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  • Writer's pictureLucian@going2paris.net

The Little Course That Could


Aiken

May 6, 2022

Jim McNair vividly remembers when he first laid eyes on the site. He stood on the corner of it overlooking an old disused mining site that nature had spent the last 70 years gloriously reclaiming with native Kalmia and holly bushes and sparkleberry and pine. McNair was blown away by its potential.


“I mean, it was just wow!” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a great site to build a short course on.’”


That’s when the course architect – the one who had been hired to build a new facility for the USC Aiken golf team and the First Tee of Aiken on a portion of land that had been deeded to USC Aiken by the Graniteville Company – threw a bewildered look at McNair.


“No, Jim,” he said. “The site’s over here.”


When McNair turned around, what he saw took his breath away – and not in a good way. The man who rebuilt Aiken Golf Club and Cedar Creek into beloved local facilities, swears he’s not making it up.


“I pulled my foot out of my mouth and we walked the actual site that had been given to him,” McNair said. “It’s straight down the hill – a slope of about 20 percent all the way to Trolley Line Road. Heavily treed … you almost couldn’t walk there were so many trees.


“So I asked the architect, ‘What are your plans?’ He said, we’re going to take out every tree and grass the entire 60 acres. Straight down the hill.”


The alarms immediately went off in McNair’s head. Once that site was cleared of trees, he was convinced one really hard rain – and South Carolina has had its share of those in recent years – and all the sandy soil underneath would wash straight down across the road and into the YMCA parking lot across the street. “It was an accident waiting to happen,” McNair said.


McNair, 64, had been brought in “late to the party” as he calls it and “by accident” according to Tony Allman, the board chair for the First Tee of Aiken. Allman was paying his green fee at Aiken GC in 2020 and introduced himself to the man behind the counter, McNair. Before he could finish explaining who he was, McNair heard the words “First Tee” and made a bold promise.


“Tony, I’m going to help you build that facility,” McNair said.


“And it was not going to happen without that – part financially and part his drive to do it,” Allman says.


After his original site visit, however, McNair told Allman that he couldn’t be involved on that site.

“It’s unbuildable,” he said.


But McNair couldn’t shake what he’d seen in the opposite direction on the same property also owned by USC Aiken – part of a 300-acre site the school had already used a piece of to build its Convocation Center and baseball stadium. McNair dug into the history of the property to discover that Highway 1 had been rerouted around the land in the early 1950s so that they could mine sand and chalk to make porcelain. Then they just abandoned it before the decade was over.


If USC Aiken was willing to change directions and switch to the 38 acres covering that overgrown chalk mine, McNair said he could do something special at a fraction of the cost with land that has something blooming on it all four seasons.


“Tony calls me a month later and says the university agreed to it,” McNair said. “He said to put a proposal together as far as what it’s going to take to build it, and we did. And they took a huge leap of faith and confidence in what I did at Aiken (GC).”


And that’s how The Chalkmine was born and built from scratch by Three Amigos Golf – McNair, Cedar Creek superintendent Gary Frazier and good friend Brent McGee. The three of them first got together 22 years ago and rebuilt Aiken Golf Club into what’s become a local cult favorite.


“We reunited on this project,” McNair said of the three-man turnkey operation that worked seven days a week to build it in just less than a year. A timber company in Edgefield cleared what they wanted out of it, and they contracted a heavy equipment company out of Columbia to dig out the stumps and dug a huge hole for them to burn and bury on-site. They rented the two biggest bulldozers they could find and pushed dirt around for a month to shape a driving range. They had a well installed and put in 4,000 feet of drainage pipe and a 167-head irrigation system.


McNair designed the nine-hole short course and separate short-game areas for both the First Tee and USC Aiken. The three of them built all greens to USGA specs, laid down 75,000 square feet of sod and sprigged with Latitude 36 Bermuda grass for the surrounds and Mach I ultradwarf Bermuda grass for the greens.


“It’s fantastic. The course isn’t a true requirement for a First Tee, but it’s a huge plus to have it. It will keep the kids more interested and motivated to be more involved in the program.” – Tony Allman


Now completed, McNair maintains it for them with the help of an assistant superintendent, adding it to his portfolio along with Aiken and Cedar Creek. “It’s not a lot to take care of, but the range is about 12 acres and we’ve got 16,000 square feet on 14 greens to walk mow,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty much manicured like a regular golf course.”


Allman said McNair’s team did it all for about half of what they’d originally projected the costs would be – money they didn’t have yet and wouldn’t have been able to have even started constructing yet without McNair’s intervention.


The Chalkmine is modeled after Pinehurst’s Cradle, only with more diverse land to utilize. The nine-hole short course stretches out to 840 yards from the tips. No. 1 can play to 115 yards; the downhill fifth is also 115; and the ninth hole can play as long as 140 yards from back tee to back pin. In between is a mix of holes as short as 63 yards (No. 3, Leap of Faith) but mostly in the 74- to 90-yard range.


“The vibe out here is amazing,” said George Bryan, the former South Carolina golfer whose Bryan Bros Golf YouTube video of the first full round played there went viral thanks to his ace on the 75-yard eighth, called Red Rock for its distinctive weathered clay outcroppings behind it.


Some of the holes are harder than their short yardage might suggest, with forced carries to small targets, but there is a circuit of a few holes that young beginning golfers can handle without much trouble.


The golf team is already using the facility, and the First Tee should be moved into a 1,500-foot temporary building by June 1. The expanded space, more centrally located to the population center than where they were operating out at Houndslake Country Club before, should allow the First Tee to almost double its programming to reach more kids.


It also may allow USC Aiken, which has been a Division II men’s golf powerhouse, to fulfill its long-range plan of adding a women’s program.


“It’s fantastic,” Allman said of what McNair has built. “The course isn’t a true requirement for a First Tee, but it’s a huge plus to have it. It will keep the kids more interested and motivated to be more involved in the program.


“This facility is a safe place. It’s something we can control and be able to have different levels of our participants be challenged for their level of ability. They will feel comfortable being there and able to challenge themselves as much as they want. Hopefully the next (USC Aiken alumnus and PGA Tour pro) Scott Brown can come out of there.”


USC Aiken and the First Tee have agreed not to have the course be open for public play, leaving it for the Pacers’ golf team, limited student access and First Tee programming. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have opportunities for people to come out and experience it through donation packages, open houses and potential fundraising platforms when the golf world visits Augusta annually for the Masters.


“We won’t ever be open to the public, however we’ll find ways for people who want to try it out to try it out,” Allman said.


McNair hopes it will get some exposure, perhaps through fundraising programming pitting the Bryan brothers, George and PGA Tour pro Wesley, against local golf stars Brown and Kevin Kisner. “I just want it to be successful,” McNair said.


In the eyes of the First Tee and USC Aiken, it already is beyond their expectations.


“I’m very proud of it and proud of Jim for what he’s done for us,” Allman said.

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