First US Golf Played in Charleston

Henry Picard, Masters Champion, 1938, golf pro
Henry Picard, Master's Champion 1938, was a long-time golf pro in Charleston. (mastersflags.com)

American Golf Rooted in Charleston

It's that time again: the azaleas are in bloom and pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches are at the ready. If you won't be in Augusta this weekend, perhaps you will be keeping track of the 82nd Masters Tournament on television in what promises to be an exciting competition (isn't it always?). You might be able to list Green Jacket winners and spout stats from some of the most famous and challenging holes in golf, but do you know where American golf got its start? Yep--you guessed it--right here in downtown Charleston, of course!

Harleston Green

The first shipment of golf equipment from Scotland to the Colonies was delivered to Charleston merchant David Deas in 1743 and contained 432 balls and 96 clubs, according to The Carolina Lowcountry, Birthplace of American Golf, 1786 (Charles Price & George C. Rogers, 1980). The authors claim that the earliest games of golf did not have 'greens' or teeing areas or even a set number holes. The crude holes were hard to see, so golfers sent their 'finders' (today's caddies) to stand next to the holes and yell 'fore' as a way of forewarning those nearby to the approaching shot, according to information on the Preservation Society of Charleston's website. A player would tee off at a distance of two club-lengths away from the just-completed hole. Golf balls were called 'featheries' because they were made of boiled feathers stuffed into stitched rawhide; clubs included a 'play club', several 'woods', and an iron for tight spots.

Harleston Green, 1786, downtown Charleston
Diorama illustrating the 1786 match at Harleston Green in downtown Charleston, created by R.N.S. Whitelaw and displayed at the Harbour Town Lighthouse Museum on Hilton Head Island. (Sarah Welliver/Island Packet via P & C)

The South Carolina Golf Club was formed in 1786 and formally announced in The Southern States Ephemeris: The North and South Carolina and Georgia Almanac for the Year of our Lord 1788. A newspaper announcement on May 28, 1788 requested club members to meet on "Harleston's Green" before adjoining to a local coffee house to attend club business. The 1795 annual meeting announcement included meeting at the "Club House" on Harleston's Green, indicating that the club now had a meeting house of their own. The last known announcement of the South Carolina Golf Club meeting was published in 1799. There was no mention of the South Carolina Golf Club found in public records after that year. It has been speculated that Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 played a part by limiting the commercial activity between Charleston and the UK. By this time, too, homes began to crowd around and eventually invade the area of Harleston Green. Where exactly was this segment of undeveloped pastureland on the peninsula that was also used for cattle shows and horse racing? Sources are not altogether in agreement: one suggests that Harleston Green occupied the land between Calhoun and Beaufain, from Rutledge to Barre; another cites between Calhoun and Bull, east of Rutledge, and yet another merely 'near the corner of Pitt and Bull Streets'. Anyway, we know that Harleston Green was indeed inside Harleston Village, which totally makes sense, and legend has it that Harleston Green's membership dues have been carried forward in today's parlance as 'Green Fees'. How 'bout that?

Belvidere Plantation House, Charleston Country Club, 1907
View of Charleston Country Club's clubhouse (Belvidere Plantation House), ca. 1907. Preservation Society of Charleston

Belvidere

By 1899, Charleston golfers reorganized and moved up to what would now be considered North Charleston, on the Cooper River, to the Chicora Golf Club Links--part of the large parcel being developed as a municipal park and gardens. The venue was short-lived, however, as the City sold Chicora Park to the United States Navy in 1901 to build the Navy Yard. Part of the money from the sale was used to purchase Washington Race Course from the Library Society and develop it into what we now call Hampton Park. There was not enough room there to construct a golf course, so the Charleston Country Club bought nearby Belvidere Plantation, which was closer to town, just north of Magnolia Cemetery and beautifully situated on the banks of the Cooper River. The circa 1800 plantation house was refurbished as a clubhouse, and a nine-hole golf course was laid out. In 1913, another nine holes was added to the golf course as the club grew in popularity. Automobiles made access easier, and in addition to golf and tennis, afternoon teas and dances, bridge games and rowboating were favorite pastimes at the County Club. After 20 years, however, the area was losing its bucolic charm. Industrial development of the land surrounding the club and golf course--Standard Oil's tank farms and Southern Railway's Cooper River coal pier--necessitated another move. But where to now?

Clubhouse at Wappo Links, 1940, Preservation Society
Clubhouse at Wappoo Links, ca. 1940. This clubhouse was considered one of the grandest buildings in the Southeast at the time. Preservation Society of Charleston

James Island and Beyond

The McLeod Plantation on James Island overlooking the Charleston harbor turned out to be the perfect spot. In 1922, the club bought 936 acres (700 of it marsh) of the old plantation site, constructed Wappoo Links Golf Course and built its clubhouse atop the Civil War-era Battery Means; it opened to much fanfare in 1925. The course was designed by the well-known landscape architect Seth Raynor, who built many seaside courses in the northeast but many say his finest is here in what is now called the County Club of Charleston. A few years later the, the Charleston Municipal Golf Course opened just a couple of miles across James Island near the Stono River on donated land with the understanding that it must always be used as such. James Island is certainly the earliest of Charleston's sea islands to lay out some golf courses, but by no means is it the only one. While many of our visitors come here for the history, Charleston has become quite the golf destination as well!

Now, if you bring up the topic of Charleston golf today, most thoughts will turn automatically to one course: the Ocean Course at Kiawah. That's understandable, as the top-ranking course hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup as well as the 2012 PGA Championship and the stunning setting on the Atlantic Ocean is at the top of many golfer's wish list. But the Charleston area has a lot more to offer players at local resorts--even Kiawah has four other golf courses and two each at Seabrook Island and Isle of Palms' Wild Dunes. Mt. Pleasant has some high-end golf choices at Charleston National, Dunes West Golf Club, and Rivertowne Country Club. Within an easy drive are the Links at Stono Ferry, the Golf Club at Wescott Plantation, and the Plantation Course at Edisto. Anybody played the Pine Forest Country Club up in Summerville? It's supposed to be a little hidden gem, often referred to by regulars as "Little Augusta." Wonder if they also offer pimento cheese sandwiches for $1.50?

Golf in the City

Okay, so we don't have a golf course on the peninsula these days, but there is an option that's probably even better. If you're in the city and you want to get in 18 holes by suppertime, all you need to do is hop over the bridge to Patriot's Point Links in Mt. Pleasant. With stunning panoramic views of the city and harbor, the course offers a challenging but relaxing game just minutes from downtown. If you haven't tried it, you definitely should!

S Plaza Court, Mount Pleasant, Penthouse, for sale, Lois Lane
282 S. Plaza Court, Penthouse 7, Mt. Pleasant, SC is listed for sale by Lois Lane.

Harbor Paradise

A stone's throw from Patriot's Point is the luxury condominium complex at the Renaissance on Charleston Harbor in Mt. Pleasant, where Lois currently has one of the penthouses for sale. Needless to say, the views are spectacular! This three-bedroom unit has an open floor-plan with balconies on both sides and views from every room. Amenities include a swimming pool overlooking the harbor, a gym, and a gathering room for parties and special occasions.