Sage Valley: The other Augusta National

ablondin@thesunnews.comApril 13, 2013 

— Weldon Wyatt has lived in the western region of South Carolina all his life, never far from the shadow of Augusta National Golf Club.

He was a good friend of past Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens, and regularly had lunch or played with Stephens at the club for many years before Stephens’ death in 2005.

It’s a club whose traditions, values and features he has long admired, those established by club founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, who served as the club’s chairman from 1931-76.

“I don’t think Mr. Roberts ever got the recognition he should have gotten,” Wyatt said. “He set the bar for all golf clubs, in my opinion.”

He would consider it perhaps the best private club in the world, if it weren’t for his own club just 12 miles away in Graniteville.

That’s what Wyatt set out to create when he purchased approximately 10,000 acres of property and hired Tom Fazio to build Sage Valley Golf Club, which opened in 2001.

“I already think it is [the best],” Wyatt said, adding a hearty laugh afterward. “We don’t know anything out there better. There might be, but I don’t know it. We strive everyday to make it better.”

A national golf publication ranked Sage Valley as the third-best golf experience in the United States behind Augusta National and Pine Valley in New Jersey. It’s impressive company for the 12-year-old club when you consider it’s being compared to two long-established standards.

“We want you to say ‘wow’ when you come in the gate, but it’s more important to say ‘wow’ when you go out the gate,” Wyatt said. “I think that’s what Sage is all about.”

Wyatt, 73, was a commercial developer who made his fortune building most of the Wal-Marts in South Carolina.

When he approached Fazio with his vision for the planned international membership destination club, the heralded course designer expressed his misgivings.

“I tried to talk him out of it because I certainly didn’t know his commitment,” said Fazio, who built a 7,437-yard layout. “I was honest about it and told him, ‘This is a major deal what you want to do. You can have this dream and desire, but it’s a major financial commitment. Have you studied it well enough to know?’

“We did some planning and did some numbers and he said, ‘I’m going to do it. I can afford to do it; it’s going to be great for golf; it’s going to be great for Aiken and the state of South Carolina, and I want to do it.’”

By all accounts, Wyatt has pulled it off. Though he wouldn’t disclose the club’s membership total, it has been estimated to be about 240, and Wyatt said the membership represents several countries and more than 40 states.

Augusta influence

Though Wyatt has connections to Augusta National, he is not one of the club’s privileged members.

“I wouldn’t have turned a membership down, but I never did ask for one,” Wyatt said. “I would have never fit the criteria of Augusta, to be honest with you. I don’t even know what the criteria is, but if they wanted me to be a member, I guess they would have asked me. Everybody can’t be a member of Augusta National.”

Wyatt rebukes the well-traveled rumor that he created Sage Valley because he was rebuffed by Augusta National’s membership. It has gotten about as much mileage as the fable that he initially received Wal-Mart building contracts by waiting in the lobby of Sam Walton’s office for several days until the Wal-Mart founder agreed to see him.

“[They say] the reason I built this place is because they wouldn’t let me in that place, and that’s not true,” Wyatt said. “People just dream up stuff. But the stories have become so famous.”

He didn’t mind taking some of the best aspects of Augusta, however, or features from some of his other favorite clubs around the world, such as a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” over course speakers every day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. – something he took from Turnberry in Scotland.

Several former Augusta National caddies defected to Sage Valley when it opened. Augusta National ended club employment of caddies in 1996 when it partnered with, Caddie Master, a professional caddie provider.

“It kind of surprised me how many caddies came from Augusta, but I think a lot of it had to do with the caddie service,” Wyatt said. “Here they’re employed by the club.”

The quality of the caddies and caddie experience is one of the two primary things Wyatt believes separates his club from other premier clubs, along with its friendliness.

There are 65 regular caddies and another 200 to 250 part-timers for busy periods. Every player gets their own caddie.

“We’re probably one of the few clubs in the country that own their own caddie program,” Wyatt said. ”We want the quality. We think the caddies are most important to the person that comes here because they are going to be with them for four or five hours. We want a caddie who knows our golf course.”

The friendliness extends throughout the staff and membership.

“Everybody here is going to greet you and speak to you,” Wyatt said. “Whatever our members and guests desires are, as long as it’s morally right and legally right, we’re going to try to provide it.”

Wyatt was looking for property with similar features to Augusta National: land that hadn’t been timbered with rolling terrain, elevation changes, natural water and easy access. The property he found was owned by a timber company that had yet to begin clearcutting. He bought 500 acres for the golf course within about a mile of an I-20 exit.

“About a year-and-a-half later I got to thinking something might get too close to me and destroy what I was trying to do here, so I went back to them and asked them if they would sell me some more land to buffer the golf course.” Wyatt said.

He ended up buying approximately 9,500 acres around the course. More than 5,000 acres are in conservation easements, said Wyatt, who added a hunt club with sporting clays and a shooting range in 2005.

A replica of Augusta National wasn’t the intention of Wyatt or Fazio.

“Obviously Augusta National – its character, its quality, its uniqueness – it’s a model for all of golf,” Fazio said. “Certainly for me as a designer there would be no reason to want to copy because you have the options of creating whatever you want to create, and Sage Valley has its own character, it’s own style and own uniqueness.”

