When local golfers look back on 1998, they'll probably think about how a new golf course on the banks of the Savannah River finally opened and how another one was upgraded.
The River Club of North Augusta, a Jim Fazio creation, is expected to be greeted with rave reviews when it opens its doors later this winter.
The course is built on land between the 13th and Fifth Street bridges that has been earmarked for a golf course since the early 1990s. This time, under a new ownership group called North Augusta Golf Venture, the promise will finally be realized.
When the River Club does open in late February or early March, it will be the first new course in Aiken County since the Cedar Creek Golf Club opened in 1991.
This year will also bring about course improvements at the venerable Augusta Golf Club. Two weeks ago, the city approved a $1.7 million improvement plan.
The improvement plan calls for a new irrigation system, the re-routing to the left of the fairway on the 15th hole to allow for a new driving range, a new 18th green, a new maintenance building and a new clubhouse. The finishing hole will be changed from a par 5 to a par 4. All of the improvements, with the exception of the new clubhouse, should be completed in 1998.
On the PGA Tour, four golfers with area connections will be members. Augusta native Larry Mize, Aiken's Hugh Royer III and former Augusta College golfer Taylor Smith return. Thomson's Franklin Langham is back after losing his card in 1996. Former Augustan Stiles Mitchell has qualified for the Nike Tour this year.
None of the area's PGA Tour golfers are playing in this week's season-opening Mercedes Championship since that is limited to winners from the 1997 season.
Langham, who played on the PGA Tour in 1996, finished in a tie for fourth place in December's PGA Tour Qualifying tournament to earn another shot. He'll be in the field for next week's Bob Hope Classic.
"I'm happy to get another chance at it," Langham said. "It's no different than with someone else's job, nothing can replace experience. I'm going to try to draw off that this year."
This will be the last year the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga., will have a May date. Starting in 1999, the tournament will be the PGA Tour's prelude tournament to the Masters.
On the local competitive level, the Augusta State golf team has one of its strongest squads in years and is expected to play its way into the NCAA Championship. Augusta, which is led by senior Vaughn Taylor and freshman Robert Duck of England, last played in the NCAA's in 1994. The Jaguars are currently riding their first-ever top 10 ranking in the NCAA Coaches poll. In Augusta's four fall tournaments, the Jaguars had two first-place finishes and two second-place finishes.
The USC Aiken golf team, which challenged for the NCAA Division II national championship in the mid-1990s, should qualify for its national championship tournament this year.
A slightly revamped Cadillac Cup amateur golf series will crank up in the spring, though all the dates have not been finalized. The eight-tournament series will include the Festival of Flowers tournament in Greenwood, S.C., for the first time. One of the premier tournaments in the series, the Aiken Golf Classic, will have a new name, the Palmetto Amateur, in honor of the fact the event is played at the historic Palmetto Golf Club.
Dale Overcash of Aiken will seek to join Taylor (1995-96) as the only golfers to win back-to-back Cadillac Cup player of the year titles.
Also, area golf television enthusiasts will have a new channel to watch when The Golf Channel debuts on Jones Intercable on February 1.
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