It was April 2004, and “The King” was scheduled to visit en route to Augusta for The Masters. Plans called for Palmer to play a Sunday exhibition match on King’s North, the best of the trio of courses, with excited fans on hand. Then the rains came – “tons,” Burnside said. “We waited and waited (for Palmer to show up) before our executives gave up.”
Then, he said, as he was tending to the pro shop, he looked outside and saw “a procession of vehicles. It was like the Pope arriving.” Out stepped Palmer, grinning his world-famous grin, before stepping inside, shaking hands and grabbing a hot dog.
With golf washed out, Burnside drove Palmer and his party in his SUV on a tour of the three courses, with the world-famous player making suggestions for improvements.
“That was the year of ‘The Letter’ (from then-Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson, suggesting that non-competitive past champions not play the tournament past age 65,” Burnside said. But if that was on Palmer’s mind, it didn’t show.
“People came up to the SUV while we were out, smiling, shaking his hand – it was incredible, a celebrity moment,” Burnside said.
Seven years later, with Palmer now 81 and retired from competition, his name and image still draw players by the hundreds to his first three Grand Strand courses. “The name recognition is huge,” Burnside said. “That’s (Palmer’s) image and reputation, as well as the quality of the designs.”
For players who want the true Palmer experience, though, King’s North – built in 1973 and tweaked by Palmer and the late Ed Seay, his design partner – is the choice, Burnside said.
The par-72 course is a beast from its 7,017-yard back tees, yet very playable from talent-appropriate distances, with seven sets of tees ranging down to the 4,816-yard reds. Pine forests line the generous fairways, water comes into play on 15 holes and bunkers are everywhere – notably at the par-4 18th (a Palmer-sized 464 yards from all the way back), which has at least 20 traps of various sizes lining the left side.
Two holes in particular will stick in visitors’ memories. The par-5 sixth, 568 yards at its longest and dubbed “The Gambler,” offers two options: play it as a “safe” three-shot hole by skirting water all along the left side, the green tucked onto a peninsula – or take the shorter but riskier route, driving onto an island landing area and then hitting a second, all-carry shot over water to the green.
“We added the island in 1995,” Burnside said, the same year the nines were switched. “Kenny Rogers” – whose song “The Gambler” inspired the name – came to play it in 1996,” and the singer/songwriter left his footprints in concrete at the tee.
There’s also the par-3 12th, played from an elevated tee to an island green protected by bulkheads and bunkers long and in front. A low ridge also runs through the green, demanding precision to have a reasonable birdie putt.
King’s North costs twice as much as either the South or West courses ($100 in summer, vs. $40 for the others). “It’s very fair, but memorable and enjoyable,” Burnside said. “The greens are big, but you can lose balls out there.”
The Myrtle Beach National clubhouse also is loaded with Arnie memorabilia, including a set of his “Palmer Peerless” clubs from the 1980s and enlarged photos. And in front of the clubhouse, a life-sized statue of Palmer during his 1960s heyday greets visitors.
It’s the perfect photo op for Palmer fans … at least, until The King’s next “royal” visit.
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