The Country Club of Charleston is adding to its rich golf history by hosting its first United States Golf Association event, the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
Just as the city of Charleston has its place as one of the first – if not the first –places golf was played in the United States, the Country Club of Charleston has been immersed in a rich golf history.
In the late 1700s, many of Charleston’s leading merchants were Scotsmen, who apparently imported their ancient game with them to the new country. Those Scottish merchants would meet on Harleston’s Green, which was roughly bordered by what is now Calhoun and Bull Streets, east of Rutledge. It was only natural that those informal gatherings would lead to the formation of the South Carolina Golf Club on Harleston’s Green on Sept. 29, 1786, only 32 years after the founding of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland.
No one knows for sure what happened to those clubs or the game of golf in Charleston during the 1800s. With the Jefferson embargo of 1808, much of the foreign commercial trade in Charleston declined and many of the merchants returned to Scotland. Harleston’s Green was also changing as streets were being laid and houses being built along Bull and Montagu Streets, infringing on what had been the playground of the Scottish merchants. However, it is certain from newspaper articles that golf was played in Charleston on Harleston’s Green from 1786 through 1799.
The game was probably played in Charleston during the 1800s, but there was apparently no organized club until the last year of the century. In 1899, the Chicora Park Golf Club was formed with a nine-hole course on what is now part of the old naval base.
When the federal government took that land to build the naval base, club members moved only a few miles and purchased the Belvedere Plantation, just north of Magnolia Cemetery and laid out a nine-hole course with sand greens. The newly named Charleston Country Club opened in 1901 with 300 members.
The club flourished and soon began playing challenge matches with other clubs from around the Carolinas. Those matches led to the formation of the Carolinas Golf Association during a meeting at the Charleston Country Club with clubs representing Charlotte, Columbia, Greenville and Wilmington.
By 1913, the club had become so popular that the course was enlarged to 18 holes and the sand greens replaced with grass. But Charleston’s northern industrial growth began crowding the club out and taking away its rural charm. In 1922, the club decided to purchase part of the McLeod Plantation property on James Island. This beautiful site, home of the club since its opening in 1925, consisted of 200 acres of marshland and 236 acres of high ground. The magnificent clubhouse was built on a bluff overlooking the city and the harbor.
Noted architect Seth Raynor was hired to design and build the golf course. Raynor, a protégé of C.B. McDonald, was one of the top young architects in a growing business. At the same time, he was designing Yeaman’s Hall Club in North Charleston. His work included such famed clubs as Fisher’s Island, Yale, Camargo and the Old White at The Greenbrier. He would have been credited with more, but died suddenly while designing Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula in 1926.
Raynor’s courses were notable for the recurring pattern of holes from famous Scottish golf courses, including the well-known “Redan” holes. The 11th hole at the Country Club of Charleston is a replica of the 15th hole at North Berwick and is so treacherous that legend has it that Sam Snead carded a 13 and Ben Hogan, when asked how he liked the hole, replied that it should be dynamited.
In 1927, Donald Vinton was hired as the club’s professional and brought in an assistant pro, Henry Picard, from his hometown of Plymouth, Mass. Picard became one of the top professional golfers in the country, winning 27 PGA Tour events, including the 1938 Masters Tournament and the 1939 PGA Championship, and was a member of the 1935 USA Ryder Cup Team. He was a longtime member of the Country Club after retiring in Charleston. When developers planned new homes along the 14th and 15th fairways in the 1990s, they named the street Picard Lane in honor of the old pro.
In October 1946, the first Azalea Festival golf tournament was organized by Tommy Thorne and Matt Moore, and became an annual April event at the club starting in 1947. Frank C. Ford won that first Azalea and also won in 1947, 1950 and 1952. His grandson, Frank Ford III, is a six-time Azalea champion, taking the title in 1982, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993.
Played each spring, the Azalea has become one of the top amateur events in the country, and includes among its winners 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson (a two-time Azalea victor), Casey Wittenberg and noted amateurs Dale Morey and Billy Joe Patton, in addition to the Fords. The Senior Azalea is also conducted annually at the club and since the early 1950s, the course has been the site of a national junior event for boys and girls, now known as the Beth Daniel Junior Azalea Championship. The club has also hosted the Carolinas Amateur six times as well as eight South Carolina Amateurs, the most recent in 1999 and won by future U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover.
On April 6, 1959, a Henry Picard Day was held in honor of the former pro and Masters champion. Ben Hogan was among the pros on hand to honor Picard. In 1975, club member Beth Daniel was honored with a reception after winning the Women’s Amateur Championship. She was the stroke-play medalist at the championship the ensuing year, but lost in the first round of match play. However, Daniel came back and won the championship again in 1977. Daniel won the women’s club championship in 1974 and 1975 and went on to become one of the top players on the LPGA Tour. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame. Her portrait, along with those of Picard and Ford, hangs in the lobby of the clubhouse.
During the late 1980s, a debate engulfed the membership over whether to renovate the golf course and the old clubhouse. While the members approved the go-ahead for the golf course renovation, the debate continued to rage over whether to renovate the old clubhouse or build a new smaller facility. But Hurricane Hugo solved the problem in September 1989 by causing extensive damage to the clubhouse.
That left the board little choice but to move forward with a complete renovation of the golf course and tennis facilities and construction of a new clubhouse. The new golf course officially opened for play on Nov. 1, 1990, and the magnificent new clubhouse was dedicated at a gala grand opening on Aug. 3, 1991.
The membership declined sharply with more than 90 members resigning while the club was closed for restoration after Hurricane Hugo. However, by January 1991, the appeal of the new modern facility and a first-class country club had attracted more than 100 new members. The class-A membership cap was raised from 420 to 440 and the exclusive, new Country Club of Charleston again had a waiting list.
More recently, long-range plans for the renovation of the clubhouse, golf shop, tennis facility, pool/fitness center and golf course were undertaken in 2000. The enlargement and renovation of the clubhouse was completed in April 2003. The tennis facility was also completed in 2003 and the golf shop in 2004. The renovated pool/fitness complex opened in 2005 with a new fitness center.
In March 2006, golf architect Brian Silva, an expert on Seth Raynor designs, was hired to restore the golf course. Using photographs of the original course, Silva restored 39 bunkers and the original berm in the 15th fairway was restored. All of the greens were cored out and a state-of-the-art irrigation, drainage and pump system was installed. The land adjacent to the ninth fairway was cleared and the short-game area was built based on a C.B. McDonald design of a “short course” featuring Redan- and Eden-style greens and numerous bunkers.
Now, this restored Seth Raynor gem will be getting worldwide attention as the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship will be broadcast around the country via the Golf Channel.