For years, I was envious of friends who made such journeys each year to the Grand Strand. Then, three years ago, a group of current and former newspaper reporters - Brian Duncan, Martin Mobley and yours truly - plus a friend, Gordon Banks, decided to get in on the fun. We camped out at an in-laws' house at Garden City Beach (the price was right), racked up four rounds in three days ... and paid the physical price for over-indulging in 72 holes.
In October, older and wiser, we returned to Myrtle Beach for a three-day, three-course outing - plus the requisite seafood consumption, nighttime football watching and aging-male bonding. Despite some chilly mornings, we had a blast.
I could cram the entire adventure into one long blog, but what fun would that be? Thus, here's the first of three reports on what I hope will be an annual event.
Friday, 12:40 p.m., Willbrook Plantation
Four guys, four golf bags and assorted luggage, food and beverages barely fit into our van, but the point was to get from Columbia to Myrtle Beach as a tightly-bound unit, and as painlessly as possible.
Mission accomplished. After dumping luggage/food, etc., at the house, we pulled into the parking lot at Willbrook Plantation, one of three public-access courses (along with Litchfield Country Club and the River Club, which has new greens) within the Litchfield complex off U.S. 17 South.
Kevin McGuire, Willbrook's head professional for eight years, says we fell into a large minority of golfers who come to the Strand in the fall. "We do 60 percent of our package business in the spring, probably 30 percent September-November," the self-described "never leaving the South" New Jersey transplant says. "It's a great time of year because it's getting cold up North, but our courses are in phenomenal shape."
That means "a ton" of drives-to-destination visitors from the Northeast as well as North Carolina and even snowbird escapees from Florida. "People get cabin fever up north, especially in the spring," McGuire said. "They watch Golf Channel and say, ‘I've got to get a fix.'"
Willbrook and its sister courses are happy to provide that. The Dan Maples Signature design, built on the site of a former rice plantation, hosts 50,000 rounds a year (down from a pre-recession 65,000). There are all the trappings of Southern parkland golf: alligators and wild birds, generous fairways lined by old-growth live oaks, even an island green (the par-3 sixth hole).
"Maples called this one of his best designs, mostly because of the land," McGuire says. "There are houses, but they're set back from the course, and it has the Maples hard-easy (holes) sequence." There are few forced carries, and Golf for Women magazine rates Willbrook No. 25 in the nation for its woman-friendly features, including having female pros on the staff.
The course's best-looking holes are the par-4 second, with bunkers left and water in front and to the right of the green; the par-3 12th; and Nos. 15 (dogleg-left par-5 with a forced carry on the second shot over a marsh/nature preserve - the No. 1 handicap hole) and 16, a straight-forward par-4 where, McGuire says, "if you messed up 15, you can blast it as far as you can" to set up a birdie ... provided you avoid bunkers and water to the green's right. The 18th, a dogleg-right par-5, is a strong finish with water on both sides on the approach.
McGuire's personal favorite is the par-4 fifth, 383 yards from the back tees, with trees and azaleas on the left, water on the right and an elevated green that slopes severely left. "That left side, with the live oaks, is where a lot of couples getting married want to do their photo shoots," he says.
Our group found Willbrook - which we'd played before - a tough-enough first round, but not so rugged we weren't ready for shrimp platters at Drunken Jack's in Murrells Inlet afterward, followed by a sound sleep to cap it off, with an early tee time Saturday to come.