Southern Comfort

From Myrtle Beach to Charleston to Hilton Head, South Carolina is home to great golf

Note: This story was originally published in the October, 2001, issue of Golf Digest

Where to play in South Carolina

Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes. With apologies to Jimmy Buffett and all his Caribbean-carousing Parrotheads, the concept was never truer than it is meandering south on Highway 17 down the coast of South Carolina. From Myrtle Beach to Charleston to Hilton Head, it's a case of bright lights fading into old times followed by quiet reflection. Take your choice, or enjoy all three.

Myrtle Beach

The Vegas of golf

Where else in the world could you see the Lord's Prayer inscribed on a cherry pit, a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh rendered entirely in jelly beans and a human-hair bikini while playing 36 holes a day on pretty darn good golf courses for nearly two months and never see the same course twice? Where? Of course, there's more to Myrtle Beach than just "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and Pete Dye's pot bunkers. There's the marvelously retro Pavilion, where you can play the same game of skeeball (probably on the same machine) that you played 30 years ago and still parlay a $1 investment into enough tickets to score a blue OO7V water pistol, Made in China, and a three-pack of Smarties from the prize counter. Imagine a world in which prize tickets were coin of the realm. What if you got them in return for green fees? Play Pebble Beach, drive home in a Yugo. Myrtle Beach is the Rodney Dangerfield of golf. It gets no respect. Too many high-rises, too many lowbrows. Too much goofy golf, too much deep-fried Calabash food. Too many muscle shirts, too many tattoos, too many strip clubs, though in some circles that would be considered an impossibility. It has enough mega golf superstores to make old, historic Nevada Bob's seem like a British butcher shop. And it is ground zero for every theme restaurant known to the civilized world, from race cars to Hollywood stars.

I'm convinced Myrtle Beach is an acquired taste, and I confess I'm infected. It is what it is, and a certain suspension of disbelief is mandatory. How can you not love a perfectly delightful oceanfront beer-and-burger joint, Bummz Beach Cafe, that admonishes its clientele not to park their motorcycles on the deck? Or, for that matter, not marvel at the Real Life Church (the Wild Wing Cafe in a previous incarnation), whose guest preacher was Meadowlark Lemon? Life's lessons are served up whole here, usually in a discount package.

Much of the golf that's played and the hotel rooms that are booked in Myrtle Beach are done through packages, and there are a number of companies that are quite capable of catering to groups of men and/or women in any number. While the pace of building courses on the Grand Strand seems to have finally throttled down from warp speed, discounts are up. And that includes some of the best layouts on the beach.

Tidewater Golf Club, closed for just shy of six months to have the greens and bunkers redone after years of extensive play, has reopened, no longer under the auspices of Troon Golf. The new management, bowing to the peculiarities of the local marketplace, immediately lowered green fees and began accepting package play again. That doesn't mean it's cheap, just cheaper. The new greens tend to show ball marks a bit, but they putt extremely well. Ken Tomlinson, who designed this wonderful layout that plays back and forth between the Intracoastal Waterway and the marsh overlooking the beach houses of Cherry Grove, consulted on the restoration.

The new behemoths in town are the four courses at Barefoot Golf & Resort. There's one each by Davis Love III, Greg Norman, Tom Fazio and Pete Dye. I can't say with any certainty which is the best, but I am prepared to reveal which is the most difficult: The Dye Course is a brute, a ravager of handicaps and a plunderer of par. It is Visigothic golf, reminiscent, in fact, of the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra before that devil was defanged. There are moguls and waste areas and pot bunkers stacked on top of pot bunkers. The fifth hole has so many beehive bunkers on it, it looks as if it was built through a geyser field in Yellowstone National Park. The greens are small and wavy, like warped plastic. And I feel quite certain that the putting carpet on virtually any hole at Mt. Atlanticus Minotaur Golf has more surface area than the 17th hole of the Dye Course. In short, this is a bit of hard work.

While tourists occasionally dream of driving a stake through Dye's heart, and I actually heard considerably worse fates suggested, the Love, Norman and Fazio courses all seem to have garnered their share of praise, with the Norman layout and its holes along the Intracoastal Waterway perhaps eking out a slim plurality.

