2002: Destination - South Strand takes a stand

Pawleys Island, S.C.

he 462-yard 15th hole at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is a classic par four and a half: Too long for pretenders to reach in two; too short for it to pretend to be a par 5.

Its deep green is backstopped by a drastic rise in elevation that encourages players to fire a long iron or a fairway wood approach without fear – as long as they fire it straight. All of which also makes the 15th a rarity: A fair hole, a tough hole and a hole that has survived the advances of technology without resorting to trickery.

Actually this quiet, little, low-country part of the world called the South Strand has pretty much survived the advances of technology as well. It is no accident that Pawleys Island is famous, in certain circles, for its production of hammocks. The contrast is stark with Myrtle Beach, its noisy and nouveau neighbor to the north, where waterbeds are more the leisure rage.

Similarly, Caledonia has the look and placid feel of a more mature and unreconstructed golf club. Even Mike Strantz, the Hieronymus Bosch of course architects, understood the need to subjugate his sizable artistic ego to Caledonia’s natural beauty.

If you go there, you will be surprised to learn it opened less than 10 years ago. Much of this has to do with the long and winding entrance, framed by live oaks, that takes visitors back in time as they approach a clubhouse that sits gracefully at the rear of a property that once served as a rice plantation, producing 700,000 pounds of the stuff per year.

Caledonia’s history is refreshingly nonrevisionist. The rice crop declined drastically in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, a development that receives mention in the course’s official yardage book. “Changes precipitated by the Civil War affected agricultural production,” are the exact words.

This isn’t euphemistic so much as it is low-country politesse. At nearby Brookgreen Gardens, they teach horticulture, sculpture and, indirectly, culture. Brookgreen Gardens is more than 8,000 acres of eco-splendor and art. It was once the property and preserve of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband. Now it is open to the public. For a nominal fee, they will take you on a tour of the grounds, but they will call it a “guided stroll.”

They feed the animals so well at Brookgreen Gardens, says spokesperson Mona Prufer, that the deer on the outside are trying to get inside Brookgreen’s fence. “The word is out,” Prufer says.

Less well-known is the collective strength of nearby courses. True Blue is another Strantz design next door to Caledonia. Strantz is said to be less happy with the rough edges the owners have softened at True Blue than are the golfers who choose to play the course on a regular basis. Wachesaw Plantation is a Tom Fazio design; Pawleys Plantation is a Jack Nicklaus; and The Reserve is a Greg Norman. All are strong. The Reserve is also one of only three private clubs out of the 123 that comprise the greater Myrtle Beach golf experience.

The neighboring River Club’s greens boast the identical strain of grass (A-1 Bent) as Augusta National. The Reserve’s bunkers have imported the same sand found at The Masters. Obviously you can’t walk in off the street and play The Reserve. But everybody can learn from the judicious decision there to utilize only 47 acres of grass on a property that covers 328 acres.

Like Caledonia, True Blue and the River Club, The Reserve is removed from the thundering hordes up the road. “It takes you out of the realm of the world’s largest shopping center,” says George Taylor, one of The Reserve’s developers.

Drive north on U.S. 17 and you will find the madding crowd soon enough. Leave the low-key low country behind, and you will crash headlong into the high times, high tides and teeming double densities of Myrtle Beach.

Actually, there’s a kind of Coney Island charm to this town’s frenetic, splenetic and kinetic energies. Myrtle is where John Daly’s kind of people arrive in clots for the holidays. Give them this: They are there to have fun and they rarely overthink the concept.

The geographical heart of Myrtle is to be found smack daub in the middle of the 60-mile stretch of beach called The Grand Strand. It runs from Pawleys Island at the south end all the way to Calabash Creek and the North Carolina border. The spirit of Myrtle lies somewhere over golf’s neon rainbow and down, down, down into the endless welter of pawnshops, spring break sunburns, discount golf bodegas, all-you-can-eat Italian buffets and enough sale-priced beachwear emporiums to clothe all of Appalachia until the day Congress finally bans Mullet haircuts and Zubazz pants.

And if all this unguent pungence puts you off, that is too bad, too. At its worst, Myrtle takes the “ex” out of “excess.” At its best, it offers plenty of terrific golf, many fine dining choices and even a few neatly tucked living options within howling distance of all the sprawl.

For example:

The Dunes Club, built by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in the late 1940s, is among his best work and still may be Myrtle’s best test. “He always had a warm feeling about it,” says Jones’ son, Rees, who also has designed several courses along the Grand Strand. “He felt it was a wonderful piece of land.”

The Grand Dunes Golf Village in mainstream Myrtle is Southern course living at the top of its game. It is also an ambitious and upscale attempt by its developers to change the way Myrtle is perceived.

