After his first
round in the 1984 Masters, Ben Crenshaw got in a car and drove 20 miles to
Aiken, S.C., and the relic of a course there, the Palmetto Golf Club. He parked
in the visitors' lot, an odd-shaped field of dirt and rocks, and walked over to
the sagging pro shop manned by Tom Moore, who finds gutta-percha balls on his
course after heavy rains. � Crenshaw looked around. No dining room. No tennis
court. No swimming pool. A Stanford White clubhouse, but not a big sprawling
building like the one White designed for Shinnecock Hills, just a cozy
structure that practically leaned onto the 1st tee. Crenshaw headed out,
tumbling off the 1st tee and into the 19th century.
changed in the 23 years since. "It's pure golf," Crenshaw said last
week. "Just golf. And so, so pure. The holes fit the land
as a four-hole course in 1892, is a private club that opens its doors to the
public one week a year, Masters week. For $750, a foursome can play a
6,300-yard, par-71 course, all mounds and slopes and hollows, with solid-steel
tee markers made from pieces of train rail. (You don't kick them more than
once.) At Palmetto you're playing a course that has been shaped by Herbert
Leeds, Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Rees Jones and Tom Doak, among others.
Since a Ramada Inn in Augusta was charging more than $400 a night for a single
last week, paying $750 for a foursome to play the beguiling Palmetto course
seems a bargain. Bob Wood, who runs the Nike golf business, was a visitor last
week, signing a poster with his name and a swoosh. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's
tournament director, was there too. For the modern golf executive, going to
Palmetto is like taking some sort of ritual bath, a reminder of the game that
first sucked you in.
(the club's, not the tree's) are patrician. Aiken was a winter colony for rich
Northerners during a bygone time, and the names of the early members are out of
the Social Register: Hitchcock, Whitney, Harriman, Byers, Grace (of the
steel-producing Graces). Also George Herbert Walker, progenitor of a famous
golf cup and, yes, two U.S. presidents. Now the club is populated by area
people working regular jobs: plumbing contractors, engineers, the sports editor
of The Augusta Chronicle. "If I can get in," John Boyette, that editor,
said last week, "anybody can."
Rees Jones, who
gets to Palmetto once a year, during Masters week, first played the course at
the invitation of an old friend, Bobby Goodyear, one of the few Palmetto
golfers who is also a member at Augusta National. Jones suggested some changes
to the course, mostly in the area of bunker restoration, and oversaw the
project. "I did the work for free because I love the place, and they have
no money," Jones says. One of the things he likes best about Palmetto is
that the members have no airs.
One year during
Masters week old Tom Moore squeezed in the Jones foursome in front of a group
"Who the hell
are you guys?" one of the aggrieved golfers asked Jones.
Michael Bonallack, who runs the R&A," Jones said. "That's David
Fay, who runs the USGA. That's David Eger, who runs the USGA
who the hell are you?"
Palmetto--where golf is simple, interesting, unmanicured and fast in every
way--can be found all over Scotland and Ireland. In the U.S. they are
double-eagle rare. When you find those conditions in American golf, they're
generally at an old-line club that the public can't sniff: Maidstone, on Long
Island; Newport, in Rhode Island; Sankaty Head, on Nantucket. "You find
courses like that where there are people who understand that scruffiness is a
traditional golfing value," says Jones. "Where people are comfortable
enough with who they are that they're not using their golf course as a status
symbol." The curse of modern golf, to Jones and not many others, is that
everybody tries to outdo everybody else. Augusta on TV has a lot to do with
that. Palmetto is immune to it.