 yards and with an uphill approach, the second shot into the fifth is often with a medium or long iron so judging the approach distance is key.

Missing right at #7 is very bad. Missing left may be worse.

The seventh is said to have been a favorite hole of Bobby Jones, who called it the best medal par 3 he’d played. Clearly, he was an excellent player, because this seems more like a do-or-die match play hole to me. It has a narrow green cut into a side hill with bunkers left and a steep fall off to the right. It is as exacting and dramatic as you could want a par 3 to be.

One of the strengths of the course is the balance between long and short holes. There are several par 4 in the 440 yard range, most of which play uphill on the second shot. These are balanced with a couple of shorter par 4s near the end of the round, as well as a couple of par 5s (the sixth and the 10th) that are under 500 yards—not much longer than several of the par 4s here.

palmetto b+w
The tee shot on #12 asks a classic question: How much risk are you willing to take on?

The 12th is a hole that strikes an interesting balance. At 380 yards on the card, it doesn’t seem long (though there’s a tournament tee that stretches to 450), but the hole is uphill with a drive over a pond to a fairway angled around a bunker and a stand of pine trees. The more risk you take on with the drive, the shorter your second shot can be. A brave drive over the bunker, perhaps even drawing around the pine trees, can leave a mere flip wedge into the green. Meanwhile a cautious tee shot can leave an uphill mid iron to a green with trouble left and right.

Toward the finish, the two-shot holes get shorter. The 15th plays back up the hill adjacent to the first. At under 300 yards, the hole may be reachable for some but it’s blind and there’s out of bounds left as well as the first tee to the right. The green reminds me vaguely of a deeper version of the third at Augusta National—it’s a plateau but falls away at every edge, meaning even short wedge approaches must be very precise here.

The drive on #15 is uphill with trouble left

Following that the routing crosses past the clubhouse. The 16th is a rather non-descript par 3 squeezed between the clubhouse and a road. It doesn’t look like much but the green is tiny so your full attention is warranted. The drive at the 17th is blind downhill, but the second shot is an attractive one. Finally the 18th is a clever finisher. At 306 yards, some bombers will be thinking of trying to reach the green, but it is uphill all the way and the green is surrounded by deep bunkers. On the other hand, the fairway is blind from the tee—there’s plenty of fairway but all you see is a sandy area fronting the tee and the flashed bunkers fronting the green in the background.

Though the course is not long overall, it demands precise play. The bunkers are not just artful but fierce. The greens also extract their punishment, so the course is no pushover. As so many clubs in the area do, this one opens its doors to the public the week of the Masters and if you have the chance, I cannot recommend it enough.

#1 (of 2) in Southeast [2013]