Greenville and Columbia, SC, Feature Both Great Golf and Lodging at Great Rates

For those of us in New England, certainly, and for almost all other winter-bound golfers, as well, the golf season doesn’t really begin until that first full week in April in Augusta, Georgia. With the beautiful azaleas in the background and the world’s best players in the foreground, the Masters ushers in the competition, the better weather, and the camaraderie that too many of us have missed for the past few months.

For those New England patrons lucky enough to have secured access to this year’s tournament for any one or more of those seven days, April 3-9, life couldn’t be better. Or maybe it could! I have a suggestion for those golfers who are making that hallowed sojourn: take your clubs with you and enjoy at least four of South Carolina’s best golf courses either before or after the event. And avoid all the hectic brouhaha that is part and parcel of flying into Atlanta and traveling east on I-20.

I took this trip last year, and I plan to do something similar again this coming April.

The Allure of Greenville and Columbia

South Carolina, you ask? Absolutely, I say, and I don’t mean Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, either. The destinations I have in mind—with very affordable lodging and golf—are Greenville and Columbia. Not that you have to visit these two cities only in March or April. Hardly. The locals play golf at their excellent layouts all year long, with only January and February as the two suspect months.

Here’s the rationale for the Masters golf vacation in the Greenville and Columbia areas. First, the Greenville Spartanburg Airport (GSP) is a highly regarded regional airport that puts you right in the middle of The Upcountry action. Second, Columbia, which is in the Midlands/Lake Murray Country and about 90 minutes from Greenville, is on I-20 and about one hour from Augusta.

Southwest Airlines can get you and your two free bags to Greenville from all major New England airports with one stop (sometimes two) in between. GSP is located close to I-85 and affords a short drive to the city itself. Greenville is a college town with Furman, Clemson, Wofford, and Bob Jones nearby. By the way, both Furman and Clemson have celebrated courses. A zoo, state parks, museums (including the Museum of Art with a large collection by Andrew Wyeth), and many distinctive restaurants with regional fare make the city a tourist destination on its own.

South Carolina

The Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort and The Preserve at Verdae

The Embassy Suites and The Preserve at Verdae

Our trip starts with a short drive from GSP to our first hotel, the modern and luxurious Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort and Conference Center. We will have a free Wi-Fi, two-room suite with plenty of space to hang out and relax and to watch the two large flat-screen TV’s. A lavish breakfast buffet with eggs-made-to-order will prepare us for our daily round of golf, and the 5:30-7:30 “Manager’s Reception” with complimentary cocktails and snacks will be a fitting end to that round of golf.

Sharing a parking lot with the Embassy Suites is the The Preserve at Verdae, a marvelous Willard Byrd championship golf layout. We’ll just walk over to the clubhouse, get a cart, and then drive to the multi-level, grass driving range to hit a few balls. A separate chipping and practice bunker area and a large practice putting green are also available if you need time to shed some of the winter’s rust from your game.

The Preserve is one of three courses utilized in the mid-May Web.com Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am Presented by SYNNEX Corporation. A favorite of the pros over the years, The Preserve shares the event this year with the Thornblade Club and the Furman University course. Last year’s winner was Massachusetts native Richy Werenski, who has played himself onto the PGA TOUR for 2017.

The Preserve’s motto is “Striving for Harmony Between Golf and Nature.” Byrd has created a course that lessens the impact on the environment with reduced pesticides and water usage, and the course has been honored as one the country’s “Environmental Leaders.” Besides playing the up-and-down pristine layout that sits at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you will have five tees from which to choose—from the tips at 7021 yards to the forward tees at 5022. Byrd has carved his par-72 layout throughout the lush Carolina forest and the many mountain brooks.

What also makes The Preserve special is that it is the only course in the area that has drought-resistant Mini Verdae Bermudagrass greens along with Bermuda tees and fairways. The greens are large and gently undulating, allowing for subtle breaks and lots of pin placements. They stimp between 9-10. To identify the variety of terrain, each hole has a given name like “Wildflower,” “Valley,” “Fowl Play,” “Sitting Duck,” and “Crossing Creek.”

South Carolina

The downhill fourth hole at River Falls, a demanding par 5

Onward to River Falls Plantation

The second must-play Greenville-area course is River Falls Plantation Golf Club, another scenic and demanding course that is a favorite of the locals—and for good reason. Set in the South Carolina foothills with spectacular elevation changes and scenery, this Gary Player Signature Design wends its way around lakes, streams, and the South Tyger River. The rolling Diamond Zoysia greens run around 10.5-11 on the Stimpmeter and are fraught with frequent water hazards and many Gary-Player-made dangers, especially his deep sand bunkers. Another outstanding practice area gives you time to warm up and assess the speed of the putting green.

The course is definitely a shotmaker’s venue with an added emphasis on the short game because of the difficulty of hitting the greens in regulation. Then the greens will ask for a deft touch. The course is not long with the tips at 6520 yards and the forwards at 4697, but the five tee options will give you the opportunity to find a comfortable distance for your game. Accuracy, not length, is the key to River Falls.

The Diamond Zoysia greens roll true and fast and have admirable tolerance to shade, high traffic, and cooler weather. They remain a vibrant green throughout most of the year and green up quickly in the spring. They are fun to read and can be a real trial to putt; however, the entire course is a pleasure to play. Just wait and see.

