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|The 211-yard, par-3 second hole on the Otter nine at River Oaks Golf Plantation features a green surrounded by sand. (Ian Guerin/TravelGolf)|
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- There's no doubt the bad economy affected the Myrtle Beach golf scene.
A number of golf courses closed, leaving once-successful clubs leveled or developers unsure how to use the land as the grass simply grew. River Oaks Golf Plantation was on pace to join the ranks of other failed ventures.
The golf course wasn't in the best shape. And without much flash, it turned into an afterthought for local and visiting players.
"The owners who were here before really let the course go downhill," fifth-year member Bill Wallace said after a recent round. "The greens were all chewed up, and they didn't care. This company here, they're really taking care of it."
So much so that Wallace and his wife, Marie, maintained their membership at the golf course despite living in Myrtle Beach only five months out of the year.
In November 2009, Signature Golf Group took over management and marketing of the 27-hole River Oaks facility. Then on Oct. 1, Azalea Sands Investments -- a group of local pros known for reviving area golf courses -- signed a 30-year lease on the property.
Between the two parties, they've spent approximately $2.2 million to ensure River Oaks has the potential to develop again into a player in the community.
"The cool thing to us with Signature Golf and these other courses, they're in dilapidated condition," said A.J. Sawyer, the pro at River Oaks and one of the Azalea Sands investors. "That's kind of our specialty, getting it back in shape and where the locals can play it again.
"From where it was, it was a dump a year ago. Those are the kind of courses we go after. Now, what we battle for two years is word of mouth that the new guys are in town."
Split into three nine-hole courses -- Bear, Fox and Otter -- River Oaks sits on top of a former nature preserve just outside the Myrtle Beach city limits. The 27 holes allows for three 18-hole options, Bear-Fox, Otter-Bear and Fox-Otter.
All three nines added Champion Ultradwarf greens. But for those who haven't played River Oaks in some time, you'll notice more what the golf course subtracted.
Nearly 4,600 trees were removed, with the remaining stumps buried under mounds of dirt and sand. That change significantly opens all three layouts. It also adds an up-and-down dimension that wasn't before so prominent. Additionally, many of the sand traps that once lined the spaces around the greens were transformed into catch areas for approaching shots.
"It wasn't that hard," Wallace said. "But they made it that way now so more people would come and play."
Other improvements include bunker renovations, improved drainage and consistent reseeding in order to further River Oaks' rise from bottom-feeder status.
"It's not a high-end course, but it's a middle-of-the-road course now," Sawyer said. "Before, I don't know if it was comparable to any course. It was sort of on its own."
The resurrection is noticeable at first glance and during play. The removal of trees makes it easier to play a true round, no matter the nine on which you begin. Various hazards remain, from sand to several holes lined on one side of the fairway by water.
Likewise, all three nines are fairly straight, with only a handful of actual doglegs.
As a result, every par 4 and 5 invites use of the driver.
In total, 18 holes at River Oaks average 6,300 yards from the white tees, 5,800 for the ladies tees and 6,800 for the championship set.
River Oaks houses one of the locations for the Golf School of Myrtle Beach. Individual and group lessons are available, as are nine-hole playing lessons and custom packages for adults and juniors.
Like the golf course itself, the facilities at River Oaks have changed in the short time since ownership shifted hands.
"Since I went home in the spring, this here used to be all trees," Wallace said, pointing to the new putting green directly in front of the clubhouse. "It really makes the (front of the) course look very good."
The clubhouse itself is small. It includes the pro shop and a restaurant-bar with basic pub food. Soon, though, that changes. River Oaks is adding an outdoor pavilion to hold up to 100 people for special events and golf tournaments.
A perk at the renovated River Oaks? It's obvious the new owners want to get people back out on the golf course. That means big savings.
The rack rate ranges from $35 to $65. Several promotional packages with local restaurants sell for $20 and include a nine-hole outing, complete with several beverages, food and giveaways, and they're open to locals and visitors
For the more committed, membership options allow golfers to play River Oaks for less than $15 a round. That's the route Bill and Marie Wallace chose, and they take full advantage every year.
"We like the membership, because we can play four other courses," Marie Wallace said, referring to the combo membership she and her husband purchased.
With those rates, River Oaks is nearly unavoidable -- exactly the hope of Sawyer and the rest of his group at Azalea Sands.
November 5, 2010
Ian Guerin is a freelance writer and DJ living in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He's decent with the driver and putter; it's everything else in the bag that gives him trouble. Follow Ian on Twitter at @iguerin.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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