The bustling stretch of Route 17 that runs from Georgetown, South Carolina, through Myrtle Beach, and up to Southport, North Carolina -- the 60-mile golf-rich tract known as the "Grand Strand" -- is a case study in capitalism gone wild. Fueled by more than 14 million vacationers who visit the Strand each year (about one million of whom come for the golf), the thoroughfare is flanked by a dizzying array of seafood buffets and pancake houses, surf shops and miniature golf courses, outlet malls and golf emporiums, and seemingly every chain restaurant.
On another level, this same expanse of roadway makes you wonder if perhaps Karl Marx was onto something. Because while it offers infinite options for dining, shopping, and entertainment, often at bargain rates, Route 17 can also be tacky, crowded, and sometimes tawdry. But love it or loathe it, Route 17 is the lifeline of the Grand Stand, and a microcosm of the greater Myrtle Beach area. In the end, options -- beyond just the assortment of eateries -- are what Myrtle Beach is all about.
Need a place to stay? Drive down Ocean Boulevard, the coast road that runs parallel to Route 17 through much of Myrtle Beach. It's home to more than 40 of the Strand's 460 hotels, motels, and resorts. But the problem is choosing just one. Search under the letter "O" in the local Yellow Pages, and you'll find the Ocean Drive Resort, the Ocean Dunes Resort, the Ocean Forest Villas, the Ocean Reef hotel...and the list goes on. All are reasonably priced, comfortable, oceanfront accommodations, and all are within a 10-minute drive of one another. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
And then there's the golf. At last count, 123 courses (most of which are public) were open for play in this booming golfopolis. And, as you might expect, most are a bargain to play, too (especially if you get the right package at the right time of year).
The most concentrated, and arguably the best, cluster of courses is in the southern and central portions of the Strand. This is not to say that the courses on the very northern end of the Strand are any less memorable. On the contrary, among those tracks are some of the strongest layouts in the Carolinas, including Rivers Edge, Tiger's Eye, and Thistle Golf Club, among others.
In fact, if you'd rather pass on the hubbub of Myrtle Beach, the quieter northern Strand may be for you. But for the Myrtle experience in full throttle, stick to the southern and central Strand. This stretch has the most action and one of the finest beaches on the East Coast. It's also home to the Strand's three premier courses -- each of which holds a spot on GOLF Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play ranking. You'll have to be willing to spend a little to play this trilogy of top tracks -- Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (No. 32 in the ranking), the Dunes Golf and Beach Club (No. 36), and Tidewater Golf Club and Plantation (No. 85) -- but each is worth its admission fee.
Begin your journey in North Myrtle Beach at the historic Dunes Club. Built in 1944, it is the second oldest course on the Strand (behind Pine Lakes International, which opened in 1927). It's a tree-lined, inland course, but it sits just a few hundred yards off the Atlantic and in one of the poshest -- yes, Myrtle Beach can be posh -- neighborhoods in town. A timeless Robert Trent Jones layout, the Dunes is atypical of most Myrtle Beach courses. In a market dominated by island greens, never-ending waste bunkers, and knee-knocking forced carries, this routing is a welcome respite. Classically cut holes, well-conceived doglegs, and perhaps the most handsome greenside bunkering on the Strand team up in this tranquil setting to create an unforgettable layout.
"When you're always up against 'the newest' and 'the greatest,'" says director of golf Cliff Mann, referring to the legions of new and "flashy" courses that have bombarded Myrtle Beach in recent years, "it is always a challenge to stay on top."
The club has risen to this challenge. In April 2000, $6 million was invested in a new clubhouse and course renovations, including the construction of an alternate tee box on 18 that allows you the option of playing this straightaway hole as a dogleg left. The facility just had a better year than 2001, Mann says, and is planning to install a new irrigation system, which should be completed by February.
The standout hole at the Dunes, which hosted the Senior Tour Championship from 1994 through 1999 and the 1962 Women's U.S. Open, is the heroic par-five 13th. From the numerous tee boxes -- a Jones trademark consistent throughout the course -- the fairway bulges into a generous landing area, then curls sharply to the right along the rounded bank of Lake Singleton. Your chance at birdie is usually determined by your second shot, tempting you to carry as much of the lake as you dare. Like the water on 13, all the hazards at the Dunes are laid out in front of you -- no surprises here. The club is semi-private; stay at one of the club's affiliated hotels to enhance your chances of obtaining a preferred tee time.
