From the Dunes to Grande Dunes: Myrtle Beach Comes Full Circle

I don’t know how to account for my perverse affection for Myrtle Beach. Maybe it was the middle-class, public-golfer upbringing in Yonkers, N.Y. One step removed from the Bronx, Yonkers is nevertheless located in Westchester County, the leafy realm north of New York City that is home to some of the nation’s most exalted private clubs. Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, Sleepy Hollow, Century, Wykagyl—the list goes on and on.

Conversely, Westchester is also home to some of the most godawful public tracks on the face of God’s earth. Fly-specked facilities like Dunwoodie and Sprain Lake, Maple Moor and Saxon Woods. Courses where rubber mats, five-hour rounds and wall-to-wall hardpan were the norm when I was a kid. Thank heavens my Uncle Herb floated the idea of caddying at Leewood, his home club in Eastchester. The going rate in the mid-‘60s was five bucks per bag (plus $1 tip). Soon I was packing doubles. I was also introduced to the world of dice, cards, winos, OTB and black humor. And caddie day. Every Monday, caddies were allowed to play 18 holes at Leewood. It gave me my first taste of groomed fairways, slick greens–and money matches.

All of which is a preamble to my experiences in Myrtle Beach, S.C. When I first went to Myrtle in the early 1980’s for the pre-Masters clambake staged by the Golf Writers Association of America, I was amazed at the quality of the public golf scene. The weather was great, the price was right and the welcome couldn’t have been friendlier. I had no idea public golf could be this good after years of touring Westchester’s municipal goat ranches. Make that ranchettes.

Recently, it came as no surprise to learn that Trip Advisor, the popular website, listed Myrtle Beach as fourth best on its list of the “Top 10 U.S. Golf Destinations,” behind the Monterey Peninsula, Pinehurst and Scottsdale.

Since the 1950s, Myrtle Beach, the self-proclaimed “Golf Capital of the World,” has flourished as a raffish seaside town of amusement parks, skeeball arcades and giant beachwear emporiums. Unabashedly déclassé, this is a place where mom-and-pop motels crowd next to saltwater taffy stands, fried seafood joints and elaborate miniature golf courses marked by concrete dinosaurs and ersatz shipwrecks. Honky-tonk Americana? Look no further than Myrtle.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Myrtle Beach balanced its role as a spring break capital with its growing reputation as a spring golf getaway for northern tier players. Readily accessible by car or air from major population centers in the Northeast and Midwest, Myrtle, home to dozens of fine courses and fronted by the “Grand Strand,” a 60-mile stretch of firm-packed ocean beach, was proud to be known as the reddest of golf’s red light districts.

And that was before gentlemen’s clubs like Thee Doll House and the Crazy Horse gave golfers a reason to take a shower and put on a clean shirt after 36 holes.

Myrtle is and probably always will be a sassy bleached blonde with a funky tattoo. Then again, with the economy in the tank, everyone is shopping for bargains. The original best-bang-for-the-buck destination, a place that pioneered the concept of an all-inclusive golf package, is beginning to attract the kind of folks who previously turned up their noses at this ‘Redneck Riviera.’ Yes, workers hailing from industrial cities in the Rust Belt still pile into cars and drive all night to make their morning tee times, but the crowd now is more egalitarian, not exclusively blue-collar. You might actually see truckers playing with venture capitalists. Also, you don’t have to drive all night to get there: Myrtle Beach International Airport features direct service to and from 24 cities, with the 25th (Toronto) to begin in 2010. (Myrtle has long been popular with Canadians).

While prices at the top tracks have risen over the years, Myrtle Beach still represents very good value. At no time of year, for example, do green fees and room rates peak simultaneously. In summer, the most popular season for family vacations, accommodations are at a premium but golf costs are low. In spring and fall, the most desirable seasons for golf, green fees are at their highest but hotel room rates are moderate. Seeking the all-time deal of deals? Myrtle Beach attracts parsimonious bargain-hunters in the winter months, when lodging tariffs and green fees both bottom out. Myrtle, by the way, generally enjoys mild winters, with temperatures in the high ’50s and low 60s.

