By Dustin Turner
Photography courtesy of Rob Hillis
Jim McNair Jr. loves golf and his hometown of Aiken. After all, he bought and renovated Aiken Golf Club and Cedar Creek Golf Club, and at 65 years old, he’s not slowing down. The Chalkmine short course at the University of South Carolina Aiken is one of his most recent projects.
“Doing all the renovations I’ve done over the years, being in golf and seeing all the cool courses being designed around the country, it was amazing to see a special site like this and build your own facility from the ground up,” McNair says. “It was a huge bucket list item for me. I was more emotionally driven than financially driven to do the project.”
The nine-hole short course has separate short-game areas for the USC Aiken golf team and First Tee—Aiken, an organization that uses golf to teach life skills and help kids build inner strength, self-confidence and resilience.
“I knew that when we were finished, we would be providing a wonderful facility for First Tee and the university as a legacy. I hope that long after I’m gone, kids will still be coming out and enjoying the facility. It was something special for me to leave behind,” McNair notes.
Although McNair wasn’t involved with the project from the beginning, he had always been interested in it. It wasn’t until 2020, several years after fundraising had begun, that McNair met Tony Allman, the chairman of the board of First Tee—Aiken.
“We got to discussing it because as a golf course owner in Aiken, I always kept up with it and was curious to see how it was going,” McNair recalls. “He confided in me that fundraising wasn’t close. It was making progress, but was disappointing.”
Allman told him what they expected to pay for a driving range, a par-3 course and short-game area.
“I just said, ‘You know, we’re local and we’ve done a lot of renovation work. Let’s go out and look at the site.’ So, we did,” McNair remembers.
McNair knew it would make the perfect course to suit the needs of First Tee and USC Aiken.
“The minute I saw the site, I knew it would make an amazing short course because of the topography and the native plants,” he vividly recalls. “When the local Kalmia [mountain laurel] is blooming, it’s breath-taking. There are also lots of holly and sparkleberry, little ground covers and pines. It is a beautiful site.”
Unfortunately, that’s not where the project was originally planned. The university and First Tee were looking at a nearby 60-acre site along Trolly Line Road, which, as McNair tells it, was a long, sloped hill covered in pine trees.
“After walking the site, I took Tony aside and said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but this site is unbuildable. You simply can’t build a great golf facility here.’ It was completely treed with pines and would need a lot of infrastructure and drainage work.”
So, McNair convinced First Tee and USCA to build on the Chalkmine site, at about half the cost they had planned.
“I told them they were working on a much bigger scale than they needed. They also were considering using a national golf course construction company and an architect out of Atlanta. There’s no doubt they were doing it correctly, but we were able to cut 50 percent off the cost.”
The property that houses the course is about 40 acres of a 300-acre parcel that the Graniteville Company donated to the university. The Convocation Center and baseball stadium are on part of the tract.
The course got the Chalkmine name because that beautiful piece of land McNair fell in love with was a Graniteville Company chalk mine in the 1930s and ‘40s. In 1953, clay and sand from the site were used for the construction of U.S. Highway 1. Then it was abandoned.
“It just sat there for about 60 years,” McNair says. “It eroded naturally and all the local vegetation reclaimed it.”
McNair joined forces with a couple of friends, Gary Frazier and Brent McGee, who had helped him renovate Aiken Golf Club in 1997-99.
“It was just the three of us. I’m 65, Gary’s 50 and Brent is 55. I like to say three old men built this,” he says with a laugh. “And we’re very proud of it.”
Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta Magazine.
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