The state flag of South Carolina has a white palmetto tree emblazoned on a blue background but it could be argued that a golf ball on a tee would be a more appropriate symbol for the hundreds of thousands of Ontario golfers who flock to the State each year to extend their golf season and enjoy some wonderful southern hospitality.
While the sea-side destinations of Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Hilton Head are the most popular and best known spots, inland areas such as Santee, the Pee Dee region and the Olde English District offer a more natural down-home charm along with great golf and eye-popping deals.
Such was my latest visit to South Carolina that I got to experience several regions with a disparate group of golf writers merrily tripping across the state in country singer Merle Haggardís old tour bus. Iím not sure what Merle did to while away his time on the road but the bus came with an overabundance of black leather and chrome, five TV sets and a mini-bar that was anything but mini. The trip was arranged and hosted by Pam Shaheen, a fellow member of our Canadian Golf Journalists group, although she lives and works in Alabama.
Pam had everything organized to detailed perfection, so all we had to do was enjoy ourselves and try not to be late for the bus. Or be the last one on it, which was cause for much abuse heaped on by the more timely scribes.
Our first stop after introductions at the Myrtle Beach Airport was TPC Myrtle Beach. Itís a Tom Fazio design and as with every other TPC course Iíve ever played it was first class all the way. The TPC courses are an invention of Deane Beman, former PGA Tour commissioner, and are intended to let average golfers experience designs and conditions that tour players see all the time. They have been exceptionally successful and TPC Myrtle Beach was not a disappointment.
The TPC course is Fazio at his best when not forced to jam in an extra few homes or condos. While there are homes adjacent to the course, theyíre set well back and hidden by trees. TPC has an unusual amount of elevation for a Myrtle Beach course and features an intriguing routing that will challenge the best amateurs and delight the rest of us. The course deservedly gets a five star rating from Golf Digest although I was surprised to learn it is the only course on the Grand Strand to earn that distinction.
On most trips to Myrtle Beach, I make it a point to play courses I havenít seen before. With over 100 on the Strand, thatís been fairly easy to do but on my next trip Iíll make an exception and return to the TPC course. Itís that good.
The following day, Merleís bus deposited us at one of Myrtle Beachís newer destinations: the Barefoot Resort, home of four terrific courses each created by a big name designer Ė Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman and Davis Love. It was our great good fortune to play the Dye Course. Being something of a masochist when it comes to golf, I love everything Pete Dye does and revel in the punishment his courses mete out when over-confident hackers try and fail to make the required shot. Pete probably goes to bed each night chuckling about the havoc he has wreaked on unsuspecting golfers everywhere.
His course at Barefoot is no pushover and with the wind howling off the Atlantic Ocean from a few miles away, we struggled to find the correct line on holes framed by massive dunes and thick fescue. Occasionally a hole was punctuated by deep pot bunkers or the green would have expansive roll-out areas, just in case you thought you were by the worst of it. Peteís greens were small by most standards but still had plenty of humps and bumps. Fortunately, they werenít slick or we might never have finished.
After a box lunch on the bus (and another sampling from the mini bar), it was on to The Legends Resort where we could let it rip on the Heathland Course. As its name would suggest, this is a typical inland links style, reminiscent of the British Isles, with broad sweeping fairways, relatively few trees, lots of fescue and large greens bordered by deep bunkers. It was designed by Tom Doak. Heathlandís defence is supposed to be the wind but by that afternoon the wind had died to a gentle breeze, so we didnít see the course at its most challenging. However, it was a delightful layout with some really neat holes and after the morning carnage was just the tonic we needed to salve our damaged psyches.
The next day found us away from the coast in Florence, right in the midst of the Pee Dee region, so named for the wide river that meanders through the lowlands to the Atlantic. (If fishing is your passion, we were advised that the Pee Dee River is one of the best in the state). However, that day our only interest in fish was on a menu, so we headed off to play the Country Club of South Carolina.
Now I have to admit that I had played the course several times before and itís always on my list of places to visit whenever passing through the area. CCSC is a charming Ellis Maples design that used to host a regular Nationwide Tour stop and also the Champions Tour for a few years. The course is private Ė part of a real estate development Ė but is accessible through most package tour operators. Thereís a very comfortable serenity to the course and the southern style clubhouse; and whether youíre there for the first time or a regular, the staff make you feel so welcome that you canít help but return again and again.
