MYRTLE BEACH, SC ---
Where is the capital of American golf?
Depends who you might ask, as various destinations claim the title. But long ago the 90-mile stretch along the Atlantic Ocean centered around Myrtle Beach, SC, laid claim to the unofficial title. Any why not?
The Grand Strand has, depending on who is counting and what day it is, more than 100 golf courses that tantalize players of all tastes and playing abilities. There are courses designed by the best, including Nicklaus, Ross, Jones, Dye, Garl and Fazio. You name it, they have it, along with great food, sparkling beaches and a bevy of nighttime activities.
While Mother Nature has wielded her wrath in recent years, from Hurricanes to more than 100 inches of rain last year like many east coast venues, the beauty of the Grand Strand is that the great weather outweighs the bad, and even the bad days can be just wonderful.
We found that out in March when visiting the Myrtle Beach area for the first time in more than a dozen years. As Jon Bon Jovi once crooned, “Who says you can’t go home again?” Because March or April was an annual home for many years before we visited new and different places. Quite frankly, at the end of the week we wondered why we ever stopped going there.
Yes, there was chilly air. But the hospitality was top notch, the courses first rate, and the overall experience a stellar one.
Oh, there was a difference from the old days. Right off the bat Route 31, a newer bypass, allowed travel north and sound a whole lot easier. The competition for food and lodging as well as green’s fees kept prices affordable, and the pace of play on the courses we sampled was in a word brisk.
In its hay day the Grand Strand – stretching from Georgetown, SC, to the south to above Little River, NC, to the north – was generally accepted to have approximately 130 golf courses. The economic challenges of 2008 along with growth such as roads and infrastructure caused some elimination of courses, as well as a sort of natural selection of some venues being better than others.
These days there are approximately 100 courses available for play, the majority of them open to the public or available with package plans from some hotels. For this trip, we spent most of our time along the gateway to Myrtle Beach proper, areas like Calabash, Loris, Sunset Beach and North Myrtle Beach. But no matter where you stay, you can play outstanding venues.
One learns early on that traversing the entire Grand Strand on a single trip isn’t time effective, as with some 90 miles of shore line one could spend a lot of time in a vehicle rather than on a golf course. So our return trip saw us centered in the northern gateway vicinity. And with 135 holes played in six days, golf was the top priority.
“The area provides something for everyone, from golf groups to families who have varying tastes,” explained Jamie Roderick, the Director of Golf Operations of Sea Trail Golf Club. The Sea Trail golf complex boasts layouts designed by Rees Jones, Willard Byrd and Dan Maples. “We know golfers have a whole lot of choices, so we do our best to provide excellent service to go along with our find golf product.”
Similar sentiments could be heard from Tim Tilma, the General Manager of Sandpiper Bay in Sunset Beach.
“It’s no secret we’ve been called the golf capital of the United States,” said Tilma, a long-time veteran of the Grand Strand. “Just look as you drive to our club. One drives past Thistle (27-holes), The Pearl (36-holes) and Sea Trail (54-holes) so there are many options for the player. Our 27-hole facility has a strong resident base and we do all we can to offer a challenging layout, service and pace of play.”
One layout which we hadn’t seen in 20 years was Rees Jones first solo design, Arcadian Shores, a layout which at one point was listed among the top-100 ranking of courses in the United States. Ample fairways beckon players, but challenges such as bunkers, lakes and contoured greens make par an excellent score. It was great to be back at this Grand Strand classic course, which also displays beautiful and well-trimmed oak trees.
“We, like all the courses in the area, have been hurt by the more than 100 inches of rain in the last year, but we’ve gone the extra mile to bring the course back strong,” said General Manager Frank Coughlin. “There has been heavy work done on enhancing the course.”
Arcadian Shores was closed for nearly five months last year, as it totally reworked its greens with Sunday ultra-dwarf Bermuda glass, while also re-paving its cart paths. The greens have matured and are stellar putting surfaces, and the ride around the course contains less bumps. A new circa 2016 clubhouse is an added accoutrement.
