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.