For some longtime visitors to the Myrtle Beach area, a golf vacation means beachfront hotels, seafood restaurants and as many holes as they can squeeze into a vacation. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course but there's more to the Grand Strand, especially for those who venture south on U.S. 17.
The Grand Strand's "South End" is the fun of Myrtle Beach proper without the sometimes crowded feeling during peak season. Pawleys Island, Murrells Inlet and Litchfield Beach are smaller and more low-key, and instead of wall-to-wall attractions, there's more of a resort feel-not to mention some of the most acclaimed golf designs in South Carolina.
At Pawleys Island, a traditional favorite which bills itself as "arrogantly shabby," there are no less than nine golf courses, including several ranked among the best in the U.S. A great start is the duo of Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue, both designed by the late Mike Strantz, a Mount Pleasant resident who won international acclaim before cancer cut short his too-brief career.
Both courses are regularly rated among the "best you can play" by numerous publications as well as the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel. Once upon a time, locals referred to Caledonia as "the pretty one" and True Blue as "the hard one," but in fact both are near-equal in their beauty-Strantz's artist origins can be seen in each design-while also offering stiff challenges.
Both use the local terrain-forests, water, sand and marshes-to good effect. Caledonia, featuring beds of colorful shrubs and flowers and overhanging oaks, finishes with a par-4 hole that requires an accurate tee shot, then a carry over water and marsh to a well-bunkered green. True Blue, built on the site of a 500-year-old rice plantation, twists its way through forests and marshland, and its three-hole finish brings water into play on each, notably the par-4, 437-yard 18th which sits below the clubhouse and a guarding pond.
Another lovely and lethal area course is Pawleys Plantation, one of two Jack Nicklaus designs on the Grand Strand and home to the Mel Sole Golf School. For those players who enjoy a variety of designs (and designers) in close proximity, there's also the trio of Litchfield Country Club, designed by Willard Byrd; Willbrook Plantation (Dan Maples); and the River Club by South Carolina native Tom Jackson.
Also well worth visits are the Tradition Club by Florida designer Ron Garl and the Heritage Club by Maples and Larry Young. Finally, the South End's southern-most course is The Founders Club at Pawleys Island, a reworking of the former Sea Gull Golf Club by architect Thomas Walker. All offer winding holes through borders of woodlands, marsh and water.
While Caledonia and True Blue are some of the state's most heralded courses, neither is rated highest in the area by Golf Digest. That designation goes to Murrells Inlet's TPC Myrtle Beach (the maximum five stars), created by PGA Tour and Champions Tour veteran Lanny Wadkins and home course for current PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson. Bring your "A" game when you tackle this demanding layout.
Also located near the seafood destination of Murrells Inlet are the Gary Player-designed Blackmoor Golf Club; Willard Byrd's Indigo Creek Golf Club and International Club, both well thought out designs; and Wachesaw East, created by Hilton Head-based Clyde Johnston. The northernmost of the South End courses is one of the best: Prestwick Country Club, near Surfside Beach, was designed by legendary architect Pete Dye (of Ocean Course and Harbour Town fame) and is on a par with the area's best.
If your visit to the South End takes you all the way down U.S. 17 to historic Georgetown, an under-publicized gem is Wedgefield Plantation. This Porter Gibson course, while older and not as lush as the others, is tight and difficult and a favorite of locals.
Further north, Myrtle Beach's amusements and restaurants and more golf courses are waiting. It's quieter on the South End, but the golf is big time.