CALABASH, N.C. -- Golfing in the Grand Strand during the 1980's and 1990's had begun to take on an ominously corporate feel. Six minute tee times, double-teeing, and replays had fostered a herd 'em in, get 'em through, see 'em to the door mentality that had many golfers wondering if they were still a valued commodity.
Crow Creek Golf Plantation opened in February of 2000 with every intention of bucking the trend, and the plan that was quite simple.
The 18-hole facility just north of the Stateline was owned and operated by one of Brunswick County's founding families, not a conglomerate from some far away big city. The idea was to put out a good product at a fair price and keep locals and visitors coming back with great service.
Conceptually, Crow Creek Plantation was what you might call a throw back to a Grand Strand of yesteryear - to a time when family run golf courses would fight tooth and nail for golfers who had driven all the way from Ohio, Michigan, or New York.
Even the golf course itself got into the time warp act. Rick Robbins' design at Crow Creek was about as modern as overalls, crew cuts, and vinyl records. Ironically, this old school operation could become the model for future Grand Strand golf course developments.
"With 120 courses and competition the way it is, I think the corporate golf model is probably on the way out," says Crow Creek general manager Patrick Crean. "I really think you'll see more facilities like this one, The Thistle, Farmstead, and Calabash (Golf Links) in the next wave of course construction here."
Crow Creek's owner, Jerry McLamb, recently lured Crean from Magnolia Greens Plantation in Leland. A former Long Island police officer, Crean had carved out a reputation as a tough, fair manager with a firm grasp of how to balance customer service with the bottom line. His philosophy at Crow Creek won't waiver.
"We aren't following the old Myrtle Beach mentality of cramming them in there and seeing how many rounds we can do," Crean says. "So far, this approach seems to be working out really well. People would rather pay a little more and get more out of it. Our rates are around the top end for this area, but we have ten minute tee times, an excellent product, and the customer service to back it up."
Crow Creek has made a name for itself among Brunswick County's 30-plus golf courses by supplying golfers with a playable, well-groomed layout replete with airplane hanger sized L93 bentgrass greens and sensibly designed golf holes.
"I think a lot of owners have gotten into trouble by demanding that their architects give them tricked up golf courses," Crean says. "That can come back to bite you all too quickly.
It's not exactly the Butler Cabin, but for over 30 years, the humble abode on the par three 8th hole at Crow Creek Golf Plantation served as McLamb's hunting and fishing retreat. When McLamb and his family weren't farming tobacco or corn on the 500-acre plot, they'd retire to the front porch of the small cabin to talk about the state of affairs.
As time wore on, those discussions would invariably make their way back to the dwindling economics of farming, hefty property tax burdens, and the promise of the emerging golf and real estate industry in Brunswick County.
By mid 1990's, farming was well on its way out, and McLamb was ready for a change. His son-in-law was running the family construction business with efficiency and fervor that left McLamb - as they say in these parts - bored as "all get out."
McLamb had never so much as touched a golf club, nor had he any idea how to run a golf course. But a mutual friend introduced McLamb to Robbins, a North Carolina based to golf course architect who'd served as a senior associate for the Nicklaus design firm. The two hit if off immediately, and a few months later McLamb was trading in his John Deere for an EZ-Go.
"Jerry can't get enough of the game now," Crean says. "It is safe to say he's been bitten by the golf bug. But one thing you can be sure of is that Jerry is and will always be a down to earth guy, and he will have his golf course operated accordingly."
McLamb, however, was not the first in the family to stop growing tobacco and start growing bentgrass. His cousin, W.J. McLamb, has been in the golf business since the early 1990's and owns the Meadowlands Golf Club and Farmstead Golf Links just around the corner. Like his cousin, Jerry doesn't see any reason to leave the area his family has inhabited since the 1700's.
"He has lived here since he was four years old," Crean says. "His grandfather farmed this land, his father farmed this land, and he grew up farming it. He still lives right across the street from the clubhouse and probably always will.