Across Highway 17 Bypass from ye olde Dixie Stampede, is the new Grande Dunes, a 7,618-yard Roger Rulewich layout. It's part of a huge development complex that will include marinas, shopping malls, a hotel, an oceanfront beach club and real estate on more than 2,000 acres spreading to both sides of the Intracoastal. While it's unlikely any mortal will be playing from the back tees in my lifetime, even if you back off a couple of sets of tees, it's still plenty long, with big greens and a handful of picturesque holes along the waterway.

Of course, all the old faves still exist. The Dunes. Heritage Club. Caledonia Golf & Fish. Pawleys Plantation. The Legends. Heather Glen. TPC of Myrtle Beach. The Witch. Wild Wing Plantation. True Blue. All the courses just across the border in North Carolina. And on and on. There are far too many to name here, but if you can't find a course that suits you in Myrtle Beach, the fault is entirely yours.


Golf on The History Channel

South of Georgetown, Highway 17 is a pastoral road through coastal forests. The highway is dotted with periodic lean-tos made of gray, weather-beaten plywood and 2x4s that offer shade to the women who sell their tightly woven sweetgrass baskets. There are occasional restaurants, like Buckshot's Carryout Soulfood, or a BP that boasts of its ice-cold Cheerwine. Mostly, it's just pine trees and mile markers. Closer to Charleston, between the bridge to Isle of Palms and the Cooper River Bridge (the one in the book Prince of Tides) Route 17 morphs into a series of brick-walled housing developments and glass-encased car dealerships. Once you're on the peninsula, though, you've journeyed back in time.

Historic Charleston has become very chic, very popular and very expensive. At the risk of sounding antediluvian, I remember the days when you could book a stylish bed-and-breakfast for around $75. No more. History, it seems, sells. And no city sells its gaslights and cobblestones better than Charleston, largely because so much of it is both authentic and charming.

I'm not given to group tours of any stripe, but the casual visitor to Charleston is well-advised to take either a walking or carriage tour of the historic district. There are several companies in either category, and the results are remarkably consistent. The town of Charleston takes its history quite seriously, and the guides on these tours are required to pass a fairly comprehensive test to become licensed by the city. While not quite docents in a museum, they nonetheless will provide you with an overview that is several steps above pidgin history. Having said that, the presentations tend to be spiced with a certain amount of Henny Youngman humor. Of course, this is far preferable to the brochure that began its description of the firing on Fort Sumter with the words, "Imagine the excitement." The recovery of the Confederate submarine Hunley and the archeological work being done on it, including the retrieval of human remains, is the current topic of fascination and speculation.

In addition to its history, Charleston is a heck of a place to party and eat, not necessarily in that order. It has some of the best restaurants in the eastern U.S. Cypress, a new eatery on East Bay Street, is as good as any I've ever been to anywhere in the world. Two other very popular spots are the Peninsula Grill and Carolina's. From jazz to blues to rock, the nightlife bubbles in Charleston. One out-of-the-way hangout is Mamma's Blues Palace, where Momma wails and Daddy kicks on his "demon dumpster Dobro." Leathers optional.

For the itinerant golfer, not much has changed on the Charleston golf scene since Hurricane Hugo played through in 1989. Though golf was played on Harleston Green in the 18th century, you're going to have to go out of town to find the best offerings in the 21st. Fortunately, there's plenty to find.

Any discussion of Charleston golf simply must begin with Kiawah Island. Though the northernmost tip of Kiawah is, as the pelican flies, quite close to Fort Sumter, driving to that same spot from downtown Charleston will take about 45 minutes. Seldom in the low country can you go from one place to another in a straight line. The folks out at Kiawah, however, will welcome your effort.

Their most celebrated layout is Dye's Ocean Course, the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup. It's a bona fide masterpiece, though it was cursed in its infancy the same way the Eiffel Tower was maligned when it was constructed. No matter the threat or the bet, don't even think about playing it from the back tees. You can go back there and have the most miserable day of your miserable existence, or you can pick the forward tees and have one of the grandest days you've ever enjoyed on a golf course. It's pretty much up to you.

