I also know that George Washington slept here. In fact, on his 1791 tour of the new nation, he ate and drank here, too—with John Rutledge under the very roof beneath which I've decamped. Had he wanted, Washington could have teed it up here, too. For it was in Charleston, in 1786, that America was introduced to a then less-ancient game, when a band of Scots led by Dr. Henry Purcell, dean of St. Michael's Church on Meeting Street, formed the South Carolina Golf Club and began batting featheries around the open space above the old city center, called Harleston Green.
Between those early stirrings and golf's latter-day march through the dunes, marshes, coastal plains and sea islands of the Low Country, both Charleston and the game itself took their licks. Golf disappeared around 1800, and the city, once the proudest belle of the South, almost disappeared too, mired in economic despair from the end of the Civil War into the second half of the twentieth century. But like the palmetto tree, both golf and Charleston withstood the effects of time with remarkable grace.
"What you must understand," Julian Buxton is explaining to me, "is that there's nothing like Charleston in all of America."
A storyteller by nature, Buxton is a repository of Charleston lore, a native who returned in the mid-nineties after seeing as much of the world as he needed to: college at Princeton, a foray on Wall Street, a detour to Hollywood, a stint as North Dakota's deputy commissioner of labor. He now runs a variety of walking tours through his company, Tour Charleston, and for the last hour or so he's been regaling me with tales of pirates, ghosts and ship captains; hurricanes, fires and earthquakes; honorable citizens and scalawags alike. We stroll past the ornate dwellings of the Battery and up Meeting Street to peer through the gates at the Calhoun Mansion, then along Broad Street, Charleston's colonial commercial hub. For Buxton, every building, street and alley is an invitation to expound. Washington stopped here. Robert E. Lee reviewed his troops there. On lower Church Street, I swear I hear Sportin' Life crooning "It Ain't Necessarily So."
I ask Buxton what's singular about the city. "First, in its mind, Charleston's always thought of itself as a city-state with its own culture, tradition and etiquette," he says. "Second, it has thousands of historic structures wonderfully preserved, all at the base of a single peninsula.
"We'd been enormously wealthy and vibrant," Buxton continues, "but that changed after the Civil War. There was no capital to reconstruct." Atlanta, overrun by Sherman's army, had to start over. Charleston didn't. "It had a physical look and feel that stared at everyone for years," Buxton says. "We were too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash. If there'd been capital, you'd see a different city."
The new Charleston has capital (and lots of paint) and its recently refurbished eighteenth-century courthouse at Broad and Meeting streets stands at the nexus of past and future. It would have been more practical and economical to move the Low Country's legal hub to modern quarters outside the city's historic district. "But like Charleston itself," Buxton stresses, "it's not a museum. It's the active home of an industry, and representative of a battle regularly fought here. Despite the pressures, Charleston does not want to become Disneyland. It's a living place, a place where people—not mannequins on display—live and work in and around a lot of great old buildings."
Rob Wilson weaves a similar tale about the area's oldest golf course, the Country Club of Charleston, opened in 1925. The membership was once too poor for too long to remodel; now they're too proud to do anything but treasure what they have and restore it with care. The great Henry Picard, who won both the Masters and the PGA Championship in the late 1930s, once served as the club's head pro. Mention the course to Byron Nelson and he'll still shake his head and inquire after number eleven, a 190-yard reverse Redan with a wicked false front that gave him, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead—who once made a thirteen on it—fits whenever they barnstormed through. Yet, by twenty-first-century standards, the course felt embalmed. "There was simply no money to fix it up," says Wilson, a local businessman who is also chairman of the greens committee. "That's why it's remained such a good example of Raynor's work."