AIKEN — In the late 1990s, Jim McNair Jr. faced a difficult decision.
Highland Park Country Club, the municipal golf course that his father had purchased in 1959, was in need of a makeover. The greens were in poor shape, the fairways didn’t have much grass and golfers were beginning to grumble.
McNair had a few options but ultimately he went with his heart.
“We finally came to a point that every golf course comes to,” McNair said. “You have to make a very hard decision on which direction you go. And we made what we thought was an easy decision to preserve this incredible golf course that had been here long before our family ever took it over.”
McNair jumped on a bulldozer and, with the help of a small crew, literally transformed the municipal layout into a par-70, 6,048-yard layout from the championship tees. He made the small greens fun and challenging with plenty of contours. He improved the aesthetics with new stonework, fencing and lush fairways. He changed the name to Aiken Golf Club, a nod to the past and a promise for the future.
Now, as the club celebrates its centennial, the hard work is being recognized. Golfweek recently ranked Aiken Golf Club as the 13th-best place to play in South Carolina for courses that are accessible to the public. That comes on top of other awards that have given the club kudos for its charm and affordability.
“When we received state recognition from South Carolina that was incredible,” McNair said. “But to be recognized in a national golf magazine such as Golfweek, it exceeds any expectations we ever had. Our niche will always be as a great small venue for a small town, providing the best golf that we can provide.”
Aiken Golf Club, which is sandwiched between Hitchcock Woods and the downtown area, traces its origins back to the bustling Winter Colony scene of the early 1900s.
Wealthy Northerners came to Aiken for its mild winter climate, and they built “cottages” – mansions, really – to house their families and servants. They also brought with them a love of equestrian sports and golf.
The original Highland Park Hotel had burned down in 1898, but it was rebuilt in 1912. A four-hole layout had been built a few years before, but the new hotel expanded it to 11 holes. In 1916, the course gained fame as the first in the nation to offer women’s tees.
John R. Inglis, the club’s pro from 1915-1939, designed the seven-hole loop – now Nos. 8 through 14 – and ran the club in its formative years. By the late 1930s the Depression had forced the hotel to close, and the city of Aiken took ownership and renamed the course Aiken Golf Club.
The McNair family entered the picture in 1959 when McNair Sr. purchased it from the city and switched the name back to Highland Park.
The elder McNair had long been familiar with the course; in 1947, he shot a course-record 58 that still stands. A stalwart on the Duke University golf team that featured future Masters winner Art Wall Jr. and veteran pro Mike Souchak, McNair ran the club until the mid-1980s when he turned over the reins to his son.
McNair Sr. died in 2001, but he knew that his son was restoring the course.
“It has been a lifelong journey not only for me, but for my father,” McNair said. “I think he’d be very proud of where we’ve been and what kind of club we are now. He’d be very proud.”
The club recently held its third annual McNair Cup – the event that honors McNair Sr. – and the players marveled at the challenges presented by a course that plays just 6,048 yards from the medal tees.
Competitors and members were invited to a 100th birthday party, complete with cake, and McNair donned his knickers, white shirt, tie and Hogan-style cap. Later, he was surprised with a special presentation from golf shop manager Lorraine Morgan and her husband, Bill.
Inglis and legendary designer Donald Ross are generally given credit for the course’s design. With the work done by McNair in the late 1990s, the Morgans thought he should get equal billing as one of the layout’s co-designers.
“The whole idea about that was it’s not just about John Inglis and Donald Ross anymore,” Lorraine Morgan said. “It’s about him.”
During Masters Week, a team of course raters from Golfweek descended on Aiken Golf Club.
“We found a golf course that, despite being about 100 yards per hole shorter than the home of the Masters, still tested, teased and entertained us,” Bradley S. Klein wrote.
McNair said he had visualized his work plenty of times.
“It was an easy transition for me to go from growing up on this golf course, and I had basically redesigned it in my head a hundred times before I ever actually got on a bulldozer,” he said. “It was something that I felt like we should have done. It was something that we owed the city of Aiken, and it was something we owed this golf course to bring her back to the glory she had in the 1920s.”
Aiken Golf Club attracts a variety of golfers. Senior players enjoy the lack of length. Players on a budget enjoy the low cost. Scratch players enjoy the challenge when McNair sets the pins in difficult locations.
McNair isn’t content to rest on his laurels. A 9-hole putting course is named for his father. A new locker room area for members has been a welcome addition.
“We will continue to make improvements. There will be a time when the next generation will take over,” McNair said. “Golf courses are always changing, and I think we’ve really set the standard for what this golf course should be. I think the next 100 years will be exciting.”
Lorraine Morgan said a golfer who hadn’t been to the course in 35 years recently showed up to play with a friend.
“He couldn’t wait to go out there,” she said. “That was kind of fun to see.”
Tee It Forward is the initiative endorsed by the USGA and PGA of America to encourage golfers to move up one set of tees. It promotes faster play and more fun for the average golfer.
That’s nothing new at Aiken Golf Club.
“We’ve laughed and said we always believed in teeing it forward,” McNair said. “We are a true throwback golf course and we feel like the nostalgic, unique elements of our golf course going forward, our past is actually going to tell us where we go in the future.”