Like everyone, I have my favorite places to play in Myrtle Beach. With more than 75 courses on tap—down from more than 100 in its heyday–barroom discussions about the best track in town can go on till the wee hours. But like many travelers acquainted with the vintage designs of Robert Trent Jones, I believe only one course can rightfully call itself the King of the Beach: The Dunes Golf and Beach Club.

Routed by Jones on a former turkey-hunting grounds in 1948—he was a spry 42-year-old at the time and still making a name for himself—the Dunes functions as a semi-private club. It is well worth making the necessary lodging arrangements to play this exceptional layout.

Given free rein at a time when Myrtle Beach had only one other course to its name, Jones built a roomy, big-time layout that pumps the competitive juices of serious players. In addition to its elegant, classic appearance–rolling fairways, sculptured bunkers, specimen trees–the Dunes presents a supreme challenge, sea breeze or no breeze, thanks to its elevated greens. To separate the men from the boys, Jones perched 15 of the 18 greens atop a pedestal knoll five feet or more above fairway level. He also carved bunkers into the face of these pedestals, further complicating the issue of getting the ball on the green. Ground balls and worm-burners finish miserably in these deep sand pits.

Most golf courses, even championship venues, have a few let-up holes that enable players to regroup. No such luxury exists at the Dunes. There’s not a single creampuff hole among the 18. Seemingly benign holes are anything but. Most of the par fours, even from the middle tees, call for long, straight drives followed by accurate approach shots. The front nine concludes with a gorgeous par three, called “Dunes,” that offers a fine view of the Atlantic from the green. But this hole confronts players with strong prevailing winds, winds that invariably complicate club selection.

With water or marsh in play at half the holes on the back nine, the Dunes picks up steam through the round. The short par-four 11th, redesigned to accommodate a bi-level peninsula green set above a brackish swash to the right of the original (and where Jones had always wanted it), has been lauded by Lee Trevino as one of the finest par fours he has ever played. A salt marsh must be negotiated at the par-three 12th, but the green provides a sizable target and will yield to a well-played shot.

Many a golfer has survived the first 12 holes only to be undone by the famed and feared par-five 13th, known as “Waterloo.” Stretching to 590 yards from the tips, the 13th is a boomerang-shaped hole that bends 110 degrees around Singleton Lake. After driving out of a chute of pines and willows to a landing area that bottlenecks as it nears the water, golfers must then decide how much of the lake to bite off in order to reach the fairway on the far side of the water. The 150-yard marker is a good target–if you stay with the shot and don’t peek to see the result. Slice, and you’re destined for dampness.

The view looking back from the 13th green at the Dunes

In his book, Golf’s Magnificent Challenge, Jones describes the 13th as “perhaps the best example of my philosophy of heroic architecture.” Three good shots aren’t enough to conquer the signature hole on what Jones called “one of my landmark courses.” The large, well-bunkered green is probably the most difficult to read on the course, especially if the hole is cut atop a slippery mound or on the bias of a ridge that divides the putting surface. More than one disgruntled player has helicoptered his putter into the lake after reaching the green in regulation–and three-putting for bogey.

While the 13th is the Grand Strand’s most famous hole, the 18th at The Dunes is arguably the finest finishing hole in town. Called “Little Gator,” this lengthy par four, originally intended by Jones to be a par five, calls for a perfect drive to a rising fairway that narrows and doglegs slightly to the right in the landing zone. The full-blooded approach must carry a lake fronting a slick two-tiered green flanked by three bunkers. Par is a very good score.

Incidentally, the course record of 67 was established in 1973 by Ben Crenshaw during the PGA Tour Qualifying School finals, a vintage class that also produced Larry Nelson, Gil Morgan and Gary McCord. (Jay Sigel recorded a 63 during the time the Dunes hosted the Senior PGA Tour Championship from 1994-98, but he did not play from the Gold tees at 7,195 yards). In the wake of a recent agronomic makeover, the golf course today is a sprightly dowager with slick bentgrass greens and a full set of teeth. The club trophy says it all: A foot-long silver alligator with a golf ball lodged in its jaws.