If you get past the nauseatingly noxious concept of something called the “NASCAR Speed Park” out by the U.S. 17 Bypass, you can find lots of good food in Myrtle Beach, too. But it’s more likely these days that you will creep up on the clutter of “Myrtle proper” (an oxymoron?)at a crawl. The traffic is bad. The planning is worse.

“This isn’t meant to be ‘Us vs. Myrtle Beach,’ ” says Jim Warrick. “But there’s a little more controlled growth here.” Warrick’s “here” is the southern end of the strand, where style almost always trumps sizzle no matter who’s dealing the cards.

To be sure, the Grand Strand’s unofficial but very much observed Mason-Dixon line is the spot where laid back Georgetown County ends and Horry County begins. Pawleys Island, Murrells Inlet and Litchfield Beach are all south of the county line. Warrick, along with his wife, Diane, and three other couples, run a quiet and quaint roadside attraction at Pawleys Island called “The Hammock Shops.”

The Hammock Shops actually are a grouping of more than 20 varied specialty shops that offer more than just the usual oceanside kitsch. The stars in this galaxy are Louis Osteen and Marvin Grant.

Osteen is the eponymous chef at Louis’s, where for $19.50 you can get his own special “Pork Porterhouse with Braised Red Cabbage, Stewed Apples and Ham & Corn Spoonbread.” It’s a tough act to follow the “Lowcountry She Crab Soup” appetizer for $5.50. But the locals will tell you it’s worth it.

Ask Osteen why he prefers the sedate style of Georgetown County to the relentless substance of Horry County and he will simply say, “It’s comfortable as all get out.”

Grant will weave you up a hammock while you wait, and he will not be abashed about critiquing your choice. “Cotton is the best,” he says. “But you can’t let it get wet. If you’re lazy, you get polyester.”

“Style” in South Strand is more observed, defined and pursued than it is up the road. Neon gives way to track lighting. Wine lists are required reading for restaurants like Frank’s and Louis’s.

Georgetown County’s zoning laws prohibit high rises. And what used to be runaway golf growth is settling throughout the Grand Strand. A year ago at this time, there were 14 new courses in the planning stages. Today there are none.

Right now, says Kathi Grace of the Myrtle Beach National Co., “we have a pretty good marriage of controlled growth but diverse development.”

Grace directs the marketing effort in Litchfield Beach. Her company manages nine courses and offers visitors housing options that range from beachside apartments to golf course condos. Her general rule of thumb is that you can get golf on the South Strand, a roof over your head and breakfast for close to $70 per day. These numbers are surprisingly competitive with Myrtle proper and not at all oxymoronic. To be sure, “low country” has more than one meaning.

True Blue head pro Bob Saganti points out another significant golf marketing difference between Myrtle Beach and the South Strand. “We’ve gone after residents,” Saganti says. “You can’t rely on 50,000 rounds a year from tourists.”

Left unsaid is the fact that there are more residents in the higher-end South Strand willing to pay the $130 green fee at True Blue, the $150 green fee at Caledonia or the $32,500 downstroke to join The Reserve.

“We’ve had a little bit of turbulence here,” says John Springs, True Blue’s general manager. But so has everybody else. A U.S. economy that continues to thrash like a hooked sea bass and tourism’s industrywide travel hangover from Sept. 11 still have people on edge.

To stimulate play, True Blue has responded by lowering prices, restructuring its design and getting its greens back in playing condition – thanks mostly to the persistence and expertise of superintendent Kevin Thompkins. There are, Springs says, “good indications that business is about to pick up.”

Early on a recent weekday morning at True Blue, Saganti hosted a foursome that included Thompkins, a guest and Caledonia pro Todd Welden, who also serves as True Blue’s director of golf. By the middle of the front nine, two groups were stacking up behind them.

Thompkins fiddled impatiently, anxious to get back to the honest day’s work that stretched ahead of him. Welden and Saganti were more disposed to appreciate the situation: Players waiting meant players paying. All indications were that the course would be full that day. Play had been stimulated.

Quickly, Saganti’s group regained its time par. And when the round was over, Welden sat in Springs’ office and the two chatted.

“Myrtle Beach is a wonderful place,” Springs said. “It’s also a tourist center.” What he didn’t have to say is there’s a difference on the South Strand between a “tourist” and a “golfer.” Golfers have discovered the distinction.

“We don’t want to disassociate ourselves from Myrtle Beach,” Welden said. “But once people get down to this end of the strand, we’re finding that they’re staying here.”

The moratorium on new course development, Springs said, was a reminder that “the market needs to re-seek its level.” But here in the low country of South Carolina, the locals always have had a pretty good handle on the proper levels. “We try to be community-minded,” says Diane Warrick. “We try to keep the historical significance.”

And they try to do it in a productive, but relaxed way. Myrtle Beach has raised hurly-burly to an art form. Here on the South Strand, they prefer their distances safe, their puppies hushed and their hammocks dry.

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