For an Upscale Taste of Myrtle Beach, Hurry Down to the South Strand

February 20, 2007

Few golf destinations evoke more “been-there-done-that” than Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And that’s a shame, because nobody has been there and done it all. The 60-mile stretch known as the Grand Strand features 108 courses, 70,000-plus rooms, suites and condos, and more than 1,600 restaurants. Your stay-play-and-eat options are practically infinite.

Storm the beach the smart way by choosing a manageable part of the Strand. The South Strand, marked by live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss, runs from Surfside Beach south to Pawleys Island. This is where neon signs, tourist traps and all-you-can-eat chow halls give way to seafood shanties and boutiques that complement a languid landscape.

Most courses here are laid out on former rice and indigo plantations on the Waccamaw River neck. The South Strand’s crown jewel is the 6,526-yard Caledonia Golf and Fish Club (No. 26 on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 You Can Play). Eccentric architect Mike Strantz showed restraint with this traditional track set in reedy wetlands. The 383-yard 18th hole–one of the best closers in town–calls for a knee-knocking approach over a coastal lagoon to a green near Caledonia’s wraparound patio. Splashed approaches spark polite sighs from spectators, but a 9-iron to 10 feet just might get you a round of applause.

Across the road at Strantz’s True Blue course–aka Golf’s Heaven and Hell–the architect displays the diabolical streak that fed his rep as a maverick. True Blue’s vast waste areas, scattered mounds and oblique greens have polarized golfers since the course opened in 1998. Strantz tamed his beast in 2000, but the 145 slope from the 7,062-yard black tees makes it one of Myrtle’s toughest tracks.

Crib Sheet
Greens Fees: $55-$85;
Caledonia Golf and Fish Club/True Blue
Greens Fees: $75-$140;
Heritage Club
Greens Fees: $52-$82;
Litchfield Country Club
Greens Fees: $47-$58;
Pawleys Plantation
Greens Fees: $65-$100;
River Club
Greens Fees: $52-$660;
TPC of Myrtle Beach
Greens Fees: $115-$140;
Tradition Club
Greens Fees: $61-$87;
Wachesaw Plantation East
Greens Fees: $70-$90;
Willbrook Plantation
Greens Fees: $47-$58;

Another tough hombre is the 6,950-yard Tournament Players Club of Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet. Master designer Tom Fazio prefers beauty to brawn, but the TPC of Myrtle Beach showcases forced carries, tight fairways and tricky approaches. The 17th is a 193-yarder that demands a tee shot over a pond to a peninsular green. The 538-yard 18th plays as a three-shotter from the tips and as a pure risk-reward challenge from the other four tees. Prince Creek bisects the fairway 300 yards out, forcing long hitters to think twice from the tee.

While Caledonia, True Blue and TPC are the South Strand’s biggest stars, there are older, more affordable courses you shouldn’t overlook.

The Willard Byrd-designed Litchfield Country Club on Pawleys Island, one of the original eight courses on the Grand Strand, is an old-school stretch of narrow fairways, sharp doglegs and small greens. At the 424-yard 11th, the fairway’s sharp left turn and a shoebox-size green make four feel like a birdie. Litchfield finishes with a sweeping 406-yarder with a lagoon threatening drives and approach shots.

In 1985, Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort asked South Carolina native Tom Jackson to design a white-knuckle, championship-caliber course. Today, River Club is still one of the area’s better tests. Hazards–water, sand or both–appear on all 18 holes. The layout plays much harder than its 6,677 yards would suggest. Golfers from up north will feel at home on the slick, A-1 bentgrass greens–a novelty in the Carolina Lowcountry.

Two other ’80s designs are worth a visit. In 1985, developer Larry Young set out to create one of the South Strand’s most scenic tracks on 600 acres along the Waccamaw River. Defying the decade’s “more is better” theme, he sprinkled the Heritage Club with bunkers and mounding, but let its 300-year-old live oaks and black lagoons play starring roles. For his greens, Young made like a 1980s-vintage Jack Nicklaus and built some of the Southeast’s most severely sloping surfaces. Architecture buffs ripped them as crazily severe, and a decade later Young smoothed them out.