“The feedback since reopening has been wonderful, getting positive comments really makes it all worthwhile,” added Coughlin. “People love the greens, and the course, well, it’s a strong classic design.”
The Glens Golf Group offers four stellar challenges: Glen Dornoch, Shaftesbury Glen, Heather Glenn and Possum Trot. Each has its own set of design features and each is fun to play.
At Glen Dornoch, a Clyde Johnston creation, one finds a course designed as a tribute to Donald Ross carved through trees and featuring holes along the intercoastal waterway. It also has elevation changes of about 35 feel along the way, something unique of Grand Strand courses.
There is water to be evaded – ponds, lakes and the intercoastal waterway – on 13 holes and carries over marsh and strategically placed bunkers can be found on other holes. Add in rolling greens and trees and one has a course where precision is at a premium. The Glen Dornoch clubhouse is a good one, and the service is stellar.
Many courses have invested in protecting their greens in cold weather by purchasing tarps. Tidewater, Sandpiper Bay and Thistle led the way, and as a result the greens were, in a word, superb.
“Some of the area courses were hurt, losing greens, and we just couldn’t afford not to protect ours,” explained Sandpiper Bay’s Tilma. “We don’t use them a great deal, but as you can imagine on those very cold days in the winter it just makes common sense to protect our greens. The feedback from visitors has been awesome and you have to believe we listen to our customers.”
Likewise, Thistle’s General Manager Doug Donner echoed his competitor’s statement. “We want to offer that quality experience, and that includes greens devoid of problems. The tarps help our superintendent make that happen.”
Thistle has an immaculate stately club house and Donner prides himself on promoting a player friendly experience. The three nines each offer outstanding challenges put together by designer Tim Cate. Its practice area is top notch, and includes not only a driving range but also short game area and a putting green that mimics undulations found on course.
“We are proud of our facility, and do our best to make our visitors happy, starting with our wonderful clubhouse, our practice facility and our 27 holes of championship golf,” said Donner. “We offer tee times in 10 minute increments. And each and every one of our holes has beauty and challenge.”
On getaway day we picked a course along the northern border of the strand in Longs, S.C., Aberdeen Golf Club, as we were glad we did. There are 27 challenging holes, and GM Steve Shaffer promises his facility includes 27 holes of “challenge”.
“To say there is some water around is an understatement,” said the GM. “There are water hazards on 23 of our 27 holes. (Designer) Tom Jackson created a real test and you will use all the clubs in the bag.”
There are trees throughout, but not overbearing, as Jackson wanted the club to have a Scottish feel. That, as well as four sets of tees, offer all levels of golfer a challenge.
The unfortunate part of our trip was the number of superb courses we didn’t sample, from the classic Dunes Golf and Beach Club (No. 3 on Golfweek’s places you can play in South Carolina) to Caledonia. Add in True Blue, Tidewater, The Surf Club and Pine Lakes International the Grand Strand has great golf chops. Nobody can sample all the greats of the Grand Strand in one visit.
Still, that just means a return trip is not going to be years away, as we are plotting a return visit sooner rather than later.
CHIP SHOTS: Great golf holes are endless along the Grand Strand. The 13th at the Dunes Club, a double dogleg par-5 along a lake and featuring an ever-present alligator, requires three pin point shots (although yes, it has been hit in two)...The 13th at Arcadian Shores has an Augusta National "look". A 370-yard par-4 which requires a sweet second shot over water is outstanding and challenging....THe short par-3 fourth on the Cameron nine at Thistle can be breathtaking or heartbreaking depending on how your tee shot goes on the 135-yard island green... Shaftesbury Glen is another Clyde Johnson creation, with its spacious fairways and elevated bent grass greens. Fourteen holes have some sort of water to evade, this challenging layout will tantalize.
