Catching up after a few glorious days of Lowcountry golf near Beaufort, SC

        For those dedicated readers wondering why your correspondent has been missing in action for the past week or so, the excuse is that I have been in the Lowcountry of South Carolina for a few days of some of the best golf you can enjoy in the southeast. My Connecticut friend Larry, a former work colleague during our corporate lives, maintains a “national” membership at Secession Golf Club near Beaufort, SC (that’s the one pronounced “byooh-fert” as opposed to the town of the same name in North Carolina, which is pronounced “beau-fert”). Most of the more than 700 members of Secession hail from some distance, including other countries. (I heard a few Scottish brogues in the clubhouse bar.) But no members anywhere -– or guests for that matter -– are treated any better than at Secession, where a doting staff, excellently trained caddies (they are mandatory, no carts available) and golf professional Mike Harmon, straight out of central casting for gregarious old pro, are well in evidence.

        Larry wasn’t kidding when he told me that if he couldn’t play golf anymore, he’d never give up his membership at Secession; he’d just have them wheel him out onto the deck that overlooks the 18th green and the expansive marsh beyond and shoot the breeze -- and enjoy the breezes –- with his fellow members. After three days of being cosseted at Secession, I perfectly understand his obsession with the place.

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The first shot at Secession plays over the marsh to a fairway that runs away the closer it gets to the green.  The hole is not long -- just 310 yards from the middle tees -- but greediness off the bat can make for a long day.

 

        Our first day at Secession was spent following a group of golfers attempting to make it through the first stage of qualifying for the U.S. Open. My son Tim was in the group of three that included a local boy, Mark Anderson, who played his junior golf at Secession after being “discovered” by Mike Harmon and other members. Anderson, who is 27, finished just outside the top 150 on the PGA Tour last year, earning more than $400,000 but was relegated to the Web.com tour this year. His ball striking was the best I had ever seen up close, and his putting was what we all dream of -- rarely a putt left short, never going too far past the hole but always giving it a chance to go in. His 40 footer that dropped early on the first nine helped set him up for a seven-under 65; he shared medalist honors with one other golfer. (Tim shot a 71, one of his best competitive rounds ever, finishing a stroke out of a playoff for an alternate’s position.)

        After the qualifying round, Larry and I drove 20 minutes for a round at Chechessee Golf Club, another club that opened some years ago with a “national member” model but which attracts more local golfers than does Secession. Chechessee is in Okatie, just a couple of miles from two excellent golf communities, Callawassie and Spring Island, whose Old Tabby Links is one of the top rated courses in the state and was recently renovated. (I plan to give it a go later this year.) The golf at Chechessee is high end but the layout differs substantially from Secession. I can’t recall a hole at Secession where the surrounding marsh was not in view or, in most cases, in play off the tee or on tricky, windblown approach shots to the slick greens. Chechessee is more of a parkland layout, somewhat protected from the windiest conditions, closer in style to the earlier holes at Hilton Head’s Harbour Town before that layout emerges onto the Calibogue Sound for its famed finishing holes.

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Surrounding trees prevent the prevailing winds from playing too much havoc with shots at Chechessee, but designers Coore and Crenshaw make sure other influencers, like well bunkered greens, make you think twice before you strike your shot.

 

        The greens at Chechessee, every bit as firm and slick as those at Secession, will play a bit more penal for the golfer who chooses the right club for approach shots but pushes or pulls them slightly off line. Virtually every green on the Coore/Crenshaw designed layout was elevated on one or both sides, making it very difficult to get chip shots close to pins. Only excellent lob wedge players will avoid stress and bogies at Chechessee.

        Secession tests all clubs in the bag equally, especially if the wind is blowing, as it so often does. With no out of bounds stakes (or homes) anywhere on the course, you find yourself with the occasional shot from the marsh, especially if the tide is out. Secession regulars, faced with a lay-up to 200 yards or a shot into the marsh to leave less than 150 yards, will often choose the latter. The aforementioned Mark Anderson went for one par-5 green in two and pulled his long fairway metal into the marsh 40 yards from the green; he blasted his third from the firm mud to 30 feet as if he had played the shot hundreds of times before (which he likely had).

        Secession appeals to “players,” those who make competent swings with all the clubs in their bag. You can get away with a few errant drives at Secession, if they occur at the more generous par 4s and 5s, but if you can’t hit the ball 200 off the tee at least, you will fall short on some of the forced carries. Right off the bat, the drive on the first hole must carry the marsh to a narrow-looking fairway that is closer to the tee box on the left but runs away on the right toward a small green. The knowledgeable caddies will ask how far you hit your drive and then point you to an appropriate landing zone; but you better hit it on that line or you will be playing from the marsh on one side of the fairway or the other.

        Pete Dye and Bruce Devlin -– the latter took over the design of the layout after founding members and Dye had a falling out over positioning of a green on the 14th hole –- place plenty of bunkers throughout the course but they are to be avoided as aggressively as you might steer around bunkers at the Old Course at St. Andrews, and for much the same reason: They are small and steep, with sodded faces, and if you find one, you are likely to be forced to come out sideways. I speak from personal experience.

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A few dead formerly live oak trees that dot the landscape at Secession add a note of foreboding before you attempt a windswept approach shot to the marsh-protected greens.

 

        There isn’t a bad hole at Secession, and I find myself thinking about what might be my favorite or the toughest or the most memorable. I can’t, which is testimony to how consistently good the course is hole to hole. I suppose the most iconic hole on the course, and the one that will invade the sleep of serious golfers most, is the 17th, a short par 3 with a green surrounded by marsh and held together by wooden bulkheads. We played it with a 20 mph crosswind, right to left both days, at 130 yards, which is pretty much the tips. A few meticulous members of Secession measured the green some years ago and then compared it to the size of Dye’s most famous par 3, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.  As you watch Tiger Woods and his fellow competitors play the 17th at the Player’s Championship final round today, and listen to the TV commentators moan about how difficult it is, consider that the green at Secession’s 17th is half the size of the TPC green. The good news is that if you make the green at Secession, you are virtually guaranteed a two-putt par, given the tiny size of the green. The bad news is the stuff of golfing nightmares.

        A few days at private courses like Secession and Chechessee are good reminders that serious golfers do not have to live inside the gates of a golf community to enjoy spectacular golf on a regular basis. The charming southern town of Beaufort is just 10 minutes from Secession, and for those who like both sterling golf and in-town living could do worse than combine the two. I’ll consider this type of combination in more depth in an upcoming edition of our free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course.  You can subscribe by clicking here.