"Right through the old tobacco fields and vegetable gardens," is the way McLamb describes the routing of Crow Creek's front nine, which is unfailingly flat, unabashedly wide open, and always a stiff challenge when the coastal breezes kick up in the early afternoon. For definition, Robbins incorporated subtle mounding and bunkering to call out landing areas and ideal shot positions.
The par four opening hole is the stuff average golfers pray for: a friendly 330 yards from the white tees, a slightly downhill fairway, and a green that is wide open in the front. The finishing stretch on the front nine, just makes golfers want to pray, period.
The par five seventh is the No. 1 handicap hole, and plays to 574 yards from the cranks. The par three eighth requires a poke over the water that can be dicey even from the 143-yard white tees with a headwind. And the par four ninth plays as the fifth toughest hole on the course, and as two totally different holes from the white (349) and black (429) tees.
The back nine takes on a decidedly different feel with its tree lined fairways and rolling contours. The strongest stretch of holes on the back -- and the entire layout -- has to be the closing lineup of 15, 16, 17 and 18. The majority of golf courses at the beach finish par five, par three, par four, but Robbins opted for a less traditional three-four-five routing that works well for Crow Creek.
"I love finishing with the par five," Crean says. "It's not very often that you are on the final tee thinking you might get a stroke back from the course. Usually, you are closing with a deep par four just thinking about getting away with par and maybe bogey."
But at 517 yards from the whites and 538 yards from the blacks, the 18th is a true three-shotter that doesn't surrender many birdies to weekend warriors. Average golfers would be well served to play Crow Creek from the white tees and the comfort of a 120 slope rating. Mid-handicappers will find the 6679-yard blue tees to be a pleasant reprieve from the 6800-yard plus penultimate tee boxes offered at most local courses.
"Even from the tips (black tees) it only slopes to 128, but if the wind is cranking, it will give good players all they can handle," Crean says.
The Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites in Little River, S.C. is the ideal homebase to play Crow Creek and any of the 30-plus golf courses located within a 20-minute drive of the hotel. The Holiday Inn is located off U.S. Highway 17 at Coquina Harbor.
Suites include a spacious living room with television, refrigerator, and coffee maker, and are available in one and two bedroom versions with whirlpool bathtubs. Phones come equipped with two data ports with high-speed Internet access and all local calls are free. For reservations call 1-888-333-2686, or inquire about rates and golf packages when booking through www.myrtlebeachtourism.com.
The Coquina Clubhouse Grill and Bar at the Holiday Inn is a great place to catch a beer and a burger and watch the boats come in. A full bar menu is available, happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and an early bird menu features dinner specials for under $7. Umbertos Italian Restaurant is just a sand blast away on the southeast side of the hotel, and the seafood joints and crab shacks of Little River are only five minutes away.
The Bob Timberlake Show Home is under construction just to the left of the first tee. The home will house paintings, furniture and other items crafted by the famous southern artist. The home will be open to the public.
Designer: Rick Robbins
Year Opened: 2000
Turf: Greens - L93 bentgrass, Fairways - Tifsport Bermuda.
Slope/Ratings: Black 128/73.3/, Blue 125/71.3, White 120/68.5, Gold 112/66.3, Red 114/68.5
Yardage:Black 7101, Blue 6679, White 6099, Gold 5628, Red 5097
Address:245 Hickman Road, NW Calabash, NC 28467
Rates:$59 offseason, $99 peak season, $35 local rate.
Tee Times 877-287-3081
Head Professional: Patrick Crean
Sharp Says: Solid inland course that should be mentioned in the same breath as the Thistle and Farmstead Golf Links. Conditions were less than perfect due to the unseasonably warm winter and a few green collars had rusted out. But tee to green, the course is in good condition, and staff says "A" conditioning should be reached by mid May. Back nine tops the front, aesthetically, but the front nine plays longer and tougher in the wind.
Scenery: 3 Layout: 3.5
Par 3's: 4
Par 4's: 3.5
Par 5's: 4
Practice Facilities: 3.5
Club House/Pro Shop: 2
Pace of Play: 4
Overall Rating: 3.5
Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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