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
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??
PINEHURST, NC --- If you have never been to the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, “Sandhills” area, then you just don’t know what you are missing.
This quaint North Carolina locale is known for its golf courses – the Number 2 Course at Pinehurst Resort will host this year’s USGA Men’s and Women’s Open Championships – but also its serenity.
Unlike some mega-golf destinations, the Pinehurst area has all one could want from a vacation spot but also the serenity, comfort and quiet one wants when they also want to kick back and enjoy like.
Still, being golfers, we do want to sample fairways and greens. And while the Pinehurst Resort is the marquis name in these parts, it’s not the only drawing card.
For my money, the two resorts directly across Midland Road from each other – Mid Pines and Pine Needles – are superb spots. Both feature Donald Ross designed layouts, and both have been ranked in national magazines “best” lists. Pine Needles has hosted three Women’s U.S. Opens on its own.”
“We offer our guests all they could want in a resort destination, but of course the focal point is great golf,” explains Kelly Miller, president of the Pine Needles/Mid Pines ownership company. Pine Needles offers a traditional Ross design, and Mid Pines is an outstanding challenge from another era.”
Much has been made of the restoration of Pinehurst Number 2 in preparation for the two national championships, but those in the know are aware that Mid Pines underwent a restoration of its own. The course opened in 1921, and over the years developed such a following that players had it ranked either first, second or third on their list of places to play in the area.
Architect Kyle Franz resurfaced the greens to hybrid Bermura grass, making the flat stick challenges fast and firm. The rough has been thinned, the bunkers re-worked with harder sand, and the overall challenge has been beautified, spruced up and manicured into an even better challenge.
Mid Pines is a walking course, given its compact 91 acres, as greens and tees are close together and there are none of the long walks between holes that abound in residential courses build over the last 40 years. While there are some houses along the perimeter of the layout, inside those 91 acres are just golfers and nature.
Pine Needles has many similarities with Mid Pines but it’s also worlds apart. Fairways are a little wider, and the green complexes a little more dastardly, but on both courses Mr. Ross blended the sand hills with stately pines, and hospitality second to none.
The spirit of Peggy Kirk Bell and her family abounds, as comfort, challenge and just the love of the game of golf is apparent. A half dozen USGA Championships have graced the fairways of Pine Needles, including three U.S. Women’s Opens. Who can forget wins by Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr at Pine Needles?
History abounds both Pine Needles and Mid Pines. One never knows who you might run into at the resorts, from dignitaries to golf professionals, and while today each resort features all the amenities one expects from first class destinations, each also has its own charm. Sitting on the veranda at Mid Pines, watching the golfers play their final hole, is a treat.
The eyes of the golf world will be on Pinehurst in June, when on back-to-back weeks the Men’s and Women’s US Open will be on venerable Number 2, which underwent a re-tooling by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in2010. The site of Payne Stewart’s magnificent win will challenge the best golfers in the worlds.
While in the area visitors may sample Tobacco Road, the fine creation from the mind of Mike Strantz, or some of the areas scores of other courses. Price points for golf in the area are as wide as a friendly fairway, with packages making accommodations and golf affordable.
There is no shortage of challenges in the Sandhills area of North Carolina. It’s pristine, picturesque, perfect Pinehurst and serene, stellar Southern Pines. A good example is Southern Pines Golf Club, a Ross original design, and The Dormie Club, a recent offering off the pencils of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
Don’t miss it.
CHIP SHOTS: Pinehurst No. 2 is ranked as the number one ranked course in North Carolina in the Golfweek Magazine rankings, and right behind in order are Mid Pines, Dormie Club and Pine Needles. Also in the top 10 are Tobacco Road and Pinehurst No. 4 and 8….All of the clubs in this story feature outstanding practice facilities.