Bob Gillespie



Destination golf: Oak Hills promoting out-of-state tourism – and locals, too

Posted 3/13/2012 3:31:00 PM

Roger Nerbonne and Gary Redman know the way from their homes in Ottawa, Canada, to Columbia, S.C. They’ve been making an annual spring trek here for the past 10 years, in pursuit of good weather, great golf and reasonable prices.

As far as the two retirees are concerned, they’ve found all three in the South Carolina Midlands.

“The prices and the weather here are better here than other places we’ve been,” Nerbonne, a former Coca-Cola Ottawa employee, says while sitting in Oak Hills Golf Club’s grill room during a warm but rainy late-February morning. “And to me, the people (in Columbia) are nicer, too.”

Redman, who worked in military and government, laughs, saying that to him, “any place without the ‘white stuff’ (snow) is good.”

This day, the pair got in an early round at Oak Hills, where they will play “at least five times” during a two-week stay; they shoot for 36 holes a day, playing area courses from Orangeburg to Lancaster. Later this day, they’d be joined by fellow Ottawa residents J.P. Mennier and Rick Lane for the final week.

“We promote Columbia back home,” Nerbonne said. “(Other places) tried to get us back, but the golf courses are nicer here.”

That’s music to the ears of Jeff Schaffer, Oak Hills’ director of golf. He’s proud of his Steve Melnyk-designed, 6,894-yard layout, with its rolling terrain, its Tif Dwarf greens and a strong three-hole finish that includes perhaps the course’s best hole, the par-4 16th. But Schaffer – a former high school golf and basketball coach in Sumter – is just as interested in home-grown players as he is in out-of-state (or country) visitors.

“I try to get others in the Midlands to help ‘grow’ new golfers,” he says. “We need to think outside the box.”

Schaffer points to the state’s strong junior golf programs, which have sent a dozen or so players to the PGA Tour, but wants to retain everyday players produced by those programs. “That interest has to translate to playing later in life,” he says. “We can’t lose those (players). “We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t promote Columbia golf. Other businesses get traffic from golf, too.”

As for tourists, “I think we have everything here that Myrtle Beach has, except that big ‘pond’ (the Atlantic Ocean), and we can create affordable golf packages here,” he says. “Most guys coming from the Midwest and Canada, they want to eat, sleep and play golf. We have all that right here.”

In fact, the Midlands area has some local golf-package groups; Schaffer references Ricky Saucier Golf Packages of South Carolina. But Schaffer believes there’s room for more.

“We’ve got to get hotels on board,” he says. “We need to get representatives to golf shows in the Midwest; that’s where you’ll find the Midwest golfers. And we need to promote Columbia as a destination. Heck, even some private courses here will open to public play during the Masters.”

Oak Hills cashes in on visitor play, but not all of the course’s 39,000 rounds in 2011 come from outside South Carolina. Schaffer this spring is teaching a physical education class in golf through the University of South Carolina, which brings beginners to his course. “I’ve got a vested interest; my son (Jeffrey) is a sophomore at USC,” he says. Another idea, he says, would be to offer “getaway” packages of hotel rooms, dining and golf for locals.

As for the “imports,” Schaffer lures them with special rates – regular fees run $37 weekdays, $47 weekends – plus promotions: a sleeve of balls or an Oak Hills cap with each round. Anything to stand out, he says.

Of course, one attraction pretty much comes with being in South Carolina. “The guys get here, and they say, ‘Wow, green grass!’ Schaffer says. “(Over-seeding) is expensive, but we think it’s a good return on the investment.”

The crew from Ottawa would no doubt agree. For information and/or tee times, click here or call (803) 735-9830.