World's Most Popular Golf Spot Is Right Up to Par

Myrtle Beach, S.C., offers nearly 100 courses, great weather, and bargain-basement prices

There are plenty of places to go for a golf vacation that have better courses, better restaurants, plusher accommodations, and less traffic than Myrtle Beach, S.C. Why then is Myrtle Beach by far the world's most popular golf destination, with nearly 4 million rounds a year?

The answer is simple, but it has nothing to do with the fact that Myrtle Beach is home to Eddie Miles, one of the world's best Elvis impersonators. Or that the 60-mile long swath of pretty beach-front land on the northern coast of South Carolina, a.k.a. The Grand Strand, has all the great things the United States is famous for: Wal-Mart, Planet Hollywood, outlet malls, beautiful beaches, fresh seafood, country music, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and lots of pot bellies.

No, Myrtle Beach's attraction for duffers of all stripes is an unrivaled combination of elements: nearly 100 courses that are open to the public, great weather, and bargain-basement prices. As a lifelong golfer who writes about the game for a living, I had long been skeptical of Myrtle Beach's fairy-tale image.

So this past spring, when three high school buddies gave me the job of organizing a golf vacation that would also be our first reunion in nearly a decade, I decided we'd find out whether all I'd heard was true.

"Where?" questioned one friend, Peter, when I told him our destination.

"What about Arizona or Florida?"

"Trust me," I said.

The trip, which we took earlier this autumn, exceeded our expectations. We flew into Charleston, about 75 miles south of Myrtle Beach, because it's near Kiawah Island and we wanted to include Kiawah's famous Ocean Course on our itinerary.

After flights brought us together in Charleston - Peter from San Francisco, Steve from Chicago, Jim from Tampa and I from New York - shortly before noon, we headed for our first stop, the Tidewater Golf Club in North Myrtle Beach.

The first half of the drive took us through several dusty, no-stoplight towns. Then we started seeing huge billboards advertising golf courses, the Alligator Adventure theme park, and "scenic home lots, starting at $59,000."

We knew we'd arrived.

Myrtle Beach has two main roads, or strips, one running north to south and the other east to west. Taxis are hard to find and expensive, so renting a car is essential. The atmosphere is very Las Vegas, what with ubiquitous T-shirt shops (12 for $10!), buffet-style restaurants, and pawn shops. But instead of desert surrounded by mountains, Myrtle Beach lies on rolling marshland that is reminiscent of the setting of "The Prince of Tides." Also, instead of casinos every block, there are golf courses.

So much to choose from

A problem in planning a golf trip to Myrtle Beach is deciding where to play. Tee times for most courses can be booked through a central agency, Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (800-845-4653), but its 168-page brochure makes every layout seem enticing. Also, price probably won't be a concern because most people go on all-in-one packages that, for less than $100 a day, include greens-fee, cart, practice balls, breakfast, and room. From what I saw, some courses are better than others, but most are fun and challenging.

Tidewater is one of the top-rated tracks, and with each hole carved out of the woods of this tough course, it is well worth a visit. One warning: Come with Softspikes on your golf shoes or you'll have to pay $8 to have them installed.

After playing Tidewater, we drove back to the south end of town to check in at our hotel, the Litchfield Beach Resort. Like the courses, Myrtle Beach's accommodations and restaurants are plentiful and mostly of decent quality. Our best meal was a dinner at one of the several home-style eateries in Murrell's Inlet, a cozy area on a cove. Local specialties include boiled shrimp, oysters, and the most succulent hush puppies I've ever had.

The second day we got up with the birds at 5:30. We were scheduled to play 36 holes, starting at 7:30 at The Tradition, a course that doesn't have much tradition considering it opened in 1995. Still, it's an interesting layout that has excellent greens.

On the first tee, I was surprised to see a female starter, Valerie. We hadn't seen a another woman on the course at Tidewater, nor had we seen a female in the parking lot this morning.

"Do many women play golf down here?" I asked.

"Well, maybe 90 percent of our guests are men," Valerie said unconvincingly.

"Only 90?"

Valerie smiled. "OK, more like 98."

'It's gone bananas'

The ubiquitous fairway homes are an unappealing aspect of golf in Myrtle Beach. They ruin the views and make you feel guilty when you scamper into their yards to chase down errant shots.

While waiting on a tee at The Tradition I met Tim Arbogast, a ranger in charge of maintaining the pace of play. Mr. Arbogast moved to Myrtle Beach in 1974 from Virginia. We talked about the incredible development that had turned Myrtle Beach from a sleepy beach resort into a neon boomtown that runs year-round on all cylinders.

"It's really gone bananas in the last decade," he said. "It's not laid-back like it was. Still, I look around at how much land there is and the prettiness of the surroundings, and I'm grateful to be here."

Despite what many feel is over-development, there are still thousands of untouched acres here. Even today, the abundance of pristine land allows resorts to build spacious properties.

Such is the case at The Legends, where we went on our third day. The Legends is a 1,300-acre golfing paradise. There are three magnificently manicured courses, each with a different flavor. We played Heathland, which has a surprisingly authentic British feel, and Moorland, a stunning but difficult layout with lots of water, modeled after the PGA West Stadium Course in Palm Desert, Calif. Also, there's an enormous practice facility that is lit up at night and comfortable condominiums, which are not on the golf courses.

Perhaps the Legends goes a little overboard in having a Scottish accented phone message and a bagpipe moaning outside the clubhouse. Nevertheless, we all felt we could have spent our entire trip there and been happy.

Alas, our excellent adventure had to end, but not before we stopped at Kiawah Island. The antithesis of Myrtle Beach, Kiawah is a sleepy island-enclave with a tony resort and several homes that are bigger than most country-club clubhouses. After passing through a gate, we drove along the island's sinewy road that ends at the Ocean Course. The Pete Dye-designed layout opened in 1991, and it gained instant credibility that year by hosting the gripping Ryder Cup match, which the US won by a score of 14-1/ 2 to 13-1/2.

After three days of golf, our swings were in sync, which was good, because the Ocean course, a 7,273-yard par-72 with a slope rating of 152 from the tournament tees, makes Pebble Beach feel like a pitch-and-putt. As usual, the wind was howling, but the stunning ocean views, gorgeous design, alligator sightings, and abundance of pars (even some birdies!) kept us smiling.

Over lunch in the quaint clubhouse that overlooks the water, we reflected on what had been a terrific trip. "That was a great vacation, huh?" I said.

"No," said Jim emphatically. "It was not a vacation. I don't get up before the sun on vacation. This was a golf odyssey that I'll never forget."

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