Myrtle Beach thriving in tough times

No. 18 at Pine Lakes

No. 18 at Pine Lakes

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – This Atlantic Coast resort town etched itself in the nation’s consciousness on Feb. 21, 1930. That’s when John T. Woodside, a Greenville textile tycoon, opened Ocean Forest Hotel, which sat on a bluff 29 feet above the sea. Locals had never seen anything like it. Ocean Forest had marble stairways, crystal chandeliers and Grecian columns. Myrtle Beach, previously known as a regional resort, suddenly began attracting the glitterati from across the nation. Celebrities would perform on the hotel’s stage, and couples arriving for parties were expected to be dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns.

In its heyday, Ocean Forest was considered perhaps the best hotel between New York and Miami. But it was one of its amenities – Ocean Forest Club, the town’s first golf course – that arguably did more to shape the landscape of what would become the self-described “Golf Capital of the World.” The course was designed by St. Andrews, Scotland, native Robert White.

Its impressive debut aside, Ocean Forest Hotel had a checkered history; Woodside took a beating in the 1929 stock-market crash, and the hotel went through several ownership changes before being razed in 1974. But Ocean Forest Club, now known as Pine Lakes Country Club – or simply “The Granddaddy” to Myrtle Beach regulars – has never been better, having reopened in March following a $15 million restoration of the course and clubhouse. It is, along with the timeless Dunes Golf & Beach Club – a 1950 Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that ranks No. 94 on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list – one of the grande dames of the Grand Strand, the 60-mile stretch extending roughly from the North Carolina border south to Georgetown, S.C.

Modern-day Myrtle Beach is associated, first and foremost, with golf. Its meteoric growth – and some overbuilding – came between 1988 and 2001, during which about 70 courses opened along the Strand. The boom peaked in 2000, when four new designs – from the sketchpads of visionaries such as Pete Dye and Tom Fazio – debuted on the same day at Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach, propelling the local inventory to about 120 courses.

Far from an assembly-line approach, Myrtle Beach’s appeal has been based not just on quantity, value and accessibility but also quality.

“That’s what Myrtle Beach was built on, that’s what has made it so great and that’s what is going to ensure our success in the future,” said Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a nonprofit trade group that promotes the region.

During a recent trip, I had the chance to revisit two courses that have become staples on the list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in South Carolina: Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (No. 3) and True Blue Plantation (No. 7). Located on Pawleys Island, on the Strand’s south end, they’re groundbreaking designs from the late Mike Strantz, a Fazio protégé.

Caledonia debuted to rave reviews in 1994 and, like the Dunes Club, has been a personal favorite of mine. It emanates Old South charm from the moment you drive down its Avenue of Oaks entranceway to the time you walk off the 18th green.

True Blue opened four years later, borrowing loosely from the design characteristics of Pine Valley and Pinehurst No. 2. It’s one of the area’s most visually dramatic layouts. Since its opening, True Blue has been widened and softened considerably, with waste areas filled in and plenty of run-ups to the greens. To my mind, it’s improved considerably with time.

The total number of courses along the Grand Strand has slipped back toward 100 in recent years – trust me, you’ll still find plenty of variety – and local experts anticipate as many as 20 more courses could close over the next few years. It’s a reflection of what is happening nationally, with course closings outpacing openings. But the Grand Strand remains a breeding ground for fine designs, as evidenced by Founders Club, which opened last year not far from True Blue and Caledonia.

Closer to the heart of town, there has been the rise in recent years of a natural heir to Ocean Forest: the 2,200-acre Grande Dunes property, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean west across the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s anchored by the elegant Marina Inn and two courses: the Resort Club, which has uncharacteristically dramatic elevation changes given the seaside setting; and one of the area’s few private venues, the Members Club, a Nick Price-Craig Schreiner design that opened in 2005.

On the northern edge of the Strand, Ocean Ridge Plantation in Sunset Beach, N.C., opened its fourth – and arguably its best – course in 2007, this one called Leopard’s Chase. Optimism remains there: a Tim Cate design, Jaguar’s Lair, is scheduled to open in 2010.

Not far away, Tidewater Golf Club & Plantation (No. 6) reopened following a five-week buff-and-polish. The brainchild of Myrtle Beach tax attorney Ken Tomlinson, Tidewater has been called the “Pebble Beach of the East” – a reach, perhaps, but a reflection of the stunning location that affords golfers views not just of the Atlantic Ocean, but also the Intracoastal and Cherry Grove Beach Inlet.

The combination of variety and value has made Myrtle Beach, which has nearly 15 million visitors annually, among the three busiest summer destinations in the United States, and the second-most popular beach.

To be sure, it has had to weather a boom-and-bust real estate market, and has been buffeted by the same economic realities confronting other resort areas. The buddy golf trips for which Myrtle Beach had become known typically are among the first line-items scratched; visiting golf groups have gotten smaller, their stays shorter. Through September, Golf Datatech LLC, an industry research firm, reports that Myrtle Beach’s rounds played are down 4.1 percent compared with 2008 – not ideal, but reasonable given the economic climate.

But positive indicators have emerged. Unlike many resort areas, Myrtle Beach is less reliant on corporate golf travel, a market that dried up over the past year. Thrift, value and smart purchases are back in vogue, traits that are right in Myrtle Beach’s wheelhouse.

“Without question, (the economy has) had an effect,” Golden said. “We’ll rebound from this a lot stronger because of the value that Myrtle Beach has to offer. . . . When compared to other golf courses and destinations, you can’t beat what you have here.”

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