Myrtle Beach is the self-proclaimed golf capital of the world and it has some ammunition to back up its braggadocio.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the golf course-to-land-area ratio so dense; you can barely drive down Highway 17 through the Grand Strand - that thin, 80-mile strip of land along the Atlantic Ocean from Southport N.C. to Georgetown, S.C. - without running over a golf course. There are courses to suit just about every budget, from high end to low end and everything in between.
The same can be said of the quality: the Grand Strand is home to some top-notch courses, some middle-of-the-road and some you wouldn't let cattle graze on. For example, the Grand Strand had 115 courses at last count and only two of them made Golfweek's most recent top 200 modern and classic courses: the Dunes Golf and Beach Club ranked 89th in the modern category and the Caledonia Fish and Golf Club on Pawley's Island was ranked 73rd in modern courses.
But, lists are subjective and there are many who would argue other Grand Strand courses belong on any "best" list.
Still, there are signs the King's crown is growing heavy. With land becoming more valuable than some golf businesses, some courses are selling out, while others are struggling. The Grand Strand has lost four courses recently and three others are pending, while 12 have filed for bankruptcy.
The trend is pretty much true for most of the U.S., where golf participation has been stagnating since 2000, but it is particularly visible in Myrtle Beach, so dependent on the royal and ancient game. The area's courses once boasted an average of about 50,000 rounds annually; that is now down to about 36,000. Some courses are finding they must have a residential component to remain afloat, like the Pearl in Sunset Beach, N.C., which has embarked on a 5-10 year construction project which will completely transform the little seaside town. Many standalone golf courses in Myrtle Beach face uncertain futures.
The good news is that it's now a buyer's market, but beware there are a lot of sharks swimming in a shrinking ocean. With courses desperate to pull in business, great deals can be made, though visitors must be careful when they negotiate through the maze of packagers and companies purporting to get you the best deal. Watch out for hidden surcharges, resort fees, minimum stays, "rates based upon unit availability" etc.
Also, be aware that rate changes are frequent, so be sure to ask the course where you're playing. The summer and winter seasons are generally the cheapest, while spring and fall will have the highest green fees. Afternoon tee times are usually cheaper, and watch out for courses that use "double tees," starting golfers at the 1st and 10th holes. Be sure to ask about a course's replay policy.
As far as lodging, there are roughly 70,000 rental units along the Grand Strand with the same variety of quality, from ritzy condos on the ocean to sleazy motels where you might hear crack cocaine being sold outside your door.
Europeans might be surprised to learn there are quite a few Grand Strand courses that allow walking, but be sure to check first. With all this in mind, here are my recommendations of some Grand Strand courses to play:
- The Thistle is on the northern tip of the Strand, just over the border into North Carolina. This isn't the most challenging course around Myrtle Beach, but it is definitely the most relaxed. Most Grand Strand courses have eight-minute intervals between starting times, the better to take your green fees and herd you through. At Thistle, they start you 12 minutes apart - an eternity in golf time.
"We lose money on it, but it keeps people coming back," said Thistle head pro Shawn Hicken.That's one reason some long-time Strand golfers swear by Thistle. Another one is the conditioning, which is usually immaculate.
- The Pearl, also at Sunset Beach, has always been known for its conditioning, particularly the East course. Owner DeCarol Williamson has embarked on a building construction project estimated to be 10-15 years in the making. That includes a hotel and spa, bed and breakfast and about 3,000 other housing units in more than 200 buildings on the site, located on 900 acres of a marsh preserve that straddles both Sunset Beach and Ocean Isles Beach. "It's big - a massive, massive project," said head pro Matt Griffin.
The Pearl's two courses, both Dan Maples designs, have similarities as well as stark contrasts. The West course has more of a links-style feel, with an open, airy feel and thick stands of pampas grass. It earned a nomination from Golf Digest in 1988 as "best new public course." The East is more traditional, with trees lining many of its fairways. The East was renovated in 1999 and the greens were re-done two years ago, sod with L93 bentgrass.
- True Blue Plantation Golf Club is at the opposite end of the Strand, at its southern tip. Once dubbed "Golf's Heaven and Hell," the course has been softened through a series of changes by architect Mike Strantz. It is still one of the Strand's best with its hidden greens and visually deceptive bunkers. Strantz filled in waste areas, removed mounding from a number of greens and filled in bunkers. "Frankly, if this course were private, it would be fine just the way it (was)," head pro Danny Gore told TravelGolf. "But, in our business repeat play is just too important."
- Caledonia Fish and Golf Club: Strantz'first solo design and his predecessor to True Blue. Caledonia, the Roman name for Scotland, wraps through an old rice plantation and fish and hunt club. Though one of Strantz' least controversial courses, it's won a ton of awards from various golf magazines. A very playable course, Caledonia has a nice mix of holes; it's one of those courses that can play difficult or easy, depending on pin placement and which tee box you hit from.
- Tiger's Eye Golf Links: There's not a flat putt on this Tim Cates-designed course at the Ocean Ridge Plantation, which usually finds its way onto various top-10 lists at the beach. The course has 60 feet of elevation changes - stunning for the lowcountry - as it makes its way through coastal Carolina terrain. Cates, a left-hander, has stuck most of the hazards to the right of fairways and greens, and there is water on 13 holes. Play this course several times before thinking about shooting a low score.
- The Barefoot Resort was one of the most ambitious golf projects ever to hit the area, sporting courses designed by Davis Love III, Tom Fazio, Pete Dye and Greg Norma. Of the four, the Love and Fazio courses are best. The Love course was said to be the sixth best new course in the country by Golf Digest in 2000, mainly because it had the best piece of property, winding through the ruins of an old plantation. It showcases touches of Pinehurst No. 2 - Davis being a Carolinian by birth - and has elevated greens, tree-lined fairways and tough par-4s.
The Fazio course has his usual trademarks, the sweeping fairways, signature bunkering and traditional green complexes, although it also has a par-4 13th hole with a green to the left of the fairway, on the far side of a small pond, and another at the end of the fairway. The unprotected green to the right has severe sloping that holds only the most accurate shots.