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Checking the List Twice

This story is from Stuart Hall of The Wire, a daily e-newsletter by GolfWeek. It came out February 9, 2011. Be sure to read on to the end.

By Stuart Hall

Call the list what you want - to-do, check, bucket - but golfers have one. Some are written down, stored in a desk drawer. Others are memorized, recited as easily as a social security number.

The list is unique to each golfer's tastes, yet there is a commonality with others.

This simple list is a collection of courses a golfer desires to play. While one golfer may have Pinehurst No. 2 at No. 1, another may have the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, SC. The same goes for destinations, be it Scottsdale, AZ, or Myrtle Beach, SC.

Actually, according to a recent National Golf Foundation survey, Myrtle Beach is on many golfers' lists. Seventy-one percent of 5,000 people surveyed in an online poll said the Myrtle Beach area offered a "better quality and selection of golf than any other destination."

That alone is heady praise for a destination that also competes against Charleston - think Kiawah - and Hilton Head just in its home state.

"Without question, Myrtle Beach is on golfers' agendas, or lists, and if it's not on the top, then it's in the top three or five," said Phil Werz, program communicator for The Brandon Agency, which has been promoting Myrtle Beach golf for more than 50 years.

Myrtle Beach is referred to as the Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch along the South Carolina coastline that begins at the North and South Carolina border and continues south to the tip of Pawley's Island.

Included in that expanse are 102 courses, which nears doubling the number of courses in Vermont. Helping justify the opinion of those surveyed by the NGF is the fact that most any golf publication's "best list" (see, even they have a list) of the nation's top courses features multiple Grand Strand courses.

For example, in Golf Digest's "Top 100 Greatest Public Courses" ranking - ok, another list - The Dunes Golf and Beach Club, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, Barefoot Resort's Davis Love III and Tom Fazio courses, True Blue Plantation, Tidewater Golf Plantation and Grande Dunes' Resort Course were named.

Once Myrtle Beach had the stereotype of being a blue-collar beach town - t-shirt shops, bikinis and bikers, miniature golf and carnival rides. There were a select few courses that would have made top 100 lists. But things have changed in the past 15-20 years.

"For a while there was a rush to see how many courses could be built," Werz said. "That started to change in the past 10 or so years. You started to see the quality of courses being raised and that forced everybody else to raise their levels if they wanted to survive.

"This has always been a destination for the hard-core golfer."

While Robert Trent Jones' classic Dunes Golf and Beach Club was constructed in 1950, many of the upper echelon designs have been built in the past 25 years. Greg Norman and Pete Dye joined Love and Fazio in designing courses at Barefoot Resort, which opened in 2000. Tim Cate unveiled Tiger's Eye at Ocean Ridge Plantation that same year.

The late Mike Strantz designed Caledonia in 1994 and followed up with True Blue four years later. A budding Tom Doak built Heathland at Legends Resort in 1990, while Fazio also built TPC Myrtle Beach in 1999.

"There are some people who come down every year and try to play as many different courses as possible," Werz said, "and then we have some who come down every year and play the same courses, and they are perfectly fine with that."

An underrated trio of courses that would be worth checking off and then playing regularly would be Heathland, TPC Myrtle Beach and the Dye Club.

Here is why:

Heathland: For the amount of notoriety Doak has achieved - most notably for his work at Bandon Dunes - he has designed fewer than two dozen public or resort courses. Doak's penchant for traditional design elements is at work on Heathland, one of three links-like courses at The Legends Golf Club and is by far the best.

Save for a few blind shots, Heathland, which Golf Magazine put on its 1990 "Top 10 New Resort Courses in the World" list, is a straightforward challenge. While the course plays to par 71 and just 6,800 yards from the tips, the biggest obstacle can be the wind, just as it should be.

TPC Myrtle Beach: Located toward the southern end of the Grand Strand on Murrell's Inlet, this Fazio design keeps to the high standards expected of a TPC network course.

Host to the Champions Tour's Charles Schwab Cup Championship in 2000, TPC Myrtle Beach is as demanding as it is forgiving. Water can come into play on half of the holes, but Fazio did well to give timid golfers an out.