Just 15 minutes to the north is Tidewater, a daily fee on the tip of North Myrtle Beach. You'll have less of a problem booking a tee time here, but determining who designed the layout is not so cut and dry. A South Carolina tax attorney named Ken Tomlinson developed the course, which opened to favorable reviews in 1990. However, whether Tomlinson also designed the layout -- like he unwaveringly says he did -- is unclear. Acclaimed architect Rees Jones has been quoted as saying that he, in fact, routed and designed the layout. Jones claims Tomlinson only paid him for the routing, and then cut him loose.
"I've never known for a fact [who designed it]," says Tidewater head pro Chris Cooper, "but as far as I know, it's Ken's work. If you ask Ken, he'll say, 'I designed this golf course.' "
It's brilliant no matter whose genius is behind it. The great variety of terrain at Tidewater forms as memorable a stretch of 18 holes as any on the Strand. The layout -- which blends wonderfully with the surrounding marsh and wetlands -- really takes off at the third hole, a gorgeous par three set on the marshy banks of the Cherry Grove Inlet. The next hole, a gently bending par four lined by a narrow waste bunker and the waterway to its left, is reminiscent of the closer at Pebble Beach.
The big story here in recent months has been the greens. The club shut down completely last June and July, stripped its bentgrass putting surfaces, and replaced them with more durable Bermudagrass. By the fall, they were rolling smoothly and holding up much better than their predecessors. Good thing, because Tidewater hosts more than 45,000 rounds each year.
Caledonia, another course accustomed to heavy traffic, sits some 23 miles south of Myrtle Beach on Pawley's Island. The layout was routed on what was originally a rice plantation owned by a Scottish immigrant named Dr. Richard Nesbit. (No surprise, then, that "Caledonia" is the ancient Roman word for Scotland.) The entrance, which leads to a charming antebellum clubhouse, is the Strand's answer to Magnolia Lane at Augusta National, with ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss forming a canopy over the road.
While the original plantation occupied more than 2,500 acres, designer Mike Strantz -- a Tom Fazio understudy -- was left with only 115 acres to shape. There was no room for a driving range, and you get the feeling that he may have run out of real estate when routing the cramped par-three ninth, which usually plays to about 100 yards. Still, he did a masterful job in turning this charming piece of land into a compelling and memorable layout.
The first thing you notice about the course is its length. From the tips, it maxes out at just 6,526 yards. Granted it's a par 70, with five par threes, but length is clearly not Caledonia's primary defense. That job is left to the well-guarded greens and variety of hole locations they allow. What's more, massive fairway bunkers, water hazards, and deep pot bunkers are strategically positioned all over the course, and tall pines line nearly every hole.
The layout really begins at the sharp dogleg-left 13th, with a peninsula green that sits in a sea of sand (ditto on the par-three 17th). As for the 16th and the stunning home hole, an approach shot short of the green on these par fours is guaranteed to make a splash. For a post-round cocktail, there may not be a more pleasant spot on the Strand than the clubhouse veranda overlooking Caledonia's 18th green.
Caledonia's sister course, True Blue Golf Plantation, is a two-minute drive from the Caledonia gates, and is one of countless "second tier" courses in the Pawley's Island/Myrtle Beach area worth checking out.
Another Strantz brainchild, True Blue opened in 1998 on a massive rice farm called True Blue Plantation. Occupying 250 acres, the layout is much roomier than Caledonia, if less mature, and at times you'll feel as if you're in the Southwest. The most dominant feature of the course is its collection of firm-sand waste bunkers, which are so ubiquitous that most double as cart paths. If you're not comfortable playing off this surface, a round at True Blue -- a terrifying 145 slope rating from the tips -- can be a long day. Just take a peek from the elevated 10th tee box, the highest point in Georgetown County. This penal dogleg right plays over a waste bunker from the tee, cross-bunkers on the second, and greenside bunkers on the approach.
The course closed in the summer of 2000 for a $600,000 renovation. While some modifications were made to soften the more intimidating holes, the main focus was the greens. Like Tidewater, the club was having trouble maintaining its bentgrass putting surfaces, so they were stripped and covered with more heat-resistant Bermudagrass.
A 15-minute drive north of True Blue is the Tournament Players Club of Myrtle Beach, a PGA Tour-owned facility that opened in 1999. It was the 100th course opened in Myrtle Beach, and the layout was built specifically to play host to the Senior Tour Championship.
But after the year 2000, the tournament's sponsor pulled out and the event moved to Oklahoma. Though disappointing for the club, visitors to Myrtle Beach were left with a fully public Tour-caliber layout -- though many didn't know it.