In 1988, the developers of Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club–which lies just a pitching wedge south of Heritage on the Atlantic side of U.S. 17–were looking for a big name to anchor their resort. They brought in Nicklaus, who was then known for creating courses only scratch golfers could love. With a 146 slope from the back tees, the Golden Bear’s 7,026-yard layout at Pawleys Plantation will never be mistaken for a gentle resort course, but it’s far more playable than some of his other ’80s tracks. From the 6,127-yard White Egret tees (130 slope, 70.8 course rating), it’s fair and even fun.

Pawleys’ popularity–more than 40,000 golfers visit each year–ushered in a golf course building boom that continued until 2000 and produced Caledonia, True Blue and the TPC of Myrtle Beach. That surge also brought some lesser-known courses worth exploring.

Willbrook Plantation is a 6,722-yard 1988 Dan Maples design draped over the rolling terrain of two old rice plantations. History lovers enjoy the markers detailing the property’s rich traditions; golfers appreciate the elevated tee boxes and gently breaking greens.

While Willbrook is open and watery, the nearby Tradition Club is tree-lined and relatively dry except for island greens on the par-4 seventh and par-3 15th. This 6,875-yard, 1995 Ron Garl design is also graced with a tony clubhouse that will make you feel like a guest at a private club.

Just up the road in Murrells Inlet, Wachesaw Plantation East and Blackmoor offer designs by Clyde Johnston and Gary Player, respectively. Wachesaw East hosted the LPGA’s City of Hope Classic from 1996 to 1999. And Blackmoor, built in 1990, is back up to snuff after a 2003 renovation.

South Strand lodgings range from resort-style digs and golf villas to chain hotels. The Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort, a swanky low-rise oceanfront property, is the preferred address for guests who need pampering. Pawleys Plantation offers one- to four-bedroom golf villas with living rooms, kitchens, washers and dryers and outdoor patios. Some suites sport whirlpool tubs and high-speed Internet connections. Hampton Inn Pawleys Island caters to the thrifty set.

For the freshest Lowcountry catch, head to Murrells Inlet, self-proclaimed “Seafood Capital of South Carolina.” The historic fishing village is home to more than 30 restaurants, most of which serve up fresh grouper, snapper and crab.

Local golfers recommend Russell’s Seafood Grille at the inlet’s southern end. The house specialties are grouper and mahimahi, served broiled, fried, blackened or grilled. Across the street, the waterside gazebo at the Hot Fish Club is where the 20-something crowd goes to be seen. The atmosphere is post-collegiate meets Jimmy Buffett, as live music churns away and patrons knock down ice-cold longnecks and baskets of buffalo popcorn shrimp.

After dinner, catch a local band at Drunken Jack’s or the Dead Dog Saloon, rustic watering holes with outdoor patios. Then stroll the Murrells Inlet boardwalk–are those wild goats frolicking across the creek on Drunken Jack Island? Short answer: Yes.

BBQ on the Beach

Looking for the best bargains in a region full of them? We applied or Bang for the Buck Quotient, or BBQ, to Myrtle Beach to see who gives the most for the money. BBQ ratings go up to 100, but anything higher than 70 is a real deal.

Course BBQ
Heron Point Golf Club
$50; 800-786-1671; Willard Byrd layout is just 6,477 yards, but abundant Carolina pines and water make it a true test.
Azalea Sands Golf Course
$44; 843-272-6191. A good place to break in your Lowcountry game, but wide fairways are countered by lakes on eight hoels.

Waterway Hills Golf Course (Lakes and Ravine)
$66; 843-449-6488; A gondola takes you across the Intracoastal to this Robert Trent Jones classic with crowned greens and strategic bunkering.
Quail Creek Golf Course
$52; 800-833-6337; Roomy fairways and exceptional conditioning make this a fun track with plenty of bride opportunities

Eagle Nest Golf Club
$52; 800-845-4653; A course with thick stands of pines, cypress and willows that bills itself as having “a Pinehurst feel at the beach.”