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Secession Golf Club

Pure golf and a relaxed, fraternal atmosphere reign at this South Carolina enclave that has gained an international reputation as one of golf’s best retreats

By: Hunki Yun

Appeared in 2010 LINKS Premier Clubs

Mike Harmon, the director of golf at Secession Golf Club, likes to take members on golf pilgrimages to Scotland. On one trip several years ago, Harmon was waiting to tee off at one of his favorite courses, Royal Dornoch Golf Club, when he overheard two local caddies behind him arguing about their upcoming loops.

“I get them this time.”

“No, you got them last time. It’s my turn.”

And so on. When Harmon turned around, he saw that they were talking about which caddie would get to carry the bags emblazoned with the distinctive Secession logo, which is made up of a pair of battle flags from the Civil War.

Such is the reputation of the membership at Secession, located in Beaufort, the town in southeast South Carolina where the Articles of Secession that led to the Civil War were drafted. Despite the name, Secession is all about inclusion, camaraderie and a sense of belonging, whether you are a member, guest or employee.

At places like Royal Dornoch, where golf is not just a game but a passion, those in the know realize that to be a member of Secession is to be known as a “good guy,” the highest compliment that can be bestowed in the patois that permeates the community of pure, serious golfers.

These purists are the types of members who are drawn to Secession, which has been a walking-only club since opening in 1992. They are the types of good players (more than two-thirds of members have single-digit handicaps) who truly appreciate the challenges and nuances of the 7,068-yard layout that encourages players to hit old-school shots like knockdowns, bump and runs and long putts from off the green. 

They are the types of hardcore golfers who love to play 36 holes at a minimum before relaxing with a drink on the clubhouse’s wraparound porch, which offers views of the 18th hole, 1st tee and the marsh beyond—a Lowcountry scene out of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.

“I believe the Secession experience is unequaled in the golf world,” says President Stephen Smith. “It is not about business or prestige. Rather, it is all about the love of golf, friendships and relaxation. It is a serene place to escape from the cares of the world for a few days.”

The brainchild of Bob Walton and Tim Moss, Secession was conceived in the mid 1980s, a period in which golf seemed to be headed inexorably toward lush conditioning, target golf, carts everywhere and real estate. 

Instead, Secession defied convention with a firm-and-fast course that encouraged the ground game. It also had a strong caddie program (there are only two carts on the property) and no homes. Its forebears were places like Pine Valley and the Honors Course, clubs with predominantly national members who would visit once or twice a year with guests.

“The timing was right for a club like this,” says Harmon, a former tour player who joined Secession in 1987, five years before the course opened. “We sold 300 memberships on the concept alone.”

Pete Dye was originally tapped to design the layout, but he and his son P.B. soon stepped aside for Australian Bruce Devlin, who won eight times on the PGA Tour and was a television commentator for NBC and ESPN before embarking on a third career as course architect.

Devlin employed the database built during his worldwide travels to complete a links-style layout through the marsh, giving the course a distinctive coastal Carolina flair. The unique character is apparent from the 1st hole, a 362-yard Cape design that is nearly drivable for longer players.

While there is a risk in going for a longer carry to set up a shorter pitch, shots landing short aren’t necessarily lost, especially at low tide. It is very possible to find balls in the reeds and even play recovery shots from them. 

A “Secession par” out of the marsh is satisfying, and in the manner of a baseball player who walks off the field with a dirt-splattered uniform, handing over a pair of muddy shoes to the locker-room attendants, Buddy and Tully, is a badge of honor. (Still, expect to catch some grief from them for hitting it in the marsh in the first place.)

Although every hole has some sort of hazard, nearly every green is open in front, allowing for run-up approaches to the firm greens. The only exception is the island-green 17th. Although it is just 134 yards, the 20-yards-across green is a much smaller target than the comparable-length 17th at TPC Sawgrass, which is 10 yards wider.

The 17th is the most dramatic of a series of holes, starting at the 13th, on which players have plenty of options, making them perfect for match play. On the 471-yard 13th, players must challenge a deep pot bunker on the right side of the wide fairway for the best angle to the plateau green, which falls off steeply to the left.

The 493-yard 16th is a reachable par 5 with a green that sits diagonally left to right, with the marsh left and a large bunker right. Depending on the hole location, the best play can be short of the green, in the bunker or over the green into a relatively flat chipping area.

On the final hole, which measures 446 yards, players can cut off as much of the dogleg left as they want. Depending on the wind, the second shot could be anything from a flip wedge to a 3-wood.

A late afternoon walk to the final green, flanked by the marsh on the left and the clubhouse with the inviting porch on the right, is one of golf’s great sights. And it will always be a walk. “We take pride in saying that there will never be more than two golf carts on the course,” says Smith.

This layout is the perfect venue for the club’s myriad events, including the Blue-Gray, in which members from the North play against those from the South in a Ryder Cup-style competition. The Civil War-era replica cannon, which sits in the middle of the circular driveway in front of the clubhouse, points north or south during the year depending on which side is victorious in this annual rite.

Whether members come for events or on their own with guests, they know that they will leave several days later more relaxed and more fulfilled. Because while the Secession experience starts with the golf course, it encompasses everything: a stay in the 12 clubhouse guest rooms or 11 cottages, the warm welcome from the club’s staff, the Lowcountry fare in the dining room—and, of course, just sitting on the porch.

Even occasional visitors can fully appreciate Secession’s restorative qualities. Last year, member Charles Reynolds was a guest at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island. Reynolds was changing his shoes in the locker room when a Shinnecock member noticed the Secession logo on his cap. The pair then got to comparing their respective clubs. “He concluded that while Shinnecock is his favorite course,” Reynolds recalls, “Secession is his favorite place to play.”

Although Secession is about getting away, there is a real-world side to the club. To honor the memory of Jeff LeVeen and Stephen Roach, two members who died in 9/11, the membership founded the LeVeen-Roach Scholarship Fund, to which members have contributed more than $1 million for area students.

While Secession started as the vision of two men, the club’s 750 members, 700 of them national (residing more than 100 miles from the club), have been entrusted with its preservation as the club approaches its third decade. In addition to decorating the clubhouse by donating photos and artwork of their home clubs, they have infused the club with the laid-back warmth, camaraderie and respect for the game that have given the club its international reputation.

“Secession is not for everybody,” says Harmon. “But as long as the beer is cold and the greens are firm and fast, the club will ring true for our members.”

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