The origins of golf in Greenville can be traced to the spring of 1895, when a gaggle of aspiring hackers struck shovel to dirt on a 50-acre parcel of land in the Piney Mountain region of the county. It was there that the eponymous “Piney Mountain Pioneers” carved out a rudimentary nine-hole course, which historians consider to be the very humble birthplace of Greenville Country Club (GCC).
Much has changed at GCC in the 125 years since those sporting trailblazers brought the game to the Upstate, not the least of which is its physical location.
After spending a decade at the original venue, members of Piney Mountain moved their burgeoning golf club to the former estate of Governor Benjamin Franklin Perry located north of downtown. There, they designed a “short but sporty” nine-hole course, built two tennis courts, and transformed the three-story Victorian mansion known as Sans Souci (“carefree” in French) into a clubhouse replete with dining facilities, locker rooms, and guest suites. Fittingly, they dubbed the new locale Sans Souci Country Club to reflect an increasing focus on activities and amenities for golfers and non-golfers alike.
Another relocation, this one in 1921 to 158 acres of land flanking the Reedy River adjacent to Augusta Street, set the stage for construction of Riverside, the club’s first 18-hole course. The 1923 opening of Riverside, as well as an accompanying clubhouse, tennis courts, and aquatics center, bolstered Sans Souci’s position among the South’s esteemed golf and social establishments, prompting members to adopt the permanent moniker of Greenville Country Club.
Name changes, property upgrades, and facility enhancements notwithstanding, the strategic move that solidified GCC’s place in the annals of golf took place in 1970. It was then the club unveiled Chanticleer, a sister course to Riverside that was designed by the man considered to be the most esteemed golf architect of his time: Robert Trent Jones.
“In the mid-1960s, the club wanted to see how they could improve Riverside and make it a championship golf course, so they enlisted the services of Robert Trent Jones and brought him to Greenville,” explains Greg Hobbs, who’s served as general manager and chief operating officer of GCC since 2006. “After Jones visited [Riverside], he said [to members of the steering committee], ‘I’m not sure I can deliver what you want on this piece of property. Have you ever considered building another golf course?’”
Blessed with a sound financial ledger and the resources afforded by a waiting list to join, the club purchased 155 acres in the nearby Chanticleer subdivision to give Jones the tapestry he needed to bring that vision to life. The designer utilized the site’s gently rolling terrain to weave the course in and out of towering hardwoods while intermittently traversing creeks and skirting other natural and manmade hazards.
When he laid his tools to rest, Jones had created a masterpiece that 1935 Masters champion Gene Sarazen proclaimed was “one of the finest courses in the South.” Sarazen, who served as the celebrity golf professional at the grand opening of Chanticleer in 1970, also declared that the course would “rival Pinehurst No. 2, and in two or three years, be as good as or better than Augusta National.”
Chanticleer never achieved the level of greatness predicted by Sarazen; however, it has long been recognized as one of the Southeast’s best layouts in terms of design, challenge, and conditioning. The course is consistently ranked among the top 10 golf venues in South Carolina by national and state organizations, and at one point reached No. 57 on Golf Digest’s list of the top 100 courses in the United States.
Throughout its history, Chanticleer has also attracted some of the best amateur and professional players. The club has hosted numerous state and regional golf championships, as well as the Korn Ferry Tour’s (formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) BMW Charity Pro-Am. Meanwhile, PGA Tour star Bill Haas, who lives near Chanticleer, practices and plays out of GCC when he isn’t competing, and PGA Tour member Ben Martin and Charles Warren, a Clemson alum and former touring professional who won three times on the Korn Ferry Tour, are active members.
No one knows definitively if the Piney Mountain Pioneers ever dreamed that their crude golf course and makeshift clubhouse would eventually give rise to GCC and Chanticleer. What’s certain, however, is that their efforts and foresight did more than introduce the “country club lifestyle” to Greenville; they dovetailed with the evolution of the game as a whole and the city in particular.
Photography provided by the Greenville County Historical Society. For more, see the Greenville Journal article on the 50 year anniversary of the Chanticleer Course.