Enjoy the par-3s, including the 17th with its peninsula green. Then brace for the straight, 538-yard, par-5 finishing hole that has ample water running left of the fairway. While tall pines buffer many holes, the 18th fairway is exposed to wind and often brings the water back into play.
Regardless of score on the 18th hole or for the round, a beautiful Southern-style clubhouse awaits with open arms. Also, for the list keepers, TPC Myrtle Beach is the only course on the Grand Strand to achieve Golf Digest's five-star rating.

The Dye Club: Love's and Fazio's designs are generally recognized as Barefoot Resort's top two courses, which would make the wily Dye's layout third. Yet that is a disservice to a course that still placed 10th on Golf Digest's "Top 50 Courses of Myrtle Beach." (TPC Myrtle Beach was 11thl Heathland 21st).

Dye uses the Lowcountry to its fullest, incorporating water; wetlands and waste areas to create a course that demands that a golfer bring his best game. The waste areas, for example, are numerous but not penal as long as that type of recovery shot is consistently played.

Like Fazio at TPC Myrtle Beach, Dye does a fine job of saving his best for last - a par-3, surrounded by wetlands and a par-4 18th that runs hard alongside the left.

As Myrtle Beach courses have achieved high acclaim, word began spreading further west that this is a must-play destination. Accessibility, as a result, has improved. Myrtle Beach has always been a strong draw within the drive market, but in recent years the number of direct flights in and out of Myrtle Beach has doubled to nearly 30. In 2010, Myrtle Beach International Airport surpassed its previous traffic record by almost 30,000 passengers.

Spirit Airlines, for example, flies direct from Chicago, along with Boston, Detroit and smaller locales such as Niagara Falls, NY, and Latrobe, PA.. Such easy access has allowed a company such as Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday to expand its marketing efforts.

Turn on the television in the Chicagoland area and former Chicago Bears all-pro defensive lineman Dan Hampton can be seen promoting the virtues of the coastal Palmetto state region.

"The (NGF) survey validates that Myrtle Beach is the most popular golf destination in the country," said Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. "It's about great golf at a great value and Myrtle Beach delivers that better than any other destination."

The peak seasons for Myrtle Beach are considered March 1 through Mother's Day and Labor Day through Thanksgiving. But Werz advises not to count out summer.

"You have the pick of the litter in terms of selection of courses and times. The courses are still in good condition and you have the best rates," said Werz, noting that rates in the peak seasons are still reasonable in comparison to other resort destinations.

You mean there is more ... ?

Hard to resist is the ease of hopping a direct flight to Myrtle Beach for a long weekend of golf. Golfers planning a longer stay should consider some alternatives.  One option would be to fly into Charlotte, NC, and drive over to Myrtle Beach. Another would be a real road trip. Yes, hop in a car.

Either way, do not be tricked into believing that all of South Carolina's premium golf is located along the coast.

Cross over into the Midland region via I-77 and there are bountiful options. One such is Springfield Golf Club's Clyde Johnston design in Fort Mill. The course opened in 2001, however it has an aura of a course much older and established. Playing around and through the hilly, wooded terrain is a nice contrast to the course contours to be found further down the road.

Down the road, actually a windy route of highway numbers, the last being Hwy. 52, is Cheraw State Park Golf Course. This is a truly hidden gem, and should be on a lot of lists. In 2009, Golf Digest tapped Cheraw as the best muny course in South Carolina.

Hard to decide which is better, the Tom Jackson design or the rates. Jackson, who is not one of the bigger name designers, would have been hard-pressed to ruin a layout this enjoyable.

The course makes ample use of peaceful views of Lake Juniper and the wooded typography. The more breathtaking part about Cheraw is that it can be played for $35 rate (with a cart).

If I-95 happens to be the Interstate of choice heading to Myrtle Beach, plan a stay-and-play night in Florence. Ellis Maples' Country Club of South Carolina is a stern test. Also, check out The Traces Golf Club's Meadows Course.

So take a second and review that wish list. If Myrtle Beach and South Carolina's inland courses are not on there, then pull out the pencil, because they should be.