"One time we were traveling with some friends who had come here," Persinger, 70, says in the pro shop at Lake Marion Golf Course. "They were talking about how if we ever stopped in Santee, we should play golf there. So the following year, en route to Hilton Head, we spent the night, played golf, then went on to Hilton Head."
He laughs. "That was one of the last times we went to Hilton Head in February. We still went from time to time, but things changed economically. We could come here and stay for half the cost, and play a good golf course."
These days, Persinger (a single-digit handicapper) doesn't have to travel; after he retired about 18 months ago, he moved to Santee and bought a home. He works part-time in the Lake Marion pro shop, getting free golf as part of the deal. His wife has a similar job at nearby Santee National. "We play all three (courses in Santee, including Santee Cooper Country Club)," he says. "We enjoy still working some, and we meet a lot of people."
So, they're now ambassadors for the area? "Well, I hope we are, anyway," he says.
The Persingers' story isn't unusual around Santee. Ed Holcomb, an affable transplant from Ohio, greets visiting golfers on weekends in the shop, too. After all, who better to spread the word on the joys of Santee golf than true believers?
Head professional Todd Miller, in his 15th year at Lake Marion, appreciates his part-timer employees' enthusiasm. "It's amazing how word of mouth works," he says. "There are probably 10 houses in the resort owned by people who came on golf packages and fell in love with the area.
"We get customers who tend to be loyal. Obviously, price is a huge issue, and it's hard to get the quality of courses and lodging that we have here anywhere else. The golf courses and nightlife are less than a half-mile from your motel."
A variety of courses are available, but Persinger is mostly loyal to his two "family" courses - Santee National with his wife, and in particular Lake Marion. "I just like the whole layout," he says. "There's not a ‘junk' hole on the course. Some places have 17 holes and squeeze the last one in, or they're tricked up. This one is well-designed, fun to play, and I enjoy playing it."
Persinger enjoys the short (320 yards from the back tees) but testing, severely doglegged par-4 14th hole, the last of six holes featuring water hazards. "You've got to lay it up out there (to the left of extensive water), but then it's a wedge to the green," he says. Miller concurs: "It's a fun hole as long as you don't do anything crazy. Some guys try to knock it on in one, but that usually leads to a 6 or 7."
Miller's pick for Lake Marion's most demanding hole is No. 12, a 425-yard (back tees) par-4 guarded by two huge oaks on the right side and a massive bunker guarding the elevated green. "You get through that hole without a big number, and you're set up with some easier holes at the end.
Holes such as the par-5 18th, a dogleg left 475-yarder that tempts players to fire over trees in the dogleg and go for the green in two shots, but can penalize a less-than-ideal shot. "You can make 3 or 7 there," Persinger says.
Another attraction at Lake Marion, Persinger says, is its extensive and well-stocked shop, with clothing, equipment, shoes and more. "It's one of the better shops around, besides the Myrtle Beach area," he says. "We get a lot of compliments for the way we keep it stocked, and we price it all to sell. There's nothing we can't discount."
Fall golf packages are starting to hit their stride, with visitors from Canada, the Midwest and Northeast flocking south until Thanksgiving, then again from Feb. 1 until Memorial Day, Persinger says. "We stay pretty booked," he says.
But equally attractive is Lake Marion's VIP program, which rewards in-state players who play eight rounds with a ticket for a free round. "We get them coming back every 1-2 weeks, and trust me, they keep track of their points," he says. Adds Miller: "This is the end of the busy season, with people from up north extending their golf season by another week. It'll be quiet after that, which is what our locals like."
Lake Marion and its sister courses have built loyalty in both groups, Persinger says, by offering good golf at attractive prices. "We get a lot of repeats," he says. "I'll be standing around talking with someone and they'll say, ‘This is our 22nd year.'"
Persinger and Holcomb, of course, don't have to wait for vacations to play. They're Santee residents for good now.
For tee times, call Lake Marion at (803) 854-2554. For information on golf packages at Lake Marion and Santee Cooper, call (803) 854-5363 or visit www.santeecoopergolf.com.