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Lake Marion Golf Club is the crown jewel among Santee, South Carolina's gems

SANTEE, S.C. -- Santee is a little dot in the middle of the state map, a town of 800 located right on I-95 near Lake Marion.

It's also the heart of a golf hotbed that offers excellent courses, great accommodations and terrific prices. And if one could objectively measure such a thing, it could be one of the friendliest places anywhere.

It all started with the interstate.

Santee's portion opened in 1968, the same year a few developers had the crazy idea to capitalize on the new transportation artery and built Santee Cooper Country Club. Just in case, they added an airstrip for those who find car travel too slow, even on a new interstate.

Ten years later, Lake Marion Golf Club opened next door to welcome the public.

It was the beginning of something big.

Now there are 17 golf courses within an hour's drive of Santee, all in great shape, all reasonably priced. The formula works. More than 150,000 people visit Santee each year, most of them golfers who first learned about the area at golf shows in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario or New Jersey, said Todd Miller, golf professional and general manager at Lake Marion G.C.

After that, word of mouth took over.

Lake Marion Golf Club, the most scenic of the three Santee-central courses, is kept in terrific shape and offers a nice tempo of diverse holes. The greens were rebuilt about five years ago and covered in MiniVerde. They are smooth and large.

The owners also built 24 two-bedroom villas right next to the course to offer golfers some high-end accommodations. They are completely furnished, and a nearby clubhouse is perfect for evening card games, cookouts or hanging out on the deck with your buddies.

The lighted driving range stays open until 10 p.m. every night, and the pro shop stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays should one want a snack, a new golf glove or to book a tee time.

One of the prettiest holes on the course is the first, a par 5 that rises, bends left and falls to a pond in front of the elevated green that nestles up to a bed of towered flowers.

A one-two punch arrives with No. 5, a par 5 that bends right with a line of trees that can block your approach and a large bunker on the left that narrows your options. No. 6 is a par 3 over water that somehow draws shots short and right. It's an optical illusion surrounded by the harsh reality of thick rough around the green.

The seventh hole starts from a very elevated tee to a green guarded by bunkers left and right and trees behind it. The eighth hole is a reachable par 4 if you're good at climbing hills with your drive.

The next few holes feature wide fairways pocked with strategic bunkers. There is room to miss, but only to the right.

No. 14 is the hole you'll remember, a sharp dogleg right over water if you play it the long way, over trees if you're adventurous. One golfer aced the par 4.

Two of the last three holes are par 5s, each with a ring of bunkers around the green to force an accurate approach.

It's a relaxing way to wind up your round. It all fits with the atmosphere at Lake Marion Golf Club.

Come to think of it, the entire area puts you in the mind of a Southern gentleman -- relaxed, friendly and low key. Add an array of golf courses in top-notch shape and that's Santee.

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