It is raining - again - and not a time for fall golf. Cleaning out the reporter's notebook, I noticed 2018 saw a number of new courses played on my drive for 1000.
That is a lot of golf courses. Heck, 81 of those I've played have been closed, but through no fault of mine.
In looking at 2018 I realized that one of my friends, a golf course designer who continually comes up with stellar works, bedazzled me with several wonderful opportunities.
Ron Garl is a guy who simply designs fine layouts that are challenging, interesting and definately playable for all levels and abilities.
This year saw a return visit to a course played a couple years ago, Golden Ocala, which features 8 "replica" tests among it's 18 finely manicured holes. Simply loved it!
Got to play Money Hill Plantation with the "Man" himself, and was so very impressed with his outstanding knowledge of how golfers view a course and its challenges. This layout is superb.
While on that same trip we played Lakewood Country Club, which Garl refined and refurbished. The course had been site of New Orleans Open on the PGA Tour for years, and Garl brought back and improved endlessly.
Two Orlando area courses, Eagle Creek and Victoria Hills, found their way on to my list of courses played and the only thing I can wonder is how I had not sampled their challenges before. These are superb tests.
"Every course design is different, because every parcel of land is different. I don't have a cookie cutter approach," said Garl. "We strive to make the best use of land, challenge the player by offering multiple tee boxes and such, but in the end we want not only challenge but playability."
Playing a Ron Garl designed course is always a pleasure. We highly recommend you do so.
CHIP SHOTS: Details can be found at www.rongarl.com
It is an intriguing question – how does one improve on greatness?
Ponder that for a moment.
Heck if you have already received recognition and respect you obviously want to maintain that level of greatness and so work a little harder to find areas where you might improve.
For a golf course, it’s a never-ending battle with Mother Nature to maintain a level of greatness. But improve?
Bulle Rock Golf Club, the Pete Dye masterpiece located just off Interstate 95 in northeast Maryland, has been recognized with the respect of players and golf enthusiasts since being unveiled in 1998.
You want chops? The LPGA played five major championships between 2005 and 2009 and saw an impressive list of Hall of Fame caliber champions such as Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak hoist the trophy. Other winners included Anna Nordqvist, Yani Tseng and Suzann Pettersen. Numerous state and regional competitions have been held there, to say nothing about USGA qualifying for national championships.
A 148 slope on its course rating tells a story about its difficulty, and numerous plaudits have been given by players of all abilities on the venue itself as another chapter of its own. Bulle Rock is a special place.
For 20 plus years Golfweek magazine has recognized Bulle Rock as one of the best modern courses in United States. It also has the layout as number one course “you can play” in the State of Maryland.
After her win Pak said through a translator, “What a win! And over such an outstanding golf course. It was a major challenge for the players, as a major championship should be. I am thrilled to have won. This golf course is an intense challenge.”
No doubt Bulle Rock has the credentials to beckon daily fee players throughout the East Coast, whether for a day trip or a stop on the way to destinations such as Ocean City, Md., Williamsburg, Va., Pinehurst, NC or Myrtle Beach, SC. It’s an easy stop along the way, one which will have you talking about the facility during the rest of your trip.
But improve as a golf course? You bet!
One guy who knows is Operations Director Damon Klepczynski, PGA, who was brought on board a while back to do just that as the club was placed on the sale market. You see, through all the plaudits and the greatness Bulle Rock was not a --- well --- profitable facility.
Its green’s fees were high, as in above $125, and many players extolled its virtues but couldn’t find a way to play more than one or two rounds a year. It’s a difficult layout, and up to six hours was needed to truly play the course as its course rating indicates.
In many respects, Bulle Rock epitomized Lee Trevino’s views of the state of the game. “Golf is too expensive, it takes to long to play, and it is just plain hard!” the Merry Mex told me few years back.
