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Thistle Golf Club just north of Myrtle Beach: Where conditioning is king

Shane SharpBy Shane Sharp,
Thistle Golf Club
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Tim Cate was going for a links-like feel at Thistle Golf Club in Sunset Beach, N.C. (Courtesy of Thistle G.C.)

SUNSET BEACH, N.C. -- "Ferocious, yet Fair" has been the philosophy of Thistle Golf Club since it opened in 1999. The mantra began as the succinct direction provided to maverick course designer Tim Cate by owners Robert and Mort Hansen when they set out to build one of the North Strand's premier golfing venues.

Cate obliged by crafting a stunning Lowcountry meets Scottish coast fusion that resulted in Thistle's North Nine and West Nine. The theme continued into the next millennium, with the opening of the critically acclaimed South Nine in the summer of 2000.

Now, with its honeymoon period behind it, what kind of marriage is this 27-hole facility looking to develop with the Grand Strand golfing community?

"We firmly established from the onset here that we were going to be the most customer-service oriented golf course in the Grand Strand," says Thistle golf director Dan Oschmann. "Almost half of our play is repeat play. We are the only course in the entire region that has 12-minute tee times, and that is the cornerstone of our business. That almost always puts you on a hole by yourself."

And it certainly puts the Thistle in a class by itself. But it's not just the tee time spacing that sets the course apart.

The Thistle has earned a reputation as one of the best-conditioned courses in the Grand Strand. If you blink during the fall and spring transition to and from Bermuda and Rye grass on the fairways and tee boxes, you'll miss it. If you line up a putt correctly and properly judge its speed on the Thistle's true rolling bentgrass greens, you won't miss it.

"This is one of the only courses I work with where I don't have to worry about the current conditions when sending clients out to play," says Marty Ekster, a golf package provider based in Myrtle Beach. "Since Thistle opened, it has been the same every day, every week, and every month. And that same is awesome."

Awesome is as awesome does. The Thistle sports an open layout with air circulation that keeps the greens and fairways dry, firm, and free of fungus. The 12-minute tee times ensure that the course doesn't get trampled like the infield at Churchill Downs.

But Oschmann believes there is more to the Thistle's sublime upkeep than Mother Nature and Father Time.

"Do we have an awesome superintendent? Yes, we do," he says. "I don't know how he keeps this course in this kind of shape. We even have people praise our maintenance crew while they are playing. The bottom line is we just don't have an owner that cuts corners, and that applies to the maintenance budget as well. When times get tough, we don't dip into the maintenance budget to make ends meet."

Nor did the brothers Hansen cut any corners when it came to building their dream course. Robert Hansen, an ardent golf collector, was a member of the U.S.G.A's Museum Committee in Far Hills, N.J. and assisted Pine Valley with the collection of its museum pieces.

The Hansens revered the Scottish origins of the game and decided to sell their golf course in the Garden State in hopes of constructing a 27-hole links-style facility on the Grand Strand. The theme of the course would be based on the original Thistle Club -- a Scottish golf society founded in 1815 to manage the affairs of golf clubs and administer the rules.

"Bob and Mort have such an appreciation for the history of the game, I don't think there was ever any doubt as to what style course they wanted to build," Oschmann says. "Robert even has the original artifacts from the Thistle Club and they are on display in the clubhouse."

The Hansen's were admirers of Cate's work at the Players Club at St. James Plantation, and the developers of Ocean Ridge Plantation asked that Cate emulate many of the Thistle's characteristics at Tiger's Eye.

Cate, like designer Mike Strantz, is known to only take on one project at a time, a rarity in an era when most design shops have dozens of courses on the drawing board. This attention to detail and singular commitment appealed to Robert and Mort.

And while the yardage book will tell you that the brothers simply asked Cate to build them a "Ferocious yet Fair" layout, Oschmann says their involvement went much deeper than that.

"You have guys like Robert and Mort that know so much about the game, of course he was totally hands on," Oschmann says. "But they let Tim lead the way. They knew Tim was from this area and he's' not going to make a fake golf course. There is a blend between the traditional Scottish experience and Tim's understanding of the natural features of this area that makes this course what it is."

The Scottish element of the Thistle is apparent in Cate's mounding and use of native grasses around the fairways and greens. The Myrtle Beach element of the Thistle is obvious on holes like No. 2 on the South Nine, which requires an approach shot over water to an island green.

The difference between the North Nine and the West Nine essentially comes down to a few tree lined holes on the later that create a brief parkland style feel. Cate laid out the majority of the holes on both original nines using a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach.

The new South Nine contains more risk/reward opportunities, and some strategic maneuvers that aren't apparent the first time you play the course. The best example being the par five fourth hole. No. 4 plays 543-yards from the back tees, 475-yards from the middle tees, and requires a tee shot over a large pond to the right.

The amount of carry depends on how much of the hole the golfer cuts off to the right. While the ideal tee shot would appear to be a cut, an arching draw over the water to the landing area that juts out right of the waste bunker provides a better chance of getting on in two.

The most talked about hole at the Thistle will no doubt be the South's par three ninth. By far and away the most Linksy hole on the course, the green sits atop a giant mound with two deep pot bunkers in the front. The front and right side of the hole is protected by water, and the tee shot is uphill and typically into the wind.

"Normally, I am not a fan of par threes as finishing holes, but I think this one can hold its own with any of them," Oschmann says. "I would go so far as to say it will become one of the most famous holes in Myrtle Beach.

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Thistle Golf Club - clubhouse

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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