What are the compensations for tooling around this firm but fair test that has taken on all comers (and usually come out ahead) for over 60 years? A beautiful seaside clubhouse where guests are welcome for lunch; large alligators sunning themselves on the banks of lagoons; and signature pink azaleas that brighten the well-tended grounds.

One more thing: The Dunes welcomes walkers. It’s the same price walk or ride, but this is one of the very few clubs in town that does not post a ‘Carts Mandatory’ sticker on itself. The inability to walk is my only beef with Myrtle Beach.

Grand as it is, the Dunes is not the ideal place for a rusty snowbird’s first lashes. The inaugural round should be scheduled at my second-favorite old-timer in town, the Surf Golf & Beach Club. Overshadowed by newer, snazzier layouts, the Surf is a lovely, lay-of-the-land test marked by numerous doglegs hinged on cypress swamps. The collection of par threes on this George Cobb classic is especially strong. A facelift in the 1990’s directed by John Lafoy, a Cobb protégé, greatly enhanced the appeal of this layout, as did a conversion to bentgrass putting surfaces. Always in top shape, the Surf Club, anchored by a gorgeous clubhouse, is well-liked by canny shotmakers and by nostaglia buffs who remember when this semi-private club was merely the third course in Myrtle Beach when it opened in 1960.

If you’re content to park yourself at an all-inclusive resort with its own restaurant and bar and play golf till you drop, head five miles inland from the beach up Highway 501, a hotbed of growth 20 years ago that is cheek-by-jowl with multi-course developments. To my mind, the best of the lot is The Legends, a sprawling 54-hole complex located just south of the highway.

On a treeless plot of land ripe for a humdrum layout, a young Tom Doak tapped his encyclopedic knowledge of British links courses to create the Heathland in 1990. Back in the day, the fun part of my job as travel editor of GOLF Magazine was visiting the industry’s front lines and touring new courses with their creators. Doak and I played a few holes of “dirt golf” on his ungrassed layout while he explained what he was doing and why. Though he had precious few designs to his credit at that point, he had very strong opinions on how to build a course and how it should look. He felt the developer, Larry Young, wanted far too much in the way of water treatments and other frou-frou for his taste. The Heathland is a compromise, but it’s still darn good: here are found broad, windswept fairways pitted with pot bunkers, rolling dunes tufted with tall grasses and enormous greens designed to accept run-up shots from different angles. Writing in Golf Digest in 1992, Peter Dobereiner described the Heathland as “A sensitive recreation of the subtle images of the ancient links of Scotland and Ireland.” Students of the game will recognize a few replica holes, too, like the diagonally bunkered finishing hole, a tribute to the mighty par-four 18th at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s in England.

Shades of Scotland in Myrtle at the Legends

Moorland, designed by P.B. Dye, is not my cup of tea. I like P.B. as a person, and in a way the apple did not fall far from the tree, but he lacks his dad’s subtlety (and genius). He enjoys intimidating the crap out of golfers with stark, visually terrifying features that jump out of the ground and often look cartoonish. But maybe it’s just me.

The facility’s sleeper course is the Parkland, which Mike Strantz had a hand in under the guise of Legends Group Design. Marked by tree-lined fairways, deep-faced bunkers and large, multi-level greens, this 7,215-yard gem was inspired by early American courses designed by Alister Mackenzie and George C. Thomas. A solid, versatile test, it may be the most underrated course in Myrtle Beach.

With its slew of spacious, well-appointed condos (two bedrooms, two baths) tucked within a faux Scottish village, The Legends has figured out how to cater to groups of avid golfers. There’s the hearty breakfast buffet daily. The 30-acre lighted practice facility. And the Ailsa Pub, a Scottish-themed tavern with 16 High Definiton TV’s. (No real Scottish pub would ever have so many TV’s, but never mind).

Much like the Highway 501 corridor, dozens of courses sprang up at the quieter south end of the Grand Strand during the ‘90s, prompting visitors to segment their vacations in different parts of town. The consensus favorite among the newcomers down south is Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. Occupying the site of a colonial rice plantation along the Waccamaw River, Caledonia was previously a hunting and fishing retreat for a local group of good ‘ole boys. The old fishing shed and its brick fireplace used for oyster roasts and barbecues still stands next to the club’s handsome mortar-and-shell clubhouse.

