In the popular imagination, Myrtle Beach is about golf, golf and more golf, with a side of chicken wings, downed by some draft beers. It’s an idea more than a locale. To go to Myrtle Beach, as I did, with the notion of having an upscale vacation with a strong sense of place would seem to many a fool’s errand: Ordering sushi at McDonald’s. I’m here to tell you that it can be done and done well.
A friend’s wedding in Supply, N.C., an hour northeast, was the genesis of my high-minded notion, a reminder that every place, even one whose only seeming purpose is to satisfy gluttonous golfers’ cravings, has a daily life, too. My flight down on Spirit Airlines from New York reinforced the idea. The two strangers next to me – a boyish 36-year-old and a grandmotherly type – struck up a conversation. The man was a soldier, a father of three and, yes, a grandfather. He was going to Myrtle Beach to meet for the first time his online girlfriend of two months. I doubt he was traveling with clubs.
My wife and I made North Myrtle Beach our base of operations, specifically North Beach Towers, a very modern beachfront condominium complex. North Myrtle Beach is considered the fancier end of town. If one confines oneself to the main drag, Kings Highway – and, wedged between the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway, geography confines visitors largely to that endless den of neon and malls – this appears a very subtle distinction. As Shakespeare might have written, a Waffle House is a Waffle House is a Waffle House. (As an aside, for nostalgia’s sake I did visit a Waffle House one morning. The waitress asked, “Would you like your waffle golden brown?” Torn between, “Is that a trick question?” and “As the chef prefers,” I simply replied, “Yes, please.”)
At daybreak my first morning, I was on the practice tee at Thistle Golf Club, just across the North Carolina border in Sunset Beach, also the hometown of its architect, Tim Cate. My thoughts wandered from establishing a smooth tempo to last night’s high-spirited wedding rehearsal dinner and how pleasant it is to fall asleep with the windows open, salt air in your lungs and ocean waves in your ears. And didn’t the dewy grass look like snow in the low first light? Maybe this reverie can be blamed for a double-bogey, double-bogey, bogey start; the open, forgiving design certainly couldn’t be the reason.
Thistle draws its name from the historic Thistle Golf Club that called the Links of Leith in Edinburgh home in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the handsome stone clubhouse here nicely evokes Scotland. As for the layout, Cate wisely nods in the direction of the Auld Sod without overdoing it. A treeless “links-like” layout can be a fine thing, so long as you don’t pretend Bermuda is fescue. The holes are well varied and hang together nicely, the conditioning wonderful; the only notable misstep is rows of unnatural containment mounding. With wide fairways, interesting yet readable greens, and hazards almost always nudged a touch farther back than they first appear – again, Scots would scoff – Thistle ovely first loop.
As another aside, its Cameron nine is now the home of my all-time lowest nine-hole score. I won’t bore you with the details of this historic inward-half rally, nor did I thus bore fellow revelers at the wedding. I did silently hoist a few extra toasts to myself, so the highly regarded Tidewater Golf Club and Plantation was thus a sight for sore eyes and a sore head.
Like every course that abuts the ocean, Tidewater has been compared with Pebble Beach, which it is not. (The course’s website references Merion and Pine Valley, which requires an imagination more supple than mine; I say let Myrtle be Myrtle.) But it is one of the Grand Strand’s grandest courses and, like Pebble Beach, the waterfront holes dominate in the memory.
The devious par-3 third, with its small yet dramatically contoured green, requires a mid-iron both well struck and well considered; architect Ken Tomlinson (a tax attorney by trade from Columbia, S.C.) didn’t rely on the gorgeous Cherry Grove Inlet on the left to maintain one’s interest. From the middle tees, the third hole of the back nine perhaps too closely mirrors the third hole of the front nine – the holes sit back to back, like duelers – but from the blue tees, another 25-35 yards back and to the right, the latter morphs from merely attractive to heroic. Best of all is the graceful and elegant par-4 fourth hole, a gently sweeping dogleg left that, yes, could be dropped onto Pebble Beach without complaint.