Florence will be well known to NASCAR fans as the home of Darlington Speedway. Surprisingly, our itinerary included a stop at the racetrack, a tour of the museum and a trip around the oval. Iím not much of a fan of the go-fast-turn-left sport but the museum introduced us to some amazing stories of past champions and a delightful history of the development of stock cars.
If the museum wasnít enough to hook me, then the trip around the racetrack was. For this journey we left the bus behind and got into one of the pace cars. Our driver suggested heíd take it easy but when youíre inches away from the wall on one of the steeply banked turns doing about 120 miles per hour, youíre just hoping he knows what heís doing. What an adrenaline rush! Iím still not sure Iíll be camped out on the infield with Bubba and Skeeter but I get the appeal.
After an overnight in Florence and a delightful meal at the Red Bone Alley restaurant (Shrimp Crostini followed by Red Bone rubbed St. Louis ribs), we had an early morning tee time at The Traces just a few miles outside town. Itís a family run semi-private course designed by Ron Garl (Taboo, Wooden Sticks) that features three nines, each with a distinct look. We played the Woodlands and Meadows which were superb. The Creekside is reputed to be just as strong. Green fees range from $65-90 but we were advised that if you have a package, for not much more, breakfast and a hotel room can be included too.
Unfortunately we had no time to linger and enjoy the southern hospitality at The Traces as Pam had everyone back on the bus for another box lunch and an afternoon round at Cheraw State Park. Itís near the North Carolina border in the Sandhills region and in addition to all the other amenities youíd find at a state park, Cheraw features a Tom Jackson design that meanders through tall pines and around sparkling lakes in the most pristine setting imaginable. Iím not sure where the campers were but they certainly werenít anywhere near the golf course.
Cheraw was similar in style to courses found in the Pinehurst area without the real estate and hotels. It has broad, lush fairways, massive bunkers and enormous sloping greens. Itís all framed by towering pines and has enough elevation change to make it interesting yet still eminently walkable. I guess it is a walk in the park.
Part of the appeal of Cheraw State Park is its remote location (about 90 minutes SE of Charlotte, NC) but as part of the South Carolina state park system, green fees are ridiculously low at $30-35. There are accommodations both east and west of the Park and it would be well worth a side trip to play this beauty.
After four days on Merleís bus, we were all starting to fee a little haggard ourselves, so our final day in South Carolina was scheduled for just one round of golf followed by some lunch. The night before weíd had an excellent dinner at Michaels Grille in Rock Hill (Maryland style crab cakes as an appetizer with Cedar Planked Salmon Dijonaise for the entrťe), and met some of the people from the Olde English District that encompasses the area south of Charlotte down Interstate 77 all the way to Columbia and points east and west too. In a state endowed with so many great golf destinations, the Olde English District flies a bit under the radar.
Our final day dawned chilly with a stiff breeze so we bundled up accordingly. Our host for the round was Ricky Saucier, a local travel specialist, who had regaled us the night before with great golf stories and trips heíd made to Toronto for the Golf Show. Perhaps Ricky wanted to look like a typical Canadian so there he was in shorts and a golf shirt while the temperature hovered somewhere between freezing and just damn cold! He assured us he was OK and that it would definitely warm up. Sure enough, by the fifth or sixth hole we were all shedding clothes as the temperature climbed to a very respectable mid-sixties.
The course for the day was Springfield Golf Club, a heavily wooded, very hilly site with spectacular views. With water on 13 holes and tree-lined fairways, Springfield tested every club in the bag and required all the skill you could muster. Designed by Clyde Johnston, Springfield is in Fort Mill, SC, not far from the NC state line. It opened in 2001 but itís definitely old style. A real treat to play!
After lunch, there was one final trip to the Charlotte airport on old Merleís bus. Weíd traversed over half the state, played seven courses in five days, eaten some truly delectable food, nearly lost it on Turn 3 at Darlington and had enjoyed some wonderful southern hospitality. The golf was just a sampling of what youíll find in the three regions we visited and it was just enough to whet the appetite and leave us wanting more on our next trip to the Palmetto State.
For information on Myrtle Beach, the Pee Dee region and the Old English District including more courses, rates, accommodations, packages and other amenities, visit the following sites: golfholiday.com, peedeetourism.com or oldeenglishdistrict.com
More articles by Peter Mumford