SOUTH OF MYRTLE BEACH, SC
By Larry Gavrich, Founder & Editor,
Home On The Course, LLC
Alabama is not exactly a state typically associated with innovation. Good football teams, yes, but not innovation. In one area, however, Alabama has led the nation, and that was in its legendary development of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which opened its first course in 1992. Since then, golf operators throughout the land have imitated (but never quite duplicated) the Jones Trail in terms of its size and its dedication to one golf architect.
Most of Jones’ 26 golf courses from Muscle Shoals in the north to Point Clear 376 miles away on the Gulf of Mexico are not easy to get to from the northern reaches of the country, and modest golf trails have sprung up in more accessible locations that are also known for excellent golf. One of the best is the Waccamaw Golf Trail south of Myrtle Beach, a collection that comprises some of the best and most popular layouts among the Grand Strand’s 100-plus courses.
The Native American word “waccamaw” translates as “coming and going,” a reference to the shifting tides in the nearby marshland and rivers. It might just as well apply to the steady flow of golfers on the Waccamaw Trail.
“We have built our database (for the Trail) to 80,000 golfer email addresses,” says John Rusher, executive director for the Waccamaw Golf Trail. “And although golf rounds in the Myrtle Beach area are not quite back to where they were pre-recession, increases the last few years have been steady.”
The Waccamaw Trail includes 11 courses from Murrells Inlet to Pawleys Island, a stretch of just 17 miles. The best known and most in-demand courses on the trail include the Jack Nicklaus-designed Pawleys Plantation; TPC of Myrtle Beach, which once hosted a stop on the Champions Tour (formerly the Senior PGA Tour); Heritage Club, which may have the best collection of live oak trees of any golf course on the Grand Strand; and two gems by the late Mike Strantz –- True Blue Golf Club, named for the former indigo plantations in the area, and the most popular and arguably the best of them all, the Caledonia Golf & Fish Club.
The others include Blackmoor, the only Myrtle Beach golf course designed by Gary Player; Litchfield Country Club, one of the oldest on the Strand; and River Club, Tradition Club and Willbrook Plantation, all located within one mile of each other and just west of the well-traveled U.S. Highway 17 in Litchfield Beach.
Caledonia, True Blue and TPC Myrtle Beach all made a recently published Golf Digest list of the Top 30 golf courses in South Carolina, which included private as well as public clubs. Caledonia recently jumped 24 spots onGolf Digest’s list of Top 100 public golf courses in America, holding down the #73 ranking. Rounds at Caledonia and True Blue on successive days – or, better, on the same day – are an exercise in blissful schizophrenia and show both the imagination and talent of Mike Strantz, who died in 2005 at the age of 50 with fewer than a dozen layouts in his portfolio.
Anyone who has played the legendary Tobacco Road in Sanford, NC, will see in Caledonia and True Blue – mostly at True Blue – the wild side of Strantz, who must have played in a lot of sand as a youth in the Charleston area.
Whereas most golf course architects use bunkering to interrupt the ball’s path toward the green, at True Blue sand is used for framing virtually every hole, making it appear a more dominant element than even the grass fairways. (Those squeamish about driving through bunkers will get over their fears at True Blue.) The routing – around and over sprawling live oak trees, lakes, streams and menacing bunkers – is the major hazard at True Blue.
On first play, Caledonia will seem more of a classic layout than True Blue, the wild side of the architect confined more to the green complexes where the edges of the putting surfaces bump up against hazards, some of them of the liquid variety. Some of the greens defy convention, such as at the par three 3rd, which is pressed, accordion style, into three levels front to back, more than 60 yards long with a huge expanse of sand in front and along the sides. If you can maneuver your tee shot into the recessed level that holds the pin, you are almost assured a makeable birdie putt. Otherwise, you’ll be working hard to avoid bogey or worse, whether you are putting – from up to 125 feet – or blasting from the sand.
Caledonia is an experience that goes well beyond golf. The lunches served on the porch of its Lowcountry clubhouse, overlooking an endless expanse of marsh out to the Waccamaw River (watch for the boats floating by), are the best in the area. On the day of rest, it’s a hoot to watch families dressed in their Sunday finest seated among golfers sporting their Izod shirts and Titleist caps.
One of the best scenes in public golf is from the outside porch that almost literally overhangs the 18th green, itself about 50 yards from front to back. Sip an iced tea or something stronger and watch as first-time Caledonians try to fly the lake with their approach shots to a middle or back pin stuck into a toothpick narrow green. It may remind you of your own approach attempt earlier.
BUILD YOUR OWN TRAIL IN THE CAROLINAS
Whether you have a week or a weekend to spend playing golf in the Carolinas, take advantage of the creative combination of golf courses in the region. Here is a short list of some of the best:
Pinehurst and Southern Pines, NC
With nine different layouts to choose, your week is spoken for at this golfing mecca in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Splurge and play Pinehurst #2, the fifth best public layout on Golf Digest’s list (the iconic Donald Ross layout was recently renovated by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw). Other top-rated courses in town include #4 (ranked 59th by Golf Digest), Donald Ross’ Pine Needles (64th), the epic Tobacco Road (71st) just a half-hour up the road in Sanford, and Pinehurst #8 (80th). And a Coore/Crenshaw original, Dormie Club in nearby West End, NC, takes full advantage of the native sand and scrub pines.
Carolina Golf Trail, Charlotte, NC, area
Some of the courses in this group of seven that ring Charlotte were purchased out of near bankruptcy in 2014, but under new ownership, all seems right again. The Trail extends into South Carolina with Waterford Golf Club in Rock Hill, designed by former PGA Tour great Hale Irwin. We take special note that Charlotte Golf Links, one of the Trail clubs, has a Tom Doak pedigree. Doak takes an old-school approach to design and is picky about where, and for whom, he designs courses. Last year, I played one of the previously financially strapped courses, Skybrook (Huntersville), and found its layout inventive and fun, but course conditions were a bit less than ideal. One of my local playing partners told me it was much better than a year earlier, so there is hope.
Blue Ridge Parkway Golf Trail, North Carolina
This is golf with an altitude, including the Mt. Mitchell Golf Club, which plays through a valley – at 3,000 feet up. With a total of 28 courses, nine of them in Virginia and all within a short drive of America’s most scenic parkway, you can be sure your golf game will be elevated, one way or the other. Included in the eclectic group are Reems Creek north of Asheville, designed by the British firm Hawtree & Sons; and other layouts by the likes of Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones, George Cobb and even Lee Trevino, which surely will appeal to left-to-right players.