Set behind ancient moss-draped oaks that line the entryway for half a mile, the compact layout, occupying a scant 125 acres and opened in 1994, was one of the first solo efforts by Mike Strantz, a former Tom Fazio protege who died in his prime four years ago at the age of 50. An artist by training, Strantz grafted gently rolling fairways, large undulating greens and sweeping flashed-face bunkers to a classic Old South palette of colonial-era rice fields, towering pines and giant live oaks. Caledonia blends links, Lowcountry and parkland styles into one cohesive whole. Memorable from start to finish, Caledonia offers one of the most delightful tests of golf in Myrtle Beach. There are longer courses in town, and tougher courses too, but few can match the beauty and charm of Caledonia.

Sporty from the Wood Duck tees at 5,710 yards (decoys are used for tee markers), enjoyable for middle handicappers from the Mallard markers at 6,121 yards, and a scintillating test for experts from the Pintail tees at 6,526 yards, this par-70 layout has three par fives (two of them back-to-back) and five par threes on the card. Each of the one-shotters is exceptional. The ninth proves that backbreaking distance is not required to fashion a great hole. All of 118 yards from the back tees and flanking the oak-lined entryway, this tiny terror demands a nerveless carry over a sandy wasteland to a shallow green backdropped by a wall of trees. Only a perfect wedge shot will do.

At the par-three 11th, a serpentine creek fronts a long, lolling green that appears far smaller from the elevated tee than it actually is. (Sleight-of-hand was one of the designer’s strong suits). Strantz then turns up the knobs with five par fours in a row (holes 12-16), each measuring 400 yards or more from the tips. At two of the holes (13 and 14), a huge oak dictates strategy off the tee from the tips. Yet from the regular tees, the beauty of the setting eclipses the challenge. The par-three 17th, which calls for a forced carry over a sandy wasteland to a raised green guarded in front by a pot bunker, is followed by a glorious finale. Caledonia’s par-four 18th flanks a limitless expanse of soggy rice fields, its fairway doglegging around the arm of a creek. Directly behind the green on the far side of the water is the clubhouse and its wraparound porch set with rockers.

During peak season, complimentary helpings of steaming hot fish chowder is served to players as they make their way from the ninth green to the 10th tee. The chowder is welcome on a cool day. Caledonia, by the way, is still a Fish Club. Drop by on a Thursday from November to April, and those good ‘ole boys may even invite you to their fish fry, which is usually accompanied by homemade slaw and the kind of grits only a professional Southerner can make.

Caledonia looks and plays like no other course in town

Moving into the 21st century, it’s hard not to be impressed by Barefoot Resort, which unveiled four top layouts in 2000-01 shortly before area developers began pulling in their nets. An ambitious 2,377-acre mixed-use development in North Myrtle Beach, Barefoot Resort is reached from Highway 17 via a restored swing-bridge relocated from the Outer Banks of North Carolina that now spans the Intracoastal Waterway. Far removed from the noisy arcades and T-shirt factories are four completely different courses, each open to walkers, that reflect the personalities and architectural leanings of their designers. Barefoot Resort enlisted two household name designers, Pete Dye and Tom Fazio; and two well-known Tour pros who’ve turned their hand to golf design, Davis Love III and Greg Norman.

The Dye Course is the longest, toughest and meanest of the four Barefoot venues. Would you expect anything less from the Marquis de Sod? Dye, authoring his first course in Myrtle Beach, excavated his toothy man-eater from a gently rolling, sand-based site. Centipede and zoysia grasses provide texture and contrast on this visually striking and in some places deliberately unkempt course. Blackened railroad ties and massive waste bunkers inset with mesa-like platforms are in evidence, as are high mounds pockmarked with saucers of sand at varying heights. It’s possible to career into a high-lipped bunker 20 feet above the fairway off the tee and be faced with an approach to a small, sharply contoured green defended by water, sand and grassy swales. The course rating (75.3) and slope (149) tell the story on this 7,343-yard, par-72 bruiser. From an inappropriate set of tees, the Dye Course is 18 holes of crash-and-burn. Of the ominous 15th, a 227-yard one-shotter, Dye says, “It’s not only the hardest par three I’ve ever built, it’s the hardest par three I’ve ever seen.” Dye’s patented 5-3-4 finish includes a clever risk-reward par five, an island-style green dropped into a marsh at 17, and a banana-shaped par four guarded by water to the left on 18. The most walker-friendly of the Barefoot quartet, the Dye Course has no Achilles heel. It takes no prisoners.