"The biggest problem we have had," says General Manager Rick Shoemaker, "is trying to make people aware that we're a daily-fee course." Problem is, of the 24 TPCs in the U.S., only eight are daily fee -- and, truth be told, the secluded Myrtle Beach location, with its long, flag-pole lined access road and formidable clubhouse, has the feel of a private club, too.
Nevertheless, the TPC of Myrtle Beach entertains more than 35,000 rounds per year, and hosts the finals of the DuPont World Amateur Handicap Championship, the world's largest on-site golf tournament. This event alone brings 5,000 golfers to Myrtle Beach each year.
Because many of the greens and fairways are elevated, the layout plays much longer than the scorecard indicates (6,950 yards from the tips). Tom Fazio, who designed the course with some help from Lanny Wadkins, strayed from the typical TPC design.
With the exception of the picturesque par-three 17th, there are no stadium-style greens. In fact, most of the greens are crowned and surrounded by large collection areas, making accurate approaches critical. But you also need to be able to swing a big stick: From the back tees, the third and 11th holes, both par fours, require carries of 210 and 230 yards, respectively.
The Surf Golf and Beach Club, on the northern end of North Myrtle Beach, not far from Tidewater, is another throwback course distinct from the vast majority of newer courses on the Strand.
Built in 1960, the course is the oldest in North Myrtle Beach, and a delightfully simple George Cobb design. The real tests on this flat, tree-lined layout are the greens, which were resculpted, along with the greenside bunkers, by Cobb's protege, John LaFoy, in 1990.
"It's not the hardest golf course in town," says head pro Bill Campbell, who has tended shop at the semi-private Surf Club for 17 years, "but it doesn't yield many low scores either." Credit the greens, which were converted to bentgrass in 1996. The par-four 11th hole, for example, plays just 317 yards from the tips. The approach, however, plays to a narrow, but deep, three-tiered green.
The par-three home hole, which can stretch to 217 yards, is a beauty. The tee shot requires a carry over a water hazard to a sloping green with a false front -- a tough shot made even tougher with a gallery looking on from the clubhouse patio.
Grande Dunes is on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach. This Roger Rulewich-designed layout, which debuted in 2001, was routed on a bluff and offers more elevation changes than the typical Myrtle Beach layout. It features a great mix of rolling, wide-open holes and tighter, target-style holes. The two prettiest are the 14th, a stunning par three that plays from an elevated tee over a spill-out from the waterway, and the 15th, a par four lined by the Waterway to its right. If you want a challenge, Grande Dunes will give you all you can handle. From the tips, it measures a stomach-dropping 7,618 yards.
The Barefoot Resort, just 15 minutes north of Grande Dunes, also opened in 2000 on the west side of the Waterway. Approaching from Route 17, it's just beyond Greg Norman's Steakhouse, a swanky neo-Australian eatery unlike any restaurant on the Grand Strand.
At Barefoot, two of the greatest contemporary designers -- Tom Fazio and Pete Dye -- and two of the greatest players -- Norman and Davis Love III -- have tag-teamed to create the best four-pack of courses of any resort on the Strand. The 2,377-acre property is also home to numerous golf villas and a massive hotel (which is being expanded). A marina is also being added.
The most visually appealing of the four layouts is Fazio's, which is lined by handsome, if daunting, fairway bunkers and native grasses on nearly every hole. Water hazards exist on 15 holes, but are only a real factor on about half of those.
Dye's offering, the only semi-private course of the four (the other three are fully accessible), is the most visually intimidating. "Our guests either love it or hate it," head pro Dave Genevro says of the Dye course, which is loaded with hazards and can play to 7,343 yards. "It's definitely the most challenging."
The Love course, which received the most play last year, is the most forgiving off the tee, but on many holes the fairways tighten as they approach the greens -- most of which are crowned -- making a savvy iron game essential. This track also features the faux ruins of an antebellum plantation house.
According to Genevro, the underrated Norman course doesn't receive the hype of the others only because it's a bit less picturesque and not quite as mature as the others. Lined by barren waste areas, it sometimes has the feel of a desert course, with the exception of the few holes that play along the Intracoastal Waterway.
What's nice about Barefoot is that you can play four unique layouts without ever having to leave the property. But with 119 other courses to choose from in Myrtle Beach, what fun would that be?
Alan Bastable is Associate Editor of GOLF Magazine Special Publications.