When it comes to golf in Augusta, most people think of the Masters, a tournament steeped in tradition and one of the PGA’s four major championship events. For four days during the first full week of April (April 9-12 this year), the tournament takes place at the venerable Augusta National Golf Club. Although it was founded in 1932, Augusta National is not the oldest course in the area. Not by a long shot. Nearby Aiken, South Carolina, 20 miles away via back roads, is where golf was born in the Southeast in the early 1890s. Thanks to a handful of remaining courses from the era, it’s possible to still capture the spirit of golf’s golden age at area hotels, courses and museums.
In the late 19th century, Augusta and Aiken were posh resort towns where wealthy northerners came to spend the winter months in grand hotels. Most of the hotels are long gone, but many of the courses connected to them remain. The first golf course in the Southeast was founded in Aiken in 1892. The Palmetto Golf Club still exists but, like Augusta National, is private. The course at nearby Aiken Golf Club, founded in 1912 as part of the now-demolished Highland Park Hotel, is more accessible. This was the first course in the nation to build tees for women. The club is now affiliated with the Willcox Hotel, one of only two hotels still standing from the days when the Augusta-Aiken area was called the Winter Golf Capital of America.
The other hotel from that era is the Partridge Inn in Augusta. Situated on a hillside overlooking downtown at the edge of the magnolia-scented Summerville neighborhood, the inn claims to have a quarter-mile of porch and balcony space. The open-air rooftop bar provides one of the best views in the area. A large wraparound veranda attached to the hotel’s restaurant is a longtime favorite Sunday brunch spot for locals. The Partridge is a favorite spot for golf enthusiasts because of its proximity to Augusta National and Augusta Country Club, also private but notable for being the home of Augusta’s first golf course, established in 1897 as part of the now-defunct Bon Air Hotel.
Two historic courses you can play near the Partridge Inn are Forest Hills Golf Club and Augusta Municipal Golf Course. Forest Hills Golf Club was established in 1926 as part of another grand but now-gone hotel, the Forrest Hills-Ricker Hotel. (The double “r” in Forrest was later dropped.) A historical marker in front of the club notes that this was where Bobby Jones began his legendary Grand Slam year of 1930 when he won all four majors as an amateur. Today, Forest Hills is owned and operated by Augusta University. Across from Forest Hills is another classic, Augusta Municipal Golf Course, Augusta’s first truly public course. It opened in 1928, is still public and has the most affordable greens fees in the region.
Jones had an affinity for Augusta, so when he decided to build his dream course he chose a site next to Augusta Country Club and founded Augusta National with help from Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts. Take a deep dive into the area’s golf history at the Augusta Museum of History. The exhibition “Celebrating a Grand Tradition” explores the evolution of the sport. Of particular interest are the displays showcasing the changes in technology and equipment over the years, as well as the many mementos of golfing greats from Jones to Tiger Woods.
The common areas and hallways of the Partridge Inn are also filled with a finely curated collection of historic photos and mementos that capture a bygone era when the still-young hotel was earning its nickname as “The Grand Hotel of the Classic South.” Among the images is one from 1916 showing men and women competing in an indoor putting contest, and another of the guests on an outdoor green where the current swimming pool is located.
If you want something a little more contemporary, the River Golf Club founded in 1998 is a semi-private course that accepts public play. Designed by Jim Fazio, it runs alongside the Savannah River in North Augusta, South Carolina.
Fort Gordon, the U.S. Army base outside of Augusta, also has a golf club with two courses. Gordon Lakes Golf Club’s signature course was designed by legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and is open to active and retired military personnel as well as civilians. Like all Jones-designed courses, the play is demanding, but the views are rewarding. There are six holes skirting a 20-acre lake, and one of the greens is on an island.
The extension of the rail line to Florida and the advent of air travel helped bring an end to the glory days of Augusta and Aiken as preferred winter resort towns for the elite. But the elements that spawned those resorts remain. Now spring, instead of winter, is prime time for golf outings in the area.
If you go
Augusta is 146 mile east of Atlanta on I-20. Proceed another 30 miles east to Aiken, South Carolina.
Things to do
The Aiken Golf Club. $22 and up. 555 Highland Park Drive, Aiken. 803-649-6029, www.aikengolfclub.net.
Forest Hills Golf Club. $23 and up. 1500 Comfort Road, Augusta. 706-733-0001, www.theforesthillsgolfcourse.com.
Augusta Municipal Golf Course. $20 and up. 2023 Highland Ave., Augusta. 706-731-9344, www.golfthepatch.com.
The River Golf Club. $45 and up. 307 Riverside Blvd., North Augusta. 803-202-0110, www.rivergolfclub.com.
Gordon Lakes Golf Club. Civilians $30, active duty military $15, military retirees $23. 537 Range Road, Fort Gordon. 706-791-2433. gordon.armymwr.com/gordon-lakes.
Augusta Museum of History. $4. 560 Reynolds St., Augusta. 706-722-8454, https://www.augustamuseum.org/.
Where to stay
The Partridge Inn. $101 and up. 2110 Walton Way, Augusta. 706-737-8888, partridgeinn.com.
The Willcox Hotel. $195 and up. 100 Colleton Ave., Aiken. 803-648-1898, thewillcox.com.
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