Far friendlier is the Fazio Course, a finely detailed Lowcountry spread marked by long, flowing slopes and artfully sculpted bunkers. Native coquina bunkers pinch several fairways, and water features are visible on 15 holes, but overall this 6,834-yard, par-71 layout, shortest and prettiest of the four courses, is a pleasurable test from the regular tees. A superb site with a 30-foot elevation change, the Fazio Course offers wide corridors and, on the back nine, long views over a salt marsh enclosed by sand ridges and dotted with cypress, gum and bay trees. A giant tree spade was used to relocate more than 300 mature live oaks on the property, while additional trees and flowering shrubs were planted to frame the holes. The layout’s standout hole is the 13th, a mid-length par four with two greens, one of which is fronted by a pond and nestled in a hollow beside an exposed vein of sugar-white sand that looks like new-fallen snow on the ground.

While relatively new to the design racket, Davis Love III made a favorable impression with the Love Course, a traditional test with greens clearly inspired by the turtleback surfaces at Pinehurst No. 2. According to his brother and designer partner Mark Davis, “We took our shapers up to Pinehurst, walked around and looked at the greens and said, ‘This is the effect we’re looking for.’” And while the greens on the Love Course are not as prominently crowned as those at Pinehurst, a few have false fronts. Most are embraced by close-cropped swales and spill-offs that demand creative recovery shots. Behind the hilltop green at the short par-four fourth are brick “ruins” inspired by remnants of old edifices often found beside British courses and built to simulate a crumbling plantation house. As befits a big hitter, Love finishes his course with a mammoth 596-yard par five that sweeps to the left and drops down to a slippery green sited above a pond. The best par five at Barefoot? This may be it.

And now for something completely different: the Norman Course. The Shark, a friend of Barefoot developer and furniture tycoon Sammy Puglia, commandeered a superb parcel for his 7,035-yard, par-72 test. A low-profile, lay-of-the-land course marked by giant sod-faced bunkers filled with tawny feldspar sand, this is a golf course pared down to bare essentials. With well under 80 acres of irrigated turfgrass, the Norman Course is a target-style test akin to the desert courses of the Southwest, minus the cactus. Coquina waste areas and beds of pine straw frame many of the holes on the front nine, which boasts an impressive collection of par fours. The back nine skirts the Intracoastal Waterway, with a few greens, notably the 10th and 14th, perched on bluffs 40 feet above the active canal. The par-five 18th, its back tee sited high above the waterway, is the kind of risk-reward hole that Norman and Love can play with impunity. For everyone else, it’s a dangerous hole with trouble in store for the careless or wayward.

Much like The Legends, Barefoot Resort is a self-contained property. Across the waterway from the golf complex is Barefoot Landing, a shopping plaza with dozens of retail outlets plus a House of Blues, a tin-sheathed music hall that embraces a broad range of musical acts and performers, with the accent on Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues headliners. The restaurant decor is reminiscent of a funky southern Delta home–lots of folk and “outsider” art on the walls. The menu is down home: fried catfish bites, bread pudding, etc. Need a lift? Attend the Gospel Brunch on Sundays, at which patrons are served a Southern-style buffet to the accompaniment of a spirited, soulful gospel choir.

The House of Blues is a popular post-round watering hole.

For me, the course that brings Myrtle full circle is Grande Dunes. Centerpiece of a $1 billion, 2,200-acre mixed use resort/residential development, Grande Dunes, opened in 2001, signaled the final spurt of development in a town that had reached its saturation point by the millennium.

With six sets of tees ranging from 7,618 to 5,353 yards (par 72), Grande Dunes is the biggest course in town and also one of the best. “The challenge here was to design a course that would distinguish itself from the vast array of courses along the Grand Strand,” says course architect Roger Rulewich, a former designer for Robert Trent Jones.