While Augusta National has 10 cabins for its visiting members and guests, Sage Valley has 16 cottages with a combined 82 bedrooms. There are no homes around either course. Sage Valley also has a small chapel near the clubhouse.

Wyatt said there are a handful of common members of Augusta National and Sage Valley, and the club has unquestionably benefitted from its proximity to the course and the Masters.

“There’s no question we wouldn’t be as successful as we are if it weren’t for Augusta,” Wyatt said. “I think that’s how our exposure has gotten as great. The tentacles of this place is unbelievable. I think that’s had a lot to do with it.”

Masters week is also a big week for Sage Valley. It’s by far the busiest week of the year for the course More than 200 rounds are played per day, compared to dozens of rounds or less most days during the year, as members come to town to attend the Masters and bring guests with them to Sage Valley.

“This week you see everybody in the world here,” Wyatt said.

A special place

Sage Valley has many enviable features that combine to make it unique.

It has sub-air systems beneath greens to suck moisture out of putting surfaces.

There are three extra “dormie” holes – two par-4s and a par-3 – to settle any tied bets after 18 holes, and the par-3 hole, and two adjacent practice putting greens, are lighted until midnight.

Ornamental and annual flowering bushes and trees filling the property include azaleas, redbuds, forsythia and dogwoods. About 30 combined daily maintenance and horticulture employees keep everything pristine. Weeds in grasses are hand-pulled or hand-sprayed.

The smooth-putting A1 bentgrass is on greens, and tees have TifEagle Bermudagrass, which is featured on many greens in Myrtle Beach, with a fine poa trivialis overseed in the winter that is also commonly used on greens. Fairways are diamond cut and tee boxes are striped. “It’s perfectly manicured,” said former member Mark Cummins of Charleston.

Rules are old-school and respectful of the game. Walking is strongly encouraged for all but compromised players. Hats aren’t worn indoors. Players shake hands before and after rounds. No jeans or cell phones are allowed. Shorts are only allowed during hot months. Men wear green jackets to dinner.

Sage Valley is not a democracy. There is little doubt who makes the rules at the club, considering oil paintings of Wyatt and his son, Tom, the club’s president, loom over the dining room. “Weldon is the owner of the club. Everybody else is just a member,” Cummins said. “Nobody has any say so about any rules. There’s no board I’m aware of. It’s Weldon and Tom, it’s their decision. But I think for the most part they make pretty good decisions.”

According to founding member David Broderick of Kansas City, an estimated 50 founding members all put up $200,000 and can retain membership without dues. When membership reaches a certain number that hasn’t been hit yet, founding members are to get their $200,000 back. “That opportunity created interest in being involved, but it has never happened,” Broderick said.

Subsequent members had decreased initiation fees – $100,000 for some – and dues of at least $7,500 per year. The memberships are refundable if a member resigns, once a specified number of new members join. Everything at Sage Valley comes with an additional premium price, including rounds of golf, caddies, food and cottage stays.

While Augusta National has perhaps the world’s greatest pro tournament, the Wyatts created perhaps the world’s greatest junior tournament in 2011 – Golfweek named the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley the best junior tournament in the U.S.

“For lack of a better word it’s ‘the Masters for juniors,’” Wyatt said.

This year’s third annual 54-player event includes 19 international players and has 150 volunteers. Juniors receive invitations in the mail and all participant expenses are paid. A junior-am preceding the tournament raises money for The First Tee. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem awarded the tournament’s championship jacket to the inaugural winner in 2011.

Self-made success

Wyatt’s father was a Baptist minister and his parents didn’t play golf, so Wyatt didn’t play golf until he was 18. “I didn’t come up with any wealth,” he said.

His Wal-Mart connection began with a phone call in 1980. Wyatt had built a few grocery stores and neighborhood centers and strip malls. “Just making a living,” he said. He began his week the same way every Monday, referencing a list of retailers to call to make contacts.

Wyatt read an article in 1980 about a growing company called Wal-Mart and decided to call Tom Seay in the company’s real-estate development division to discuss building a Wal-Mart on property he owned in Barnwell.

“I was describing something I had done in Aiken, describing my background to give me a little bit of credibility, and he said, ‘Are you the guy that owns that land next to J.B. White’s [department store]?’” Wyatt recalled. “He had already looked at my land and I didn’t even know it.”

Wyatt was invited to a meeting in Bentonville, Ark., and over two days he signed a deal to build the first Wal-Mart in South Carolina in Aiken. One in Barnwell followed, and several more followed after that, including those on the Grand Strand in North Myrtle Beach, Conway, Surfside Beach and Georgetown. He estimates he has built 70 percent of the Wal-Marts in the state, many twice.

“It’s always about timing,” Wyatt said. “I read an article about a study on luck. If I remember correctly, 78 percent of people who have positive thinking are luckier. Now what does that tell you? Usually you make your own luck.”

Wyatt is a member at a few golf courses, including Double Eagle in Columbus, Ohio; Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, which he joined in 1965, and Hounds Lake Golf Club in Aiken, and he was previously a member at Muirfield in Columbus, Ohio.

He spent several Thanksgiving weekends in Myrtle Beach so Tom, who played collegiately at Furman, could play in the George Holliday Memorial Junior at Myrtle Beach National Club. He has little reason to stray far from home now.

“We’ve been very blessed,” Wyatt said. “The club is way beyond whatever I imagined.” If not exactly what he imagined.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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