That about described Bulle Rock to the casual observer. Klepczynski addressed that statement and more when he arrived at the facility.
“Basically, I spoke with our customers. What did they love about Bulle Rock, what they didn’t like? How could we improve the overall golf experience? We knew we had a demanding course, a classical layout, but we knew we needed to improve the bottom line,” said the native of Bucks County, Pa. “Nothing was sacred, we considered everything.”
It was clear to Klepczynski that upending the applecart was important. No idea was too small or large. He drew from the yield management playbook, he talked to customers, he looked at the entire operation and broke things down in increments. He realized he could turn things around and still maintain the course’s prestige.
First off, the golf course is legendary, one of Dye’s best works and that is saying something. But for most players it was over the top penal. A slightly offline shot found its way, many times, in tall fescue grass that was hard to hit from if findable at all.
“We addressed this my taking down the historical fescue on 13 holes, providing for challenge and difficulty with less lost golf balls,” explained Klepczynski. “That enhancement alone cut about 45 minutes out without severely impacting the natural general difficulty.”
The players loved the revision, it made a world of difference. An errant shot was penalized by the rough, but it didn’t necessarily lead to a lost ball.
Another revision was to add a fifth set of tees giving visitors an option to play the right distance for their game. Additionally, there is a separate set of youth tees to enhance the experience for all levels of player.
Small enhancements to the bunkering were completed, sodding a couple of what started as more than 140 bunkers on the site. This eliminated a couple, say, dreaded 60-yard bunker shots and enhanced playability and cut a couple minutes from what was a marathon.
The club owner, MTBR LLC, has had the club on the sale market for a bit, and while there has been lots of interest at this writing there is no deal complete. Under Klepczynski’s oversight the financials have improved as rounds are up as is the club’s food and beverage revenue stream.
Daily fees were refreshingly lowered, and more players came…more than once or twice. Course enhancements reduced the amount of time to play, and the restaurant business was buoyed by a new golfer friendly menu and addition of numerous TV screens to allow viewing of golf and other sports while enjoying a beverage or meal.
Also introduced were up to 100 golf memberships to attract more play from the local community, something that was absent in prior years.
“We created a little bit of buzz,” laughed Klepczynski. “All of these things have been well received, and all we have to look at is the increase in business as an indicator of success. The momentum meter moved in the right direction.”
Heck, some even believe the facility will be in the green for the year!
Dye carved Bulle Rock over acres of rolling terrain in Harve de Grace near the junction of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. Its signature hole is, well, all of them. Each hole stands on its own as a unique test, with obstacles to snare errant shots and pristine greens that tantalize.
The tests are endless. The par-5 second, a 489-yard rolls downhill with trees to the left and OB to the right, is a classic Northeast hole. The green is well protected, slightly uphill from the fairway, making club selection imperative. The hole stretches out to 572-yards for the long knockers. Of course, diabolical Dye worked his magic around a stream less than 100 yards from the green that acts as a magnet. Beware!
Dye offers a respite in the par-3 third hole (116 to 177 yards) so a player must take advantage and score before the next two demanding par-4s. That’s the beauty of a Pete Dye design, as all the holes have difficulty and uniqueness, but some are just plain angry bears.
Trademark railroad ties are woven into the design, but not overbearing. Bunkers are strategically placed and seem to jump out to bite at the most inopportune times. Dye’s creations seem to lull into a sense of security at times, but clearly force the player to take their medicine when required.
The par-3 12th hole (138-190 yards) requires evading of a lake all along the right side. The green protrudes into the lake so shots short, right or even a bit long can easily find a watery grave. Bunkers guard the left to force players to pick their poison.
The closing hole, the par-4, 377-yard (485 from the back tees) 18th, is a test that brings fear to the heart and swing of every golfer. Water blankets the left side of the hole, a hill on the right, while the pin position on the green allows for multiple opportunities that can cause a couple club difference for the player. Many a match is settled right there below the clubhouse.