On a spacious plot on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway, Rulewich built extremely wide fairways and huge sweeping greens that average nearly 9,000 square feet. “Keeping the ball in play will not be a problem, but deciding the proper line and approach will,” he says. Giant inkblot bunkers were used judiciously—there are only 36, and none block a green entry. Water hazards, created lowlands and artful contouring are the key features.

Much of the material Rulewich used for shaping was dumped on site when the Intracoastal Waterway was dredged. Opening holes skirt lagoons and a maritime forest before delivering players to the heart of the course, holes eight through 15. Five of these holes run along windswept bluffs 60 feet above the waterway. They are long on drama and challenge.

The par-three 14th is spectacular: perched tee high above the busy channel, a thumbprint of water to carry, a narrow, two-tiered green angled away from the tee and defended in front by a mammoth bunker. It’s the postcard hole, but the longer holes are uniformly excellent, notably the par-four ninth, which parallels the waterway, dips into a valley and ramps up to a pulpit green. One of the most versatile courses in Myrtle Beach, Grande Dunes has the length and hazards to quicken the pulse of experts, but is more than wide enough to contain popcorn hitters.

Even diehard players can’t live on golf alone, and Myrtle aims to please. With more than 1,300 restaurants in town, you will not go hungry. For those unconcerned about the deleterious effects of cholesterol, the unofficial fried seafood capital of the South can be found in Calabash, located across the state line in North Carolina. Personally, I prefer the sleepy fishing port of Murrells Inlet at the south end of the beach at dinner time. Grilled, blackened or sautéed, the seafood here is as fresh and tasty as it gets.

Among my favorites is Frank’s Restaurant & Bar near Pawleys Island. A long-time fixture on the menu is the pan-fried cornmeal and black pepper encrusted grouper with shrimp in a Dijon and three peppercorn cream sauce. A truly exceptional dish. The wine list and homemade desserts are equally excellent. So is the enormous, antique mahogany bar. Behind the main dining room, which occupies a former grocery store, is Outback at Frank’s, a casual al fresco eatery with a covered patio, large brick fireplace and tall heat lamps to warm patrons on cool nights. Try the wood-fired pizzas and eclectic salads. And take a deep breath of that thick, sultry air.

I’m not much for souvenirs, but the Hammock Shops, tucked away at the south end of the beach, manufactures the original Pawleys Island Rope Hammock. Demonstrated daily is the skillful art of hammock weaving (more than 1,000 feet of rope go into each hammock). I bought one 10 years ago. It’s still in good shape.

If you’ve got the energy to dance after a full day of golf, the dance step of choice in Myrtle Beach is the “Shag,” a sort-of jitterbug shuffle that is done to the accompaniment of “beach music” (soul and Motown classics) played by DJ’s at numerous clubs along the Grand Strand.  For true aficionados of the original Boogaloo, make a pilgrimage to the Shagger’s Hall of Fame at the Ocean Drive Beach & Golf Resort in North Myrtle Beach. Even if you’ve got two left feet like that guy in Best in Show, spring for a T-shirt.

Golf (and lots of it) at a very fair price. And shagging. Does it get any better?

For more information on the Grand Strand’s golf courses, accommodations, package specials,  off-course attractions and other details, contact Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday:

7 Responses to “From the Dunes to Grande Dunes: Myrtle Beach Comes Full Circle”

  1. Ben Jackson

    Hi Brian…Congratulations…Nice site….Great idea, too…Hope all’s well…Need instructional article, I’m your guy…Have a great holiday season, too…Let’s Get Good! Ben


    Interesting information. I love boarding and skiing at Mammoth Mountain and totally recommend you check it out on your next ski or boarding trip. Thanks for sharring this great post.

  3. golf bags

    Golf balls are attracted to water as unerringly as the eye of a middle-aged man to a female bosom. ~Michael Green, The Art of Coarse Golf, 1967

  4. Myrtle Beach Golf

    Great article Brian! This is definitely one of the most comprehensive articles I’ve come across. It’s always good to hear kind words about Myrtle.

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