The "beach" vs. the "island."
Golfers choosing between a vacation on Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach face a tough decision. They're really completely different experiences. There are so many questions to ask: How much golf do I want to play? How much do I want to spend? Who's going with me, the family or the golf buddies? What do I want to do besides golf? These are all critical decisions.
I've broken down each destination into five different categories -- value, family friendly, accommodations, top course, bucket-list courses -- to help you decide. You might not agree with my findings because, simply, there's no wrong answer when it comes to these great golf destinations.
Myrtle Beach: With more than 90 golf courses, there's no better value in America than Myrtle Beach. Local operators call the mix of cooperation and competition "co-op-etition." They know the variety and depth of the Grand Strand is what draws golfers. Once golfers show up, it's the responsibility of the courses to earn their loyalty with good conditions, quality services and bang for the buck.
Hilton Head Island: The island life comes with a price. While Hilton Head has some affordable tee times, generally everything costs a little more. It must be the fare across the bridge. How else do you explain it?
Winner: Myrtle Beach.
Myrtle Beach: Summer brings family time in Myrtle Beach. Many courses offer free golf for juniors under age 17 with a paying adult. The beach, of course, costs nothing except parking (unless you're staying within walking distance). Attractions dot the region -- the East Coast's only 200-foot SkyWheel, more than 50 putt-putt golf courses, the Ape Treetop Adventure, the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Myrtle Beach Speedway and Ripley's Aquarium, odditorium and 5D movie theater, and more.
Hilton Head Island: Hilton Head offers some of the same adventures on a smaller scale with a bigger emphasis on the natural surroundings -- mini-golf, beaches, water sports, a kid's museum called "The Sandbox," biking, tennis, horseback riding at Lawton Stables, etc. Its vibe feels laidback and loose compared to some of the hustle-and-bustle and neon lights of Myrtle Beach. Most families will probably prefer to spend their time here if it was more affordable. And when it comes to weather, Hilton Head can be up to eight degrees warmer on average than Myrtle Beach, which is good news for vacationers in early spring and late fall but maybe not summer.
Myrtle Beach: The area thrives off of the golf villa or condo. That's all that Barefoot Resort & Golf -- one of the world's largest golf resorts -- offers. Staying in a villa helps keep costs down for golfers who grill out or cook dinners themselves. The Marina Inn at Grande Dunes -- Myrtle Beach area's only AAA Four Diamond property eight years running -- is probably the most luxurious option.
Hilton Head Island: There has been nearly half a billion dollars of investment in Hilton Head Island's golf courses, resorts and hotels over the last five years. The two most obvious choices for golfers are the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort and the Sea Pines Resort. When I stayed at the The Inn & Club at Harbour Town at Sea Pines a decade ago, I was charmed by the foreign accents and attentiveness of the staff. Recent renovations have enhanced its luxuries. Palmetto Dunes has three courses, shopping and dining at Shelter Cove Harbour, a marina, tennis center and an 11-mile lagoon.
Winner: Hilton Head.
Myrtle Beach: The debate about the top course in Myrtle Beach can rage forever. The general consensus is between the design and beauty of Caledonia Golf & Fishing Club in Pawleys Island, and the tournament lore and "Alligator Alley" of the Dunes Golf & Beach Club, home to the Senior Tour Championship from 1994-99. Both are top-100 caliber places to play.
Hilton Head Island: Harbour Town Golf Links wins this argument. No Myrtle Beach golf course has hosted the PGA Tour. No Myrtle Beach course has a hole as famous as the iconic no. 18 set on Calibogue Sound in the shadow of the lighthouse. Tiny greens and narrow corridors designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye scare even the best players in the world.
Winner: Hilton Head.
Video: Golf Channel's Matt Ginella on Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach: A current golf package sells seven different courses along the Grand Strand that have earned top-100 status by a major publication. And there are dozens more four-star courses nearly as good. If I polled 100 different golf writers for their top 10 courses along the Grand Strand, I'd probably get 100 different answers. Among my favorites are the top two listed above, plus True Blue Golf Club, Tidewater Plantation and the Fazio Course and Love Course at Barefoot Club & Resort.
Hilton Head Island: We have to cheat a bit to even make this a fair fight, even though there are more than 30 choices on and near the island. If golfers add the highly regarded May River Golf Club to their itineraries, Hilton Head makes up ground. Hilton Head National, Crescent Pointe and Old South Golf Club -- all in Bluffton -- are all excellent choices along the Colleton River.
Winner: Myrtle Beach
I'm going to have to call this a draw. If you're traveling as a couple, Hilton Head wins. If you're traveling with a group of buddies instead, Myrtle Beach gets the nod. For every magic moment on the island -- at dinner, on the beach, watching the Tour pros play, etc. -- Myrtle Beach fights back with the ultimate man-cation, featuring a slew of tee times (and hopefully some beers and laughs) at courses that should cost a third more.