How time flies. It seems like yesterday, not 20 years ago, that Ken Tomlinson, a tax attorney turned golf designer, was showing me around Tidewater Golf Club & Plantation, which had just opened in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Like all Southerners, Tomlinson dragged out the vowels in his aw-shucks Carolina drawl to melt the icy Northerner—me–who stood before him with a sharpened pencil and an open notebook.
Tomlinson professed not to like the look of decorative mounds (“warts,” he called them) or the sharp-edged, target-style courses that were all the rage in the 1980s. A traditionalist, Tomlinson used Merion and Pine Valley as his models during construction. With Hale Irwin serving as player consultant, and with a routing plan allegedly purloined from Rees Jones—hey, the guy’s a lawyer—Tomlinson set out to create a straightforward course that would drape naturally on the site. Except for a few bulkheaded greens, this strong-willed amateur built a lay-of-the-land course without a hint of artifice.
Stretched along forested bluffs on the Little River Neck peninsula, Tidewater has four holes perched above the saltwater marshes of Cherry Grove Inlet. These holes offer exceptional views of the vibrant green marsh and the deep blue Atlantic. The remainder of the layout runs inland through pines and hardwoods, swinging near the Intracoastal Waterway at the conclusion of both nines. The layout’s best feature, in addition to the fine vistas, is its succession of low-profile holes that hum along like a quiet, powerful motor.
Unlike many other courses built in that era, Tidewater does not have sharply defined target areas. Nor are the fairways tightly bound by water, trees, bunkers or high rough. “The player is not spoon-fed and forced to aim tee shots to the preferred fairway positions,” Tomlinson said. Instead, golfers are free to aim tee shots to the most logical fairway positions based on their individual shotmaking abilities.
Placement and strategy are called for at Tidewater. So is an appreciation of an understated design that masks a deceptively difficult course from the back tees. The greens–among the best in Myrtle Beach–are “located, sized, shaped and contoured to reward approach shots from a specific position in each fairway,” noted Tomlinson. Five sets of tees (7,078 to 4,615 yards) give players at all ability levels a chance to enjoy a course that was completely renovated in 2009.
The first hole at Tidewater, a straightaway par five, signals the designer’s intentions. The fairway is invitingly wide, but large-scale, multi-fingered bunkers located well beyond the driving area (but well short of the green) hint at things to come.
The most pleasant surprise comes at the par-three third, which departs the tall trees for a windswept bluff set above the tidal marsh. At 160 yards from the tips, Tidewater’s tiny terror is living proof that a golf hole does not have to be long to be challenging. Not only does the marsh protect the entire left side of the hole, the triple-tiered green is defended by deep bunkers.
The par-four fourth, the most visually striking hole at Tidewater, sweeps around the marshy inlet on rolling land elevated well above a sickle-shaped bunker that runs the length of the fairway and prevents hooked shots from disappearing into gator country.
While the front nine offers a few birdie opportunities, Tidewater’s longer back nine tightens the screws. The game is on at the par-three 12th, which stretches to 189 yards from the black tees and calls for a bold tee shot over a corner of the inlet to a large, two-tiered green fronted by a necklace of bunkers. The tee, set well above the target, is usually swept by sea breezes.
The grand par-five 13th, perhaps the most strategic hole on the course, serves up fine ocean views from a rolling fairway hugged by a salt marsh down the entire right side of the fairway. With its subtle contours, the enormous green at the 13th will test the best of putters.
Tomlinson, who said he “wanted to design a course that could host the U.S. Open,” concludes the round with a hole built to separate pretenders from champions. This sturdy, oak-lined par four, 450 yards from the tips, doglegs gently to the left, away from the marshes lining the Intracoastal Waterway. The landing area is generous, but the approach shot must avoid the marsh in front and to the right of the large, deep green. It’s one of the toughest two-shotters in a town with nearly 100 courses.
The only knock against Tidewater, which functions as the centerpiece of a residential community as well as a daily-fee course, are the long distances players must travel (often through tunnels) from green to tee. Then again, it could be argued that anticipation is built along the way.
A multi-level clubhouse overlooking the ninth and 18th greens as well as the Intracoastal Waterway anchors a modern classic that looks and plays better now than when it opened 20 years ago.