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Want a reason to get off of I-95? South Carolina's Santee National Golf Club has 18 of them

SANTEE, S.C. -- Santee National Golf Club is a slight detour off I-95, less than two minutes from the stream of vehicles piloted by drivers propelling themselves along some portion of the New York City-Miami trek.

Smack dab in the middle of that 1,300-mile stretch is Santee, a feisty little town with a surprising array of golf courses that offer the perfect excuse for weary travelers to take Exit 98 and break the concrete spell.

The first golf course in Santee (population 800) was built in the 1960s by some risk-taking developers who hoped they could cash in on the newly constructed I-95 right through town. Their efforts paid off and touched off a golf course building boom that continued for 20 years.

Santee National was slated to open just weeks before Hurricane Hugo made its boorish appearance in 1989. Undaunted, owners Charles "Cholly" and DeLaine Clark bulldozed away the hundreds of fallen trees and drained the greens and fairways to salvage the course.

Today, it is a mainstay in a town partially put on the tourism map by the Clark family.

Bubba Clark opened a restaurant in the town's bus station in 1946, proclaiming to his wife that it was only temporary. Seven decades later, Clark's Inn & Restaurant is nationally renown for excellent Southern fare in an intimate setting.

Cholly and DeLaine Clark applied the family's high standards to Bermuda grass and lakes, their generation's definition of turf and surf, but at blue-plate prices.

"You are going to get a great value here," said Santee National Head Professional Kyle Gregory, who recently was first assistant at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. "Santee is a change of pace. It's true Southern hospitality."

You won't be rushed, and you won't be ignored.

The 6,858-yard course starts gently, with a wide, straight fairway off the first tee. From the beginning, you'll notice the pristine conditions. Fairways plump up the ball, and greens are large, undulating and fast. You'll soon realize your score will depend on your prowess near the pin. It's a challenge to avoid three-putts as you try to traverse yards of fast, contoured greens. On those surfaces, "two" is the new "one."

The course is rolling, and the tees and greens alternate places -- sometimes the tees are above the greens, other times it's the other way around.

On nearly every hole, there a thinking-man's spot -- some slight diversion that will suck in a shot that you didn't think through, such as a tree that could be in your way or a landing area that scrunches in on one side. There are plenty of doglegs that whisper in your ear, one little voice saying, "Go for it," the other countering, "Are you crazy?"

Keep in mind, though, that those excellent turf conditions apply to the rough, too. It's like a bramble patch that will imprison the ball and release it reluctantly. Rough often equals an extra shot.

Water is a rarity at Santee National Golf Club, coming into play only on two holes, Nos. 2 and 10, both par 5s.

It's almost as if the course was designed for those who just climbed out of the car to golf. The front is open and forgiving (up to the greens, then it's a different story). Then, after you've had time to shake off the traveling blues, trees close up the back a little, requiring a little more precision off the tee and for approach shots.

Overall, Santee National is what it claims to be: An outstandingly conditioned course with a friendly staff and very reasonable prices.

Santee National and its brethren are worthy of at least a detour from I-95. But that will only whet your appetite. Save yourself the anguish of climbing back into the car and plan to stay awhile.

There are plenty of golf courses near Santee to keep you off that concrete ribbon.

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