Golf courses are living, evolving organisms. They welcome thousands of guests per year, and the superintendents who care for them are dedicated and knowledgeable souls. Nevertheless, Father Time is a strong adversary. Mowing lines, contours and vegetation perpetually change, and even the best superintendents can only do so much to combat the march of decades.
Periodic renovation and restoration projects are necessary in order to keep the quality of a course high and maintain the authenticity of the experience. When too much time is allowed to elapse between enhancement projects, otherwise benign neglect begins to seriously compromise the integrity of a once-proud layout.
Over the last decade or so, this started happening at a golf course that is dearer to me than any other: Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design.
I have played Pawleys Plantation more times than any other single golf course. I first played it about 20 years ago when I was eight or nine and my love of golf was taking root. Between family vacations, several summers and a few years living in the Myrtle Beach area, I would estimate I’ve logged 500 or more rounds there, plus countless hours on the putting green and practice range. I know every tee shot line, every fairway contour, every hole location, every break on every green.
Having lived hundreds of miles away from Pawleys Plantation for a few years now, I’ve played precious few recent rounds there. And what I’ve seen during those infrequent visits has bruised my heart.
To reiterate, active malice or mismanagement is not the issue. The years have simply begun to catch up with the course, which turned 30 this year. It is due for some refreshment. And to the credit of current ownership and the course's legendary architect, relief is around the corner.
Here are the gradual changes I have noticed over the years at Pawleys Plantation, and which you have probably seen at your own favorite course:
Pawleys’ greens were never large, nor were they severe. This is a relief, because the course has always been so demanding tee-to-green. What fascinated me about them from the beginning was their inside-out shaping. Golf course architecture nerds rightfully go gaga for internal contours, but Pawleys’ greens are characterized more by external contours in the form of mounds that can help feed the ball toward the hole, as well as some subtle runoffs that foil other shots. Imagine a Lay’s potato chip, with its blistered edges and saddle-shaped interior. That is what Pawleys’ greens are like.
In recent years, imprecise mowing has caused the greens to shrink significantly. That is alarming for a few reasons:
- At Pawleys, it has robbed many of these external slopes of their intended effect. These contours can help contain slight misses; losing them made the course nearly impossible for less-than-stellar golfers.
- Pawleys’ greens are fairly small to begin with, meaning that foot traffic from periods of heavy play tends to be tougher to spread out than at courses with big greens. Further shrinkage just concentrates that traffic even more, which threatens the daily upkeep of the surfaces.
- The shrunken greens look especially out-of-place at Pawleys because bunkers help define the green pads. This has robbed the course of fun and interesting hole locations such as the brilliant back-right corner placement on the par-4 16th.
Tip: You can probably tell whether your own home course's greens have shrunk by looking for the greenside sprinkler heads. Are they floating in the rough away from the fringe? Then your greens are probably due for some recapturing of space.
“Generous” would not be a word I’d ever use to describe the fairways at Pawleys Plantation, but just as the perimeters of the greens have crept in, the fairways have pinched in even further, making the course truly brutal, especially for higher handicappers.
This has also taken away some of the course’s strategic merit. Rough lines have moved away from fairway bunkers whose primary function is to guard the best spots from which to attack the green. If these areas are covered in long grass, the playing experience suffers.
Tip: Similar to greens, if there are a lot of sprinkler heads just off the edges of your fairways, they have probably shrunk over time.
The most important change in the bunkering has been around the greens. Over time, repeated shots splash sand onto the edges of bunkers facing the greens, causing mounds to rise slowly. This makes these hazards more severe than intended by steepening the downslope a player must negotiate. These more pronounced slopes also contribute to the shrinkage-promoting greens-mowing practices I mentioned above. At Pawleys Plantation, this effect has been especially profound because of the small size of the greens. Softening these slopes would enable the edges of the greens to return closer to the bunkers, where they belong.
Tip: If your greenside bunkers seem to be deeper and tougher to escape then they used to be, you're probably hitting onto more of a downslope than the architect intended, due to topdressing and general sand buildup.
It is fashionable to advocate for almost complete denuding of some golf course properties, but Pawleys is a rare layout where trees have historically influenced strategy at times. That said, in the 30 years the course has been open (and the 20 years I’ve been playing it), certain holes feel more claustrophobic than they used to, and some pruning would be welcome. “I didn’t have the heart to take it down,” Nicklaus said in an early yardage book of the lovely live oak in the middle of the ninth fairway. I’m glad, because it turns an otherwise pedestrian straight hole into a strategic test.
Tip: If tree-lined fairways have always been a characteristic of your course, that's okay, but be aware that as trees grow over time, they can make certain shots and holes more difficult and less fun.
These gradual changes have a measurable effect on a golf course over time. I have a yardage book from about 20 years ago for Pawleys Plantation that lists the course's Rating and Slope figures. Back then, the popular White Egret tees (6,127 yards) had a Rating of 70.5 and a Slope of 125.
The course was just re-rated by the Carolinas Golf Association, and those same tees now carry a Rating of 71.6 and a Slope of 140 (!). That is a massive increase for a golf course that has had no significant work done to it in the last couple decades. Instead, all the factors I mention above have conspired to make it that much more difficult, especially for its core clientele.
“The bones are here”
I was thrilled to learn a few weeks ago that the course’s parent company, Founders Group International (FGI), had recruited the Golden Bear for a return visit to the course. On a brilliant October day, Mr. Nicklaus flew up from Florida and toured the course with FGI staff, including head superintendent Max Morgan, in order to make recommendations aimed at turning it back into one of the Myrtle Beach area’s premier courses.
At a banquet that night, Nicklaus fielded questions from members of the semi-private club and other guests. When asked about his thoughts on the course, I was pleased with what I heard because it reflected my own feelings about a course for which I will always care deeply.
“I think it’s been semi-neglected over a long period of time,” said Nicklaus. “The greens have grown in probably eight to 10 feet most every green around all the sides.”
One comment from Nicklaus with which I initially disagreed was about the bunkers. "You don’t need the waste bunkers anymore…take about 75 percent of the sand out” he said, referring mainly to large sections of sand on holes like the par-5 first and par-4 second and eighth, where bunkers start 100-plus yards back in the fairway and end greenside.
This comment runs a bit against my own desire to preserve Nicklaus' original design, but I think it is ultimately a pragmatic and acceptable suggestion. All that extra sand is disproportionately dangerous to higher handicappers, who confront far more shots in that awkward 30- to 75-yard distance than do better players. A bunker shot of that length is a challenge for touring pros, but for rank amateurs, it’s a nightmare. The look will take some getting used to, but I won’t be too upset to see those larger hazards reduced in size, as long as it also means bringing the fairways back to (and potentially slightly beyond) their original widths to promote true playability.
At dinner, one particular line drew laughter and applause from the crowd: “Get rid of the stupid tree in the center of the 14th fairway…a copper nail will take care of that real quick,” Nicklaus said of a tree that has grown significantly and has cut off layup routes on an otherwise good hole. That tree actually directly faces the house Nicklaus was given (and later sold) as part of his compensation for designing the course.
“You could fix this golf course fairly inexpensively to bring it back to the level it was…it’s just the little things that get neglected over time,” Nicklaus said.
“[The] bones are here,” he concluded. “I think it’s a really nice golf course, but it needs a little TLC.”
Armed with these suggestions and a groundswell of energy from Pawleys Plantation’s enthusiastic membership, FGI now has a terrific opportunity to bring a tired but trusty course back into the upper echelons of one of golf’s great destinations. When it happens, I will be one of the first on the tee.