A Small Golf Town in South Carolina Warms to the Glow of Masters’ Halo

(Bloomberg) – Golf pro Zac Blair has been trying to build a golf course under his Buck Club brand for years. But they found no success until summer 2020 when they purchased a Sandy spot in Aiken, SC

Suddenly there came a flood of interest. His fellow PGA Golfers started to ring him up, asking for Tours. Acclaimed designer Tom Doak, the architect behind Pacific Dunes and Ballyneal, signed on.

The draw? Aiken is only a 30-minute drive to Augusta National, home to the annual Masters Tournament, which will begin on Thursday, April 7th.

Known as a horse-riding paradise, Aiken has long benefited from the halo effect of the Masters. The private Palmetto Golf Club, the oldest continually run course in the country, opens its Donald Ross layout to the public during the week of the tournament, charging $ 1,400 for a round. Another club, Champions Retreat, features three courses — one designed by Jack Nicklaus, another by Arnold Palmer — that run through the area’s tall, graceful Pines.

The economic impact on the city of Augusta, Ga., Is estimated to be around $ 100 million. Visit Augusta officials say they don’t keep such figures, but report that in 2019, before the Covid-19 Pandemic, hotels — which routinely sell out a year in advance — sold $ 26 million in rooms. Augusta schools stage spring break during the week of the Masters, allowing locals to rent out their homes and leave town. Their properties are often spruced up leading to the big week, bringing work for landscape crews, carpenters, and plumbers.

The Masters’ draw extends to Aiken and its population of about 30,000. This year the town has extended its Masters programming to the entire week of the tournament. Beginning with the Aiken Horse show this weekend, every night will feature a different event: art walks, live music, and even community theater.

Like Augusta, Aiken takes on a festive air during the Masters. It sees a considerable spike in demand for food and beverages, as well as a surge in accommodation taxes paid during the month of April.

It’s a hotbed of golf activity these days, too. Blair’s concept, called Tree Farm, isn’t the only new course under construction. The second new course, Old Barnwell, is being developed by entrepreneur Nick Schreiber. Both aim to open in fall 2023.

“The more I learned about building a golf club, I saw it was important to think about where people were traveling from,” Blair says. “Aiken appealed to me because we can get people here during the winter.”

Weather wasn’t the only factor. The Sandy soil in Aiken is prized in golf construction because it allows contours to be built into a golf course, often by digging down rather than having to build up by hauling in fill material. Interior land in South Carolina is also less costly than near the coast.As Schreiber puts it when talking about his Old Barnwell project, “It would have been five to ten times more expensive to buy 575 Acres within an hour of Charleston.”

Schreiber isn’t out merely to create a Testament to good golfing architecture; Old Barnwell’s mission is to be inclusive, too. Though it may sound curious for a private club, Schreiber seeks to attract members who will wish to give back to the local community. “Aiken has a deep sporting heritage,” Schreiber saysd.

The mission involves granting facility access to golf teams from Paine College and Voorhees College, two nearby HBCUs, as well as sponsoring four aspiring female golfers for 12 months, and hosting local kids’ clinics. The maintenance apprenticeship program is planned to provide a working ladder into the golf industry.

Blair believes Proximity to Augusta will hold his club in good stead. He expects the four Cabins at Tree Farm, each of which can house 12 people, to eventually be filled for the 10 days leading up to the tournament, as well as during it. “If we get a bunch of members from around the country, they’ll have a cool place to play that week,” he says, “which is what I thought made building a club here special.”

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