MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Myrtle Beach is one of those American tourist destinations that cater to the fantasies of its visitors. There are rides that hurtle you into the air, games that take place in virtual-reality simulators, circus-like obstacle courses, feasts with knights and pirates, gentlemen's (ahem) clubs, and mile after mile of idyllic beaches.
What's a golfer's fantasy? Playing The Old Course, Augusta National, and Pine Valley, of course. With Myrtle Beach being Myrtle Beach, these fantasies too can be fulfilled at International World Tour Golf Links, where all of the 27 holes are homages to famous holes around the world.
It may sound hokey, but the replica holes are so well done and have been chosen so carefully to fit into the available landforms that the sheer fun outweighs any sense of contrivance.
Prior to the start of construction of International World Tour Golf Links, course owner Mel Graham traveled thousands of miles to research 150 holes on his "short list" of inspirations.
The headliners of the collection are the Open Nine and the Championship Nine. The Open Nine contains tributes to nos. 1 and 18 at the Old Course at St. Andrews, no. 16 at Augusta National and no. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. The Championship Nine features nos. 11-13 at Augusta National ("Amen Corner"). The Augusta replicas are framed by more than 2,000 azaleas to complete the fantasy.
Interestingly, it's the International Nine that, when paired with either of the other nines, is the favorite course set-up of locals and the staff. The reason for this is that the International Nine, featuring no. 18 at Inverness Golf Club, no. 4 at Valderrama and no. 18 at Doral's Blue Monster are less known to casual golfers, so it is usually far less crowded. And the Open and International nines combine for the longest 18 with the highest slope rating, too.
What is the effect of all the replicas on the flow of play? Well, it cannot be denied that playing holes inspired by many different designers with many different design philosophies feels somewhat disjointed. Yet doing so also tells you something about your game.
For example, the lesson I learned playing the Open-International combination was that I am not terribly good at playing American holes. After doubles on many of the American replicas (and a triple with two water balls on the Blue Monster doppelganger) and several nice pars on the internationally flavored holes, it dawned on me that my handicap would be much lower if I lived in some other country.
Is the International World Tour Golf Links experience contrived? Well, to an extent, yes. But if you've been dreaming your whole life of sticking the island green at no. 17 TPC Sawgrass, and you do it here, it feels every bit as much fun. (As does an up-and-down par from the back rough).
Take, for example, the opener on the Open Nine, which is a replica of no. 1 at the Old Course at St. Andrews. I've played the original, and I can honestly say that, with respect to the shots alone, the World Tour version is bang-on. What is missing, though, are the surroundings: Here, there's no Royal and Ancient clubhouse a few paces behind the tees, and no ocean off to the right, nor crowds of tourists watching your swing.
The absence of all of these distractions might result in a somewhat diminished experience, but it will also likely result in a better score. To wit, I holed an easy par putt at World Tour, whereas my nerves were jangling so badly teeing off at the Old Course, multiple chunks and a ball into the burn led to a rather shameful quintuple bogey.
In short, while the hole designs themselves are remarkably accurate, what is missing is the surroundings of the inspirational holes.
Another example is no. 7 on the Open Nine, where the green, modeled after 16 at Augusta National, is the hardest to hit and most treacherous to putt on the entire property. Yet the ