Myrtle Beach: Greens for Less Green
Sunday, March 12, 2006
It starts to go south for Bill on the first hole -- the first swing, actually, when he skulls his tee shot. It dribbles past the forward tee, formerly known as the ladies' tee, by maybe five yards. He hits a mulligan, but dribble, dribble again. First hole, one of Myrtle Beach's approximately 1,980 golf holes, and it isn't shaping up as a great day.
That's a ridiculous number, of course -- 1,980 holes. Unless you bill yourself as the Golf Capital of the World, which South Carolina's Myrtle Beach does. And unless you're interested in golf.
Bill and his buddy Steve are down from Vermont to play a few rounds and have some fun, not necessarily in that order. Bill's problem may be an hour or two too many at a local watering hole called Dick's Last Resort, or at some of the other nightclubs they kind of remember hitting the night before.
So it goes -- golf and other stuff -- on the Grand Strand, 60 miles of coast running between Southport, N.C., and Pawleys Island, S.C. About 110 golf courses are concentrated in that stretch, and Myrtle Beach is roughly in the middle.
This is no accident. Back in the 1960s, Myrtle Beach was essentially a beach resort. Memorial Day to Labor Day -- that was it. But some of the business types got to thinking about how to create "shoulder seasons" in the spring and fall to keep people coming and keep the cash registers ringing.
Thus was born something called Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, whose principal purpose is the marketing of Myrtle Beach as a golf center. In the long run, that's why Bill and Steve and I are standing on the first tee of the Aberdeen Country Club, ready to have at it. The course starter dropped me in with them, and first-tee introductions generally end with first names.
Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday started with a budget of $43,000 in the 1960s; last year it was $7 million, says Mickey McCamish, its current president. Golf Holiday's statistics say that the Bills and Steves of the world played about 4.2 million rounds of golf on the Grand Strand in 2004. McCamish says that each golfer spends about $1,294.26 while there. We sure about that $1,294.26, Mickey? "We're sure," he says. That makes it close to a billion-dollar industry.
Trouble was, there were only seven golf courses in Myrtle Beach in the '60s. So hotel owners and others formed corporations to build and operate golf courses. McCamish, a balding man whose soft drawl does little to disguise a certain intensity, counts about 30 courses at the end of the '70s. Then about 35 were built in the 1980s, and around 45 in the 1990s. "Moderation is not in the Myrtle Beach vocabulary," notes McCamish. Golf Digest magazine ranked seven Grand Strand courses among the country's "100 Greatest Public Courses" in 2003.
Bill and Steve are here on a golf package, as am I. Packages come in all sizes, combining a certain number of hotel nights with a certain number of golf rounds at courses of your choice, complete with greens fees, carts and, usually, breakfast. Prices vary depending on the season, but the packages have generally given Myrtle Beach a reputation for budget golf.
Bill, who started as an offshore fisherman and now runs a car dealership, and Steve, a warehouse manager for the federal government who spent six weeks in Biloxi, Miss., courtesy of Hurricane Katrina, try to get down a couple of times a year. They've done the 36-holes-a-day routine but thought better of it. "My hands were all swollen," says Bill.
Aberdeen was built in 1990, and what the three of us will experience this day is a course that is fairly flat, although moguls and hillocks have been engineered into the layout. The greens are of modest size, not much in the way of tricky undulations. The fairways are mostly of good size, although a tour of the local flora and fauna lurks if you stray. Here is a jumble of unknowns -- unkempt grasses, energetic native plants, oaks draped in moss, large pine trees and pine straw. Farther in are the dark places, swamps and the like, where a cursory glance tells you the ball is toast.