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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Spring-breakers, bikers, family vacationers, snowbirds and golfers all call Myrtle Beach their capital city.

Golfers might have the edge in that argument.

The Grand Strand, a seacoast strip that runs beside the Atlantic from Georgetown in South Carolina to the seashore along the North Carolina-South Carolina border, has about 90 golf courses. Most are public. Many are splendid. Some are magnificent.

For decades, the Myrtle Beach area has been a magnet for golfers of all skills and stripes, and now it is flowering with new growth as players shake off COVID restrictions and return to the beach – and its links.

For many, this new season has been a long time coming.

Standing on the first tee at Wachesaw East, a popular course near Murrells Inlet, Tim Mathis of Atlanta looked down the greening fairway and smiled. It was more than that happy, optimistic smile most golfers have on the first tee. 

“First round here this year,” he said. “It feels good to be back on a nice golf course in the sunshine. You don’t know how much you’ve missed it until you haven’t played for a long time.”

Although golf has been considered a generally safe sport during the year that COVID has battered the economy and crippled fun times for millions, the fact that travel has been limited was the equivalent of a triple bogey for Myrtle Beach courses, which depend on players showing up from across state – not to mention national – borders. With most restrictions being lifted, the Myrtle Beach golf community is returning to normal.

“Area golfers kept us afloat during the worst part of the pandemic,” said Steve Mays, president of Founders Group International, which owns and operates 21 courses along the Strand. “We’ve seen the resurgence lately with local golfers and club members in the area. Unfortunately for us, the Myrtle Beach market is heavily dependent on travelers coming to play golf, and obviously that has been down tremendously.

“Now we’re seeing a great interest in golf, and travel golf is definitely coming back, but we’re not yet at pre-COVID levels. We’ve had the phone calls and the website visits, but we don’t have all the bookings we had pre-COVID. As more people get vaccinated, we’ll continue to have better numbers, and definitely by fall we expect a big surge.”

Long-time Myrtle Beach Sun-News golf writer Alan Blondin, who typically plays in the area once or twice a week, said it’s clear numbers of players are increasing. “I just played a couple of days ago, and trying to get tee times some of the courses were 100 percent booked,” he said. “I couldn’t get a tee time at all at a few courses. And people aren’t shying away from paying the higher prices associated with spring and fall.”

Compared to 2019, rounds played in 2020 along the Strand were down about eight percent, Blondin said. Revenue was off about 20 percent.

“Most of the rounds were filled by locals,” he said. “They never took golf away here. They closed the beach in Myrtle Beach – imagine that, but they left the golf courses open. It was pretty wild. But they lost all the visiting golfers.”

There are many places to play golf along the shores of both the Atlantic and Pacific, so what has made Myrtle Beach such a hotspot? Well… sun, sand, ocean waters, scenic venues, warm temperatures and a smorgasbord of courses that offers variety perhaps unmatched in any similar geographical area.

“And Myrtle Beach has mastered the whole idea of the ‘buddy’ golf trip,” said long-time South Carolina golf writer Bob Gillespie, co-author of the recently published book “South Carolina Golf”. “You get four to who knows how many players going to the beach in a group. There are reasonably priced hotels, a number of great seafood restaurants and steak houses and a lot of affordable packages that put together golf and lodging.

“Myrtle Beach is a big vacation spot in general, but the golf has made it an even more attractive place.”

The concept of the buddy golf trip (for the record, women can be “buddies,” too) fueled much of the Strand’s golf growth. Although some of the coast’s best courses have rates that aren’t exactly in the range of Everyman, even the top courses can be played by regular Joes and Janes as part of three- and four-day packages that also can include lodging and the occasional meal.

These specials attract players from across the country and across the oceans. In busy times, flights arrive at the Myrtle Beach airport with crowds of players from golf-crazy Japan.

How has Myrtle Beach made all this work?

“It starts with the cooperative nature of the courses and the hoteliers and business owners,” Mays said. “From the beginning of Myrtle Beach golf, they knew it was best to promote the area as a great golf destination. Nowhere in the country are there so many quality courses in a concentrated area.”

Myrtle Beach golf began in 1929 with the opening of the Ocean Forest Golf Course. Now named Pine Lakes Golf Club, it remains one of the Strand’s top courses.

“Myrtle Beach was a backwater beach town at the time,” Gillespie said. “Then Jimmy D’Angelo came to the beach in the late 1930s as a golf professional, and he spent a lot of time promoting golf. He encouraged newspaper golf writers to stop in Myrtle Beach on the way back north after baseball spring training and when they were in the area covering the Masters. That got Myrtle Beach on the map as far as golf was concerned.”

D’Angelo is celebrated as the father of Myrtle Beach golf. He is in  the Myrtle Beach Golf Hall of Fame, whose members are honored with plaques in the courtyard of the Pine Lakes club. Pine Lakes also boasts another unusual distinction. It was the host facility in 1954 as Time-Life magazine publisher Henry Luce called a meeting of 67 writers and editors to discuss the creation of a new sports magazine – Sports Illustrated.

As golf grew as a recreational sport (boosted significantly by the adventures of Arnold Palmer) and Myrtle Beach’s reputation grew, new courses popped up seemingly on every available corner. The Strand course list eventually soared past 120 around the turn of the century.

Perhaps inevitably, there was – so to speak – a course correction. Some courses closed, and the decline gained steam during the recession of 2008.

“The ones on the low end of the spectrum, either financially or because of their condition, started suffering,” Gillespie said. “Some of them have been turned into real estate. Real estate in Myrtle Beach has been booming the past couple of years, and people are buying property where golf courses used to be.”

Still, the Strand has enough courses to boast almost one-fourth of the total in South Carolina, where golf is popular from the mountains to the sea.

Top course designers like Mike Strantz, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye brought top-flight courses to the area, giving Myrtle Beach a national flavor to add to its long list of courses that might be considered mid-range in quality. Strantz designed Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, perhaps the coast’s finest track, and its neighbor, True Blue, another excellent course.

“Those and others elevated Myrtle Beach from a good place to go play golf to more of a world class golf area,” Gillespie said.

Now, it’s time to play there. Again.

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.