“It is an exciting hole,” explained Klepczynski. “So many variables, so many nuances, it promotes strategic play.”
Today Bulle Rock continues as a challenging “must play” course, one that is not only difficult but playable and surely memorable. And the public agrees with its wallet, as rounds played increase by more than 1,000. The small membership base provides some financial stability and the buzz from visitors gets around and leads to more play.
Clearly Klepczynski and his team did the things that the public liked, as the guest comments sung praises.
Players find their challenging rounds more enjoyable. Tough, but fair. And they spend more time in the tavern after their round, as they don’t have to quickly leave after what was a 6 hour march.
Clearly, the club is well on the way toward providing a better experience and better value, something that is providing a nice shot in the arm improving an already great test of golf and overall free-standing golf experience.
All was accomplished without upending the designer’s approach. As the legendary Pete Dye said, “I did not undo God’s work.”
Well, there you have it. Don't put your golf clubs in the deep recesses of the garage or basement for the winter.
It's a given there has been frost on some recent cold Bucks County mornings. Heck, it will probably snow for Christmas. But look, many have been playing their best in recent months after a great season on area courses. Why mess up that great swing by putting one's clubs away and starting over next spring?
Why go through the agony of rekindling that grooved swing? Playing to your lowest handicap of the year at a time when you haven't hit a golf ball in months?
Okay, we are not all jet-setters who can dump the clubs in a G-4 and head to Florida or another warm location.
Here's are a few suggestions.
1) When the weather gets into the 50s without a great deal of wind, make sure the clubs are in the car and get out even if only for nine holes. Winter golf is generally faster as less people are on the golf course.
2) Basements are great places for practice swings. Just make sure the munchkins aren't lurking around.
3) Make some notes of the great, and not so great things you accomplished in 2016. Think of a plan to build on them.
4) Sneak away for a long weekend of golf, using a cheap air fare to the south or anywhere warm. If that doesn't fit the budget, think of a drive that will accomplish much of the same. Winter golf at the Jersey Shore, Ocean City Maryland, WIlliamsburg Virginia can be found inexpensively and the weather can be much warmer than Bucks County. Not significantly warmer, but warmer.
While thinking of these items think about places you want to play in 2017. My goal this year was to play 30 "new" courses. That is, courses I've never played before. I am sitting on 29 and am ready for another!
Make sure you don't miss playing great courses within driving distance. Two of my particular favorites are the Atlantic City Country Club and Shore Gate Golf Club, both on the Jersey Shore and within a 90 minute ride with traffic.
Atlantic City, renovated in 1999 by Tom Doak, is a classic seaside gem. Located in Northfield, just a couple miles from Atlantic CIty, the "Home of the Birdie" provides an outstanding test of golf with upscale amenities. Great challenge on the course, great food inside the clubhouse. And a wealth of history.
There have been six USGA events held at Atlantic City, including the 1948 (Babe Zaharias), 1965 (Carol Mann) and 1975 Women's Open (Sandra Palmer). It was also the site in 1980 of the first Senior PGA Tour event, the PGA Inaugural Seniors.
Atlantic City and its sister courses, Ballamor and Scotland Run, have long been rated among the best places to play in the state of New Jersey. It's a quick ride and great test.
We've long loved the Shore Gate Golf Club, located just off the Garden State Parkway Exit 17, where one finds a true sparkling oasis amid the Jersey pines. Shore Gate (see story in the New Jersey section of courses on this site) has always been a top-notch layout, but if possible has only gotten better with age.
The fairways are superb, the greens are tantalizing but smooth and true, and the overall venue outstanding.
Recent years has seen the integration of new fescue which frames the course, giving a pleasing view and direction of where one goes with their tee ball. It also can be found near bunkers, almost like a do not hit here sign.
Shore Gate is a must play shore course.
As Sayresville's Jon Bon Jovi sings, "Who says you can't go home again??