By Pam Gleason
March 25, 1882, was a momentous day in the history of Aiken, South Carolina. That was when the first gala polo match was held in the city. In addition to polo, there were “sumptuous luncheons” and dress parades by the city’s military company, the Palmetto Rifles. But, according to an April 1, 1882 article in the Charleston News and Courier, “All this paled into insignificance before the brilliant and successful introduction of James Gordon Bennett’s popular national game, polo. It has caused a great sensation and revolutionized the city as far as amusements are concerned.”
The first Aiken game was organized by Clarence Sutherland Wallace, a composer who had relocated to Aiken from New York along with his wife Jennie, a horse trainer who bucked tradition by riding astride. The sport itself originated in modern day Iran some 2,000 years ago, and came to America by way of England in 1876, introduced by James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric publisher of the New York Herald. Early American matches took place on the infield of Jerome Park Racetrack on Long Island, which is probably where C. S. Wallace learned to play. When he moved to Aiken for his health in the early 1880s, he brought a taste for polo with him.
Today, Aiken is the undisputed center of polo in the Carolinas. There are no fewer than six polo clubs recognized by the United States Polo Association (USPA) in the Aiken area, including at least four that hold regular tournaments and matches open to spectators. Polo fields are vast and high maintenance, each taking up the same amount of space as nine football fields and requiring consistent mowing, watering, fertilizing, liming and weed-killing so that the ball rolls true and fast. Between clubs and private farms, Aiken has at least 40 regulation-sized polo fields, many of them irrigated and seeded with hybrid turf specially developed for sports fields. Aiken’s Whitney Field, where polo has been played regularly for about 140 years, may be the oldest continuously played upon field in the country.
Aiken’s tournament season runs from April through mid-June in the spring and from September through early November in the fall. During these months, there is usually at least one game or practice any day of the week. Sunday, the traditional day for tournament finals, often accommodates five or six formal matches, along with numerous practice games. Aiken is home to around 300 registered polo players, and many more come to play for a tournament or a weekend during the season. In addition, Aiken Youth Polo (AYP) has an active and successful lesson and training program, where young people have the chance to play competitive polo from the middle school through the interscholastic and the intercollegiate levels.
According to Tiger Kneece, who is the manager of Aiken Polo Club and who runs the AYP program along with his wife Susie, polo is healthy in Aiken and has been experiencing particular growth in both youth and women’s polo.
“For youth polo, I sometimes feel like we are cheating in Aiken, because so many professional players live here, and their kids grow up in the game,” he says. Tiger, a former 7-goal player with a long list of accolades and accomplishments, took up polo as a teenager in Aiken, and his daughter Summer, 18, is one of the stars of Aiken’s girls’ interscholastic polo team, which has won the USPA Girls’ Interscholastic National Championship for three years in a row. Many of the players in the middle school and interscholastic program are like Summer and have a head start from their polo families, but Tiger says that some of his most dedicated players are totally new to the sport. “We do a good job of introducing the game to people who have never been connected to polo,” he says.
“Another thing that’s just exploding now in Aiken is women’s polo,” Tiger continues. “This fall, we’ve had five women’s tournaments between Aiken, New Bridge and La Bourgogne Polo Clubs. Summer played in all of them — when she got asked to play in an 8-goal tournament at New Bridge, she couldn’t because she was maxed out.”
Women’s polo is growing internationally, too. In most cases, polo tournaments are coed, and women play with and against men on an equal basis and under the same handicapping system. Women-only tournaments used to be a fairly rare occurrence, but that is changing. Several years ago, the USPA instituted a separate handicapping scale to be used exclusively in women’s games, and women’s polo is on an upward trajectory, with a growing number of prestigious tournaments in America, England and Argentina. Women who play in Aiken have been invited to compete internationally, including Hope Arellano, 20, who is based with her family in Aiken and in Palm Beach, Florida. Hope, who was the first woman ever to represent the United States on a team to contest the historic Federation International de Polo (FIP) Championship last fall, made it to the finals of the Argentine Women’s Open a month later, and is rising to 10 goals in women’s polo, making her America’s highest rated female player and one of just a handful of 10-goalers wordwide.
Aiken is a hotbed of polo activity, but it is not the only place in the Carolinas with a polo past, and it may not be the only one with a polo future either. This fall, exhibition matches returned to Camden, South Carolina’s historic polo field, which was established only a few years after Aiken’s Whitney Field. Camden and Aiken once had a friendly polo rivalry, as did Aiken and Columbia, where skilled poloists played for about 35 years. Other places with polo fields just waiting for players include the Charleston and Hilton Head areas, where it is rumored test matches and exhibition games are planned for 2024. North Carolina, too, has its share of polo enthusiasts, though it has only one club at the moment, the Triangle Polo Club near Raleigh. However, there once was polo in Charlotte, as well as near Asheville, and there has been talk of bringing polo to Tryon for several years.
“All these places need is someone to say they want to play, and to put in the work to make it happen, and then boom, you’re off and running,” says Tiger. “The next place I see polo taking off is the Low Country,” he continues, noting that he recently gave a polo clinic to 12 members of the Salt Marsh Pony Club based in Charleston County. “They came here and they loved it. They had the best time of their lives, and every one of them said they would love it if there was polo going on in the Low Country.”
Aiken Polo Club was recently recognized with a State of South Carolina Historical Marker on Whitney Field. The granddaughter, great- granddaughters, and great-great granddaughters of Clarence Sutherland Wallace, who first brought polo to Aiken, came from across the country for the dedication of the marker. It was the finals of the Aiken Women’s Challenge Cup, and a perfect day to celebrate polo’s past, remember the beginnings of a great tradition, and look forward to an even brighter future for polo in the Carolinas.