Azalea Sands Golf Club in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: A quick play that doesn't sacrifice quality

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- It's a simple rule that many golf courses have chosen to pay less attention to over the years.

Get players in and out while enjoying a solid round of golf.

The problem, however, is that as penny-pinching and maximizing play took hold of the 90-plus courses in the Myrtle Beach area, jamming up the tee sheet became more of a priority than keeping up the quality of play.

Azalea Sands Golf Club, however, has found a relatively easy way to achieve both.

The course, located along one of the busiest stretches of the Grand Strand, has a massive number of players each day. Yet, making some minor adjustments prevent it from feeling like a cattle herd.

"We hardly ever go over four hours, 30 minutes. We hate four hours, 30 minutes," Co-Head Professional Craig Kenley said. "We like four [hours], even when it's packed, even this time of year."

During the peak golf season, Kenley and Co. have maintained the goal. It's relatively impressive, especially since Azalea Sands rarely has marshals on the course.

Course superintendent David Trout went to work to make that happen. He removed several troublesome bunkers, moved yardage stakes into the center of every fairway (instead of side locations) and started taking advantage of sprinkler heads for yardage distances.

Add in some tree removal, and the low-dollar course learned how to keep up with the walk-up traffic that was bogging it down in prior years.

It's provided the necessary boost that has not only first-timers but also repeat customers happy.

"The pace of play is a lot better than the other courses we played," said Jay West, a native of Alberta, Canada, who recently played Azalea Sands for the second time in a week. "We were four-and-a-half hours, which to me is borderline long. But there are others that are slower and more unacceptable. Four-and-a-half hours, I can live with."

And that's on the slow end of the spectrum.

Azalea Sands Golf Club: The course

At a shade less than 6,300 yards from the whites, the average golfer is going to feel some distance issues on only four holes. The rest measure less than 400 yards.

Still, using a driver on every hole outside the par 3s isn't out of the equation. Big-time hitters can flirt with reaching two par 4s (Nos. 2 and 16). And, outside of a handful of tee boxes where players must contend with small creeks, the course won't kill you too much for trying.

"They have reasonably forgiving fairways," West said. "You can get in trouble if you hit bad shots, but there's room. It's not a tight driving course. It's a challenge. There's water and bunkers everywhere. It's not a gimme golf course."

The fight the course puts up, after all, has more to do with some stringent bunker locations, mostly around the greens. Some have sharp faces and banks that require players to change strategy quickly.

If that isn't enough, the blue tees (measured at 6,902 yards) provide an even greater challenge to test better golfers.

Even the aforementioned pace goals and the location don't explain the full parking lot.

For that, the course also had to be in great shape. Although many believe that's already the case, the course is about to undergo a couple more changes that will continue to improve playability.

The Azalea Sands staff will spend the early part of the summer of 2012 mowing greens shorter to speed up an already true putting surface. It'll also fill in some bunkers to make them play at a higher level.

Likewise, Kenley expects those small changes to continue to help with goal No. 1 -- melding the busy tee sheet with faster play.

"It can get overwhelming in the summer time with the golfers who aren't really golfers," Kenley said. "They're at the beach and they say, 'Hey, it's sunny. Let's go play golf.' You want to have them. But they don't know the drill. We stay busy, except for December and January. It's 250 a day, it feels like. Every day of the week."

Azalea Sands Golf Club: Facilities and instruction

The course has a centrally located clubhouse. Inside, players will find a snack bar and full-service drink menu, a favorite among regulars.

Azalea Sands does not have a driving range -- players typically use a public one just up the street -- but it does have a small putting green available for warm-ups just before a round.

The course is also home to the Shot Maker's Academy, which offers individual and on-course lessons. Kenley, a former top-15 amateur in the Carolinas (1996-2000), and fellow pro Jeff Pianeli are involved with all instruction.

Azalea Sands Golf Club: The verdict

Kenley estimates the course's platinum club membership numbers have increased 300 percent in the past two years. That's not hard to believe given the sheer amount of people at Azalea Sands on a daily basis.

Still, for the cost and what the average golfer gets for it, the deals are hard to beat, regardless of season.

Other courses in the same price range appear cheap, and they're seeing blowback because of it. Azalea Sands, meanwhile, is making it clear it isn't willing to sacrifice long-term customer satisfaction for a quick buck now.

Ian Guerin is a freelance writer and DJ living in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He's decent with the driver and putter; it's everything else in the bag that gives him trouble. Follow Ian on Twitter at @iguerin.
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Azalea Sands Golf Club in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: A quick play that doesn't sacrifice quality
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