Has anyone ever gone antiquing in Myrtle Beach? Clearly, yes, because a handful of antique stores exist. To rephrase: Has a golfer ever gone antiquing in Myrtle Beach? Yes, because I have, following my Tidewater round and a long, relaxing walk on the beach with my wife.
B&B Antiques, the rare block-long purple building that is not a strip club, appeared promising from the outside. Alas, it had New York prices, lots of kitsch and none of my preferred mid-century modern pieces, though for an antiques shop it did have a great selection of fudges, pickled items and specialty sodas for sale. Nearby, Dick’s Pawn Shop had a cool vintage foosball table, but the price tag and shipping costs scared me off; I almost bit on a used set of left-handed, graphite-shafted Cleveland CG2 irons for $100, but the virtues of custom fitting kept me from pulling the trigger. As for the Everything Under the Sun indoor flea market down the road, my wife put it best, noting it’s mostly stuff that shouldn’t see the light of day. Hey, we tried.
Between the failed shopping expedition and last night’s wedding, we had plenty to talk about over dinner at Villa Tuscanna. From Kings Highway, it looks like any other Italian joint. Wrong. Tipped off to the restaurant by the mother of the bride, a former longtime Myrtle Beach resident, this is a cozy, family-run place in the best sense. The institutional pride is palpable in the wait staff; I can’t recall the last time a waiter shook my hand and said, “Thank you for coming, Mr. Rothman. It was a pleasure having you.” The osso bucco goes fast, but you can’t go wrong with the veal piccata. (Suggested new slogan for the tourism board: “Myrtle Beach: Try the veal!”)
Glen Dornoch Waterway Golf Links is a mouthful, too, and its name is somewhat misleading. Mostly, this is a parkland course with wetland accents that emphasizes placement, is tighter than expected, rarely “all out there in front of you,” and pleasing and tougher for it. Of this aspect, the 15th hole is perhaps finest, a neat little 360-yard hole with a semi-blind drive and a blind approach that requires a shot around or over a beautiful live oak set in the middle of a waste area some 70 yards short of the green. That said, Glen Dornoch’s reputation rests heavily on its three finishing holes.
Reaching the 16th tee, it’s as if someone turned on the floodlights, literally and metaphorically. The hole before you is indeed a stunner: 430 yards of tough headed straight for the sun-drenched marsh, with a heaving fairway that runs out at about 240 yards, leaving at best a long iron downhill across a chasm to a none-too-expansive green. This is big-league, make-or-break stuff. Seventeen is a long par 3 in a similar vein, demanding a left-to-right ball flight; left is reload, right is a railroad-tie bunker that would make Pete Dye envious – plus a little pot bunker on high that would require a Sherpa to reach, and is likely meant as a joke. If nothing else, the 18th hole provides great 19th-hole debate fodder. Three distinct landing areas (tough, tougher, toughest) for your drive will do that. My take is that this jumps the shark, an idea that might look interesting on paper but feels forced in the field. Reasonable people and/or fans of “Goldilocks” might disagree. Glen Dornoch is a charmer regardless. And, just a block away, Crab Catchers is the kind of relaxed waterfront fish joint you’ll return to for dinner even after having lunch there.
The trip’s final course, the Surf Club, is another misnomer. There are several ponds, but no other water graces this 1960 George Cobb layout. The Surf Club is private but has partnerships with local hotels that allow for guest play. While the welcome I was afforded in the pro shop fell somewhat short of warm and fuzzy – in fairness, it was very early in the morning – visiting golfers don’t need a red carpet for a classic layout this delightful.
The land is flat, yet the effect bubbly. No one hole seems more doted upon than any other by Cobb (who co-designed Augusta National’s par-3 course with Bobby Jones), though the peninsula par-3 sixth is painterly and the 90-degree dogleg par-5 10th rather avant-garde. It’s at once subtle and pleasingly straightforward – there is little to prevent posting a good score on one’s first loop, save excessive relaxation and poor execution. Guilty as charged, on both counts. I shot my worst score of the week by five shots and still walked away whistling. (Playing first off in 2 hours, 15 minutes helps, too.)
For those who value classic courses that render signature holes and slope ratings moot points, Surf Club is a must, a high point of high-end Myrtle Beach. Yes, it can be done, and done well.