Kiawah's Turtle Point, a relatively early Jack Nicklaus design, was recently closed for nearly five months for major renovation, including the redesign by Nicklaus of virtually all the green complexes. Always one of the hidden gems of the low country, Turtle Point now fits more into Nicklaus' current minimalist trend. Osprey Point is a Tom Fazio layout, originally designated a "members only" course, but now it's open to resort play. It, too, has gone through a facelift. No course on the island, however, has undergone more changes than Cougar Point, an executive course by Gary Player previously named Marsh Point, that Player happily stretched into a 6,875-yard par 72. Kiawah also owns Oak Point, a Clyde Johnston golf course just off island.

Right next to Kiawah, there are two courses at Seabrook Island, Crooked Oaks and Ocean Winds, but they are accessible only if you're staying on the island. No outside play is permitted. On the opposite side of Charleston on Isle of Palms, the Wild Dunes Links, Tom Fazio's design with its famous closing holes along the ocean, remains one of the most highly regarded designs in the state. Coosaw Creek, Charleston National, Dunes West and the Links at Stono Ferry are all solid, if not as spectacular as the oceanfront courses.

Hilton Head Island

Listen to the Spanish moss grow

People who knew Hilton Head Island 30 years ago would think me completely insane for calling it quiet today. And they would be right. There's no disputing the fact that Hilton Head is bursting at its frilly little seams. It has sprouted tentacles of development that seem destined to extend all the way from Calibogue Sound to I-95. However, regardless of the traffic snarls and the actual presence of a (perish the thought) toll road, the fact remains, once you've crested the bridge onto Hilton Head, peace and quiet can't be far behind.

No clattering wooden roller coasters. No horse-drawn carriages in 18th-century streets backing up traffic from here to East Jesus. Once you get on Hilton Head and get through the guard gate to whatever moss-draped plantation you're seeking, you can pretty much disappear, if that's your pleasure. Fish in the surf. Ride bicycles on the beach. Read. Rollerblade. Chill.

The ultimate in getting lost is the Daufuskie Island Club & Resort, about 45 minutes by ferry from Hilton Head. Nearly all the rooms in the faux antebellum inn and guest cottages have views across the sound toward the lighthouse at Harbour Town. The only vehicles on the island (other than those at private Haig Point) are used by the resort, mostly to shuttle guests from place to place. There are two golf courses, Melrose and Bloody Point. Melrose was designed by Jack Nicklaus and has a picturesque finish with the 17th and 18th holes playing right along the beach. Bloody Point, an outstanding Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish layout, was not blessed with similar ocean frontage but it is certainly Melrose's equal when it comes to golf. And it may be the most under-utilized course on all the nearby islands. It's certainly worth the day trip from Hilton Head. The 18th tee, incidentally, is purported to be the southernmost point from which one can play golf in the state of South Carolina, though I find it hard to believe that anyone would care.

In addition to its first-rate accommodations and meals, Daufuskie offers a bit of local color at Marshside Mama's, a low-country eatery. Low-country food can generally be defined as whatever people are catchin' at the moment, but the shrimp and grits and the crabcakes seem to be staples. Incidentally, that pig slopping up the O'Doul's is Ned, a pet of Mama's (aka Beth Shipman).

Southeast of Beaufort, which used to be a quiet little harbor community until it was outed by "The Big Chill," is Fripp Island. Just follow Highway 21 until you can't follow it no more. It's another excellent place to run away and hide from the world, and it comes equipped with a pair of golf courses: Ocean Point by George Cobb, and Ocean Creek, a fairly recent addition shoehorned into a small space by Davis Love III. And there's South Carolina National, a Cobb design closer to town.

On the drive to or from Fripp, take a minute to stop at Red Piano Too, a folk-art gallery. Hopefully, the glitter painting of Fats Domino will still be there. Had it not been quite so pricey, it would have gone home with me.

Of course, Hilton Head is the main event. And the main event on Hilton Head is Harbour Town. The Harbour Town Golf Links is one of my favorite courses anywhere, so if you're looking for an objective viewpoint, look elsewhere. It might be Dye's best. Perfect fairways, tiny greens. Every kind of shot. And, oh, that finish. The only knock on it was that it was getting a little careworn, but it was closed for eight months to have the greens refurbished. When it reopened, the players on the PGA Tour couldn't say enough good things about it.

And I can still hear the crack of a tee shot echoing down the tree-lined 15th. What a wonderful place to get lost.

Jim Moriarty

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.