Wingate by Wyndham in Columbia

The driving distance to Columba is around 100 miles, but the route is all interstate on I-26. We have now left the SC Upcountry and will soon arrive at The Wingate by Wyndham (Columbia/Lexington at 108 Saluda Pointe Drive). It is another luxury hotel and the gateway to Augusta. Like the Embassy Suites, the Wingate’s breakfast buffet and Manager’s Reception are enjoyable ways to begin and end the day. Most importantly, the cost of the Wingate at around $100 a night is three to four times less than whatever you can find in or near the Masters.

The Wingate is located on I-20 and only one hour away from Augusta. Going west to the Masters is much less crowded on the interstate than the I-20 crowd coming from Atlanta. Also, the exits to the Masters from the west allow you to avoid so much of the stop-and-go traffic from Atlanta and promote a much easier entrance to the parking lots near Augusta National.

South Carolina

The scenic, par-3 second hole on Cobblestone Park’s Golf Course.

The Garnet, Black, and Gold of Cobblestone Park

And, for our golf vacation, the Wingate is close to the best golf experience in the area—Cobblestone Park Golf Club, one of the “Top 30 Courses to play in South Carolina.” Once the home of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks golf teams, it is still used by the women’s team and has been the site of the Women’s SEC Championship.

Cobblestone was originally known as the University Club, an exclusive, private club. The superb 27-hole track is now open for limited daily fee play. With four sets of tees, each nine flows with the rolling contour of the countryside. Tall oaks and whispering pines guard the wide landing areas, and strategically placed bunkers and lakes and creeks often come into play. A main concern is keeping the ball on the proper side of the wide but sloping fairways because errant balls will roll with the topography into the heavy rough or, even worse, into those oaks and pines or bunkers and lakes and creeks.

The panoramic views from elevated tees and greens are splendid. The Garnet, par 35, from 3304 to 2276 yards, and the Black, par 36, from 3484 to 2352 yards are the two nines that the members prefer, but the Gold, par 35, at 3105 to 2337 yards is no stepchild. All three share the same beautifully manicured conditions from tees through fairways, and all sport large, and often tiered greens that are fast and true.

PGA Masters

The superb finishing hole at Timberlake CC on Lake Murray

The Last SC Hurrah at Timberlake

OK, you’ve gone to the Masters, and it’s time to return to Greenville for the flight home. One final treat awaits you on the shores of Lake Murray, the “jewel of South Carolina,” just off I-26 on the way to GSP. Timberlake Country Club is another Willard Byrd delight and the only golf course on Lake Murray, and it has docks for members who prefer to arrive in their boats instead of driving.

The par-71 layout extends throughout the Timberlake Plantation community, but the upscale homes never interfere with play or wayward shots. The same cannot be said of Lake Murray, lagoons, brooks, and the 50 bunkers. Only two holes, 10 and 18, are parallel. The other 16 are fashioned throughout the Midlands dense forest, isolated and separated from any outside intrusions. Of course, the local flora and fauna are ubiquitous and well worth the scrutiny, but they can hardly be considered intrusions.

Along with the expected up-and-down elevation changes from tee to green, the course intersperses right and left doglegs, flat and hilly lies, and water hazards (mostly larger bodies of H2O) on seven of the 18 holes. Six sets of tees add to the playability of the layout—the tips are 6579 yards and the most forward are 4012. Just like with River Falls, the distance is not a deciding factor; keeping the ball in play and hitting it onto the green (or somewhere safe near the green) are what count here.

The Champion Dwarf Bermudagrass greens are the perfect putting surface for this layout, and the speed at around 10 on the Stimpmeter requires both a good read and the proper pace. Stroking the ball on 2000 square foot practice putting green is a necessary precursor for the real thing.

Although each hole is different and testing, and so many are memorable in their own right, number 18 is one of the best finishing holes you’ll ever play. A par 5 (measuring 483, 460, 420, 385, 380, and 290 yards from the six tees), you have a blind tee shot to an elevated fairway. Stripe the drive and the downhill, elongated green will be in view and very reachable in two—if you have the nerve. Lake Murray will serve as the repository if the second shot is at all mishit, but a layup will still bring Lake Murray into play on the short but exacting third shot. Because of the size and shape of the green, the pin locations can change three-clubs from front to back.

Experts to Consult and Jason Day Wins

Needless to say, I had a superior vacation last spring that revolved around the 2016 Masters and the unexpected victory of Danny Willett. However, no way could I have put such a trip together—the best in lodging and golf at reasonable prices—on my own. I had the crucial assistance of three experts, upon whom I will depend again.

Tim Todd, executive director of Upcountry SC, was my host in the Greenville area. Miriam Atria, CEO of Lake Murray Country, showed me the high spots around Columbia. Ricky Saucier, owner of Golf Packages of SC, planned the tee times and ran the interference. All I had to do was show up when and where their itineraries stated. Nice. Their websites are the names of their businesses. Take a look. You’ll be impressed.

Now as far as the 2017 Masters is concerned, both my wife and I have separately picked Jason Day for our “Pick the Pro” Fantasy Golf contests. My wife and I rarely agree on anything of such importance. So, yeah, Jason will add this major to his 2015 PGA Championship. Take it from us: the Aussie is a lock!