By Tony Dear
Who doesn’t love the occasional trip to a top-100 course with its awesome architecture, near-perfect conditioning, and fancy clubhouse? Equally appealing though (to us, anyway) is the discovery of something altogether less glamorous, but a little more affordable and still hugely enjoyable.
In this series, we’re covering each region of the U.S. and nominating courses we think you’ll be happier for knowing. You may have heard of them, but we suspect most readers won’t have. This is our version of the American Dream—really good golf where everyone is welcome, everyone can afford to play, and everyone leaves knowing they’ve found something a bit special.
Aiken Golf Club—Aiken, S.C.
Since opening in 1912 as an 11-hole amenity of the Highland Park Hotel and being extended to 18 holes by club professional John Inglis three years later, The Aiken Golf Club has been through more than its share of ups and downs seeing multiple name, ownership, and status changes. A resort course, private club, municipal, and currently a public facility with a thriving members section, Aiken, 25 miles east of Augusta National, has to be one of the best value rounds in the country with weekday walking rates of just $22.
Brainerd Golf Course—Chattanooga, Tenn.
Donald Ross’s genius graces thousands of southeast acres at extremely private clubs, resorts, public facilities, and, in the case of Brainerd, municipals. Eight miles east of downtown, Brainerd opened in 1926, and while comparisons with Seminole, Pinehurst No. 2, and East Lake would be rather unfair, there’s enough Ross touches to satisfy enthusiasts. Green fees range from $15–$25.
Cleveland Heights Golf Course—Lakeland, Fla.
Opened as an 18-holer in 1925, Cleveland Heights was named after its owner’s hometown in Ohio. H.A. Stahl was a successful developer who purchased 560 acres two miles south of downtown and hired William Flynn and partner Howard Toomey to build the course. It was no Shinnecock Hills, but a Flynn design is a special thing nonetheless. And there aren’t many that you can play for $30–$35. A third nine was added in the 1980s.
Capital City Country Club—Tallahassee, Fla.
Covering beautiful, rolling ground with pines and moss-draped oaks all about you, Capital City C.C. began life as the Tallahassee C.C. in 1908 with nine holes laid out by England’s H.H. Barker. The course operated as a municipal for 21 years beginning in 1935 when A.W. Tillinghast advised on the addition of a second nine. In ’56, the city leased the course back to Tallahassee members who then assigned it to the newly-formed Capital City C.C., and it now operates semi-privately with public green fees ranging from around $35 to $65.
Mirimichi Golf Course—Memphis, Tenn.
Originally Big Creek G.C. and designed by Bob Mitchell, the course opened in 1976. Hearing it was about to be sold to developers, Memphis native Justin Timberlake bought it in 2009, renamed it Mirimichi—Cherokee for “place of happy retreat”—and, over the next five years (he sold it in 2014), is reported to have invested $16 million in upgrades, including a 2010 renovation by Bill Bergin. At its best, Mirimichi has the look and feel of something far better than its $30–$45 midweek rate suggests.
Mission Inn Resort and Club (El Campeón)—Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla.
First designed by Illinois’s George O’Neil in 1917 and remodeled by Scotland’s Charles Clarke nine years later, El Campeón (the Champion) is the highlight at Mission Inn, built by William J. Howey, one of Florida’s first great citrus growers. Play for around $50.
Palatka Golf Club—Palatka, Fla.
Sixty miles south of Jacksonville on the St. Johns River is the delightful town of Palatka where you’ll find a 1925 Ross design bordering the Ravine Gardens State Park. Like a lot of courses of a similar age, Palatka has been through hell and high water and came perilously close to closing in the 2000s before architect Bobby Weed stepped up with a group of backers and saved it. With a peak rate of $25, this is an incredible opportunity to play a Ross original.
Southern Pines Golf Club—Southern Pines, N.C.
Six miles southeast of Pinehurst you’ll find more Ross magic at this wonderful course owned by the Elks Lodge and whose first nine holes were laid out in 1906. Ross arrived in 1923 to redesign the original nine and add nine more, creating an intimate test that might not have the exposed sand of No. 2, but charms guests nonetheless. Rates range from $50–$80.
Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club—Temple Terrace, Fla.
Winding its way around an affluent suburb of northeast Tampa close to the banks of the Hillsborough River, Temple Terrace opened in 1922 and was designed by Tom Bendelow (one of his more than 600 courses in the U.S.). It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 2012, and is a stop on Florida’s Historic Golf Trail. Rates are in the $40–$50 range.
The Fields Golf Club—LaGrange, Ga.
Georgia architect Mike Young’s first-ever design, the course opened as Overlook Golf Links in 1989. After falling on hard times, it went up for sale in 2012 and Young couldn’t resist. He renamed it The Fields and has spent the last eight years improving every aspect of the operation with the help of his family. A simple, understated layout whose heaving, rolling terrain gives the course its character and challenge, The Fields has been strangely hidden for more than 30 years and is certainly due its moment in the spotlight. Like Aiken, The Fields offers one of the country’s best value rounds with rates ranging from $37 to $47.
Which clubs in the southeast would you recommend? Let us know in the comment section.