There's more to golf in Augusta than Bobby Jones' masterpiece

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Misconceptions abound about Augusta. The first one is its size.

Mount Vintage - Augusta
Mt. Vintage is a vintage layout in South Carolina over the Savannah River from Augusta
Mount Vintage - AugustaHall of Fame Botannical GardensSavannah River
If you go

"People think Augusta is this tiny town," Augusta resident Annie McLeod said. "It isn't. There's a lot to Augusta."

True enough. It's an eclectic place, the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson and the birthplace of soul singer James Brown, and newcomers may be surprised at its size.

Stuck way up there in northeast Georgia on the border with South Carolina, just across the Savannah River, Augusta pales in the limelight of mammoth Atlanta. But, the population of Augusta and Richmond County, which share a consolidated government, is about 200,000, though it has shrunk a bit in recent years.

In fact, it is the second-largest city and second-oldest city in Georgia. Named after a Princess of Wales, Augusta became a textile center after the invention of the cotton gin. It later became a sort of resort haven for wealthy Northerners until the railroad lines were stretched to Florida, where the weather was a bit warmer in winter and they had palm trees to boot.

The city isn't without its problems. It faces the same sort of issues facing many urban areas: unemployment, economic problems, "white flight" to the suburbs, racial issues. Like many cities across the country, the city is trying to revitalize its historic downtown with various incentives.

It's had its share of accomplishments: Broad St. downtown has "artists row," a five-block section of art galleries, boutiques, bistros and cafes, and its Riverwalk along the river is a two-tiered, paved walkway that meanders downtown along the river, and includes an outdoor amphitheater. City officials are trying to lure businesses and residents back downtown with various festivals and events, and "First Fridays," where people head downtown to the restaurants and bars.

Some residents fear the flight of a percentage of residents to Columbia County and Aiken, S.C., will hurt Augusta's economy, though others say that is unjustified. The consolidated government just won a special local option sales tax that is earmarked for future capital projects.

The other big misconception concerns its biggest claim to fame: Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament. The Masters is one of the most acclaimed golf tournaments in the world, and come April, every year, golf superstars and fans pour in from all over the globe. You can see them at the restaurants and sports bars all over Washington Rd., where the course is located.

The course itself is a superstar, always somewhere near the top of world rankings. But, few can play the hallowed grounds since it is a private - and very exclusive - club. Augusta National may be the pinnacle of American golf, but it isn't the only golf in the Augusta area. There has to be somewhere for the rest of us to play, and they're easy to find. Golf Digest ranked the Augusta-Aiken metro area one of the best in the country. Here are some places to play.

Must plays

Mount Vintage: With green fees of around $65, this is a terrific bargain. The greens at the semi-private club are difficult, especially for the first-timer, but the rest of the course is very playable, even with the considerable elevation changes, and even with its slope rating of 138 from the black tees and 130 from the blues.

There's enough water to keep it interesting, and plenty of risk-reward options, like a number of doglegs that can be cut. It's a very picturesque course, with tall, stately Carolina pines and only a smattering of homes along the perimeter.

River Golf Club: The River Golf Club is one of those admirable golf courses risen, literally, from the rubbish heap. It sits on the site of an abandoned railroad yard and former illegal dump, a 5-iron over the Savannah River from Augusta.

The River has some nice, bentgrass greens, one of a handful of courses in the Augusta areas that features them. The price is right, too. Green fees are $42 weekdays, $40 Fridays and $55 weekends. Winter rates are about $5 cheaper. The River was named one of the top five new affordable golf courses in America in 1999 by Golf Digest.

Jones Creek: Jones Creek is a good course, more than 6,900 yards from the back tees, and is well laid out on the 520-acre site. Neither the greens nor the elevations are as dramatic as some other Augusta area courses, like Mount Vintage for example, but it will still throw enough elevation at you to keep it interesting. The fairways twist and turn and have excellent movement. In fact, hitting the ball off the tee is your main challenge here.

"It has demanding tee shots," Head Professional Pete Carroll said. "To score well here, you have to be in the fairway. You don't necessarily have to hit your driver all day. It can be a different course from day to day - it's not drive, chip and putt all the time."

Goshen Plantation Country Club: This may be the best bargain in the Augusta area, with green fees of $29 weekdays, including cart, and $39 on weekends.

It has one of the best practice areas anywhere, with a 400-yard driving range with good targets, and a short game area that lets you practice even fairway bunker shots. The front nine has some nice elevation, though not as dramatic as some other areas courses, and its greens are probably the best in Augusta aside from Augusta National.

Solid seconds

Fort Gordon Lakes: The course is on a military base, so be prepared to show plenty of identification and open your car doors for inspection. The facility is in a wildlife management area and consists of three nines. A good play.

Augusta Golf Course: An oldie but goodie, built in 1927. It has rolling terrain and tree-lined fairways, little water and its greens are small and fast.

Forest Hills: was designed by Donald Ross and built in 1926, though Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay re-designed part of the course in 1986 and it got a complete makeover in 2003. It's typically hilly with wide fairways and water on only two holes.

Green Meadows: Another traditional, tree-lined course with small, moderately sloping greens and little water. A good course for beginners.

• There are also a couple of excellent private clubs in the area, if you happen to have reciprocal arrangements from your club: Sage Valley and Champions Retreat, which consists of three nines by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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