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Lifestyles: Once the only game in town, club marks 50 years

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

There was a time when the country club was a lifestyle at Litchfield.

Fifty years ago when architect Willard Byrd of Atlanta and builder Jimmy Goodson of Darlington carved a golf course out of woods and swamp, the Litchfield Country Club became the centerpiece of a new community that stretched “beach living” across Highway 17.

The golf course welcomed retirees, men and women, with almost half the holes curving left and right with gentle doglegs and greens with openings for rolling approach shots. “Pure golf,” says Christa Bodensteiner, general manager and head golf professional at Litchfield Country Club and River Club. “One of my favorite things is the way they used to build golf courses: smaller greens, little runways to go up to them, doglegs. You will use every club in your bag out here.”

Litchfield Inn owner Bill Jones of Greenville and Tommy Farr of Pawleys Island came up with the idea for a golf course as a means of filling the inn. They were joined by investors E. Stone Miller of Litchfield, Tom Miller of Greenville, owner of Litchfield Plantation Clay Price of Greensboro, N.C., and Gene Stone of Florence, who later bought the Litchfield Inn. They acquired the first 370 acres at $110 an acre from International Paper. The old Kings Highway where George Washington traveled in 1791 ran where the No. 1 tee, the pro shop, No. 5 green, and the No. 10 green are today.

The course had an auspicious opening on Nov. 19, 1966. Carolyn Thompson, wife of Litchfield Country Club’s general manager Louis B. “Bumpy” Thompson, made a hole-in-one at the 17th hole on opening day. The club is planning events throughout the summer and fall to commemorate its 50 years.

Tennis has been as big a draw as golf at Litchfield Country Club since its beginning. Nineteen clay courts still pull players into the summer heat six days a week and draw tournament competitors from the Carolinas spring through fall.

In fact, Litchfield’s power brokers tended toward tennis, according to club member Gayle Cole. Her father, the late Billy Nichols, organized a daily round-robin for players, including vacationers, to compete against others of similar skill. Nichols arranged to bring the state tennis tournament to Litchfield too. After Nichols was killed in a hunting accident in 1979, a sportsmanship award was created in his honor. Cole said she often played in matches with the late Foster McKissick, a founder of the Litchfield Co. A tournament in March is still named in memory of McKissick.

At one time, the country club had two indoor courts. After they were demolished, a wall was built in memory of Corey Wynn, the club’s second pro, who had been a tennis coach at Harvard. The clay surfaces make it one of the best places to play, Cole said.

It was the golf course that attracted Art McNulty. He first played the course with friends while vacationing from Lexington, Ky., in 1976. McNulty moved often while he was working and retired to Conway before moving to Litchfield in 1999. He plays three times a week when the weather allows, but organized play for members has dwindled to a monthly tournament when enough players show interest.

“It’s been a good experience,” he said, “particularly when we had a good number of members. There were social functions and tournaments.”

The club’s social calendar has been reduced to an occasional “fun night” at the clubhouse. “We get 35 or 40 people to come for a gab fest with heavy hors d’oeuvres and a cocktail or two,” McNulty said. “Obviously, it’s on the tail end of vibrant membership. The idea of joining a club doesn’t ring as strongly as it once did.”

Susan Gibbons joined Litchfield Country Club 26 years ago with her late husband. “I’m one of the younger members,” she said with a chuckle. The Gibbonses were living in California and discovered Pawleys Island on a golf trip. When buyers offered a “crazy price” for their California house, they moved here. Gibbons said they considered Pawleys Plantation but didn’t like the two par 3’s with tees on the causeway and moved to a lot on the 16th fairway at Litchfield Country Club. Gibbons still works full-time as a Realtor and finds time to play golf two or three times a week. “I’m glad we joined here,” she said, “and have made a lot of wonderful friends.”

The days of the country club as the center of social and business life have passed at Litchfield. The idea of an exclusive club and course lose their luster when members are paying out of their own pockets. “A lot of places have gone public,” Bodensteiner said. “That’s been the direction. The corporate world is no longer supporting golf, basically.”

The club dining room stopped serving lunch and dinner years ago. It was a money-losing proposition, McNulty said. Now the clubhouse hosts a weekly Rotary Club meeting and a Sunday brunch. When owners filled in the community pool, it lost more of its social connection with families with children.

But golf has remained the constant at Litchfield Country Club, even if it’s just one choice among many for players. “Not too many people are joining one course any more,” Bodensteiner said. The Prime Time program allows players to pick from 22 courses owned by the Chinese company, Founders Group International. They include Litchfield Country Club, River Club, Pawleys Plantation, Founders Club, Tradition and Willbrook among others. “They get reduced rates through the whole year,” Bodensteiner said. “That’s what people have been joining.”

The new owners appreciated the history of the country club and have renovated the big clubhouse. “The last regime was not sure if they wanted to fix it up or tear it down,” she said. “New owners came in and fell in love with it and have been very willing to put money into this building and our golf shop. It’s been refreshing. The overall feel can’t be replicated: live oaks, Spanish moss, plantation-style clubhouse, a separate golf shop, all things of the days gone by. We maintain the integrity of it, so it’s a neat experience for people. Modern golf courses don’t look like this. There’s a charm to it because it’s so old and stately.”

Litchfield Country Club is a shot-maker’s course of 6,970 yards with five sets of tees. Bodensteiner advises players to leave the driver in the bag on some par 4’s. “Figure out where you want your tee shot to be,” she said. Players who can turn their tee shots a bit left or right on demand will gain an advantage here.

Bodensteiner said the course is best known for its par 3’s, but they are not her favorite holes. “They are pretty,” she said, “but definitely hard. My favorite is No. 13, a par five with water all the way down the left. You can get fairly close with two good shots. It’s probably one of the most picturesque.” The 13th is on most players’ short list of favorites even though it’s the No. 2 handicap hole.

Bodensteiner also likes No. 8, a “soft dogleg” that offers a good view of the green. “Turn the tee shot just enough to leave a little iron coming in,” she advises. The 18th offers another dogleg with an approach to an elevated green over water. “It’s a great finishing hole,” she said, “one of the tougher holes out here. A lot of matches are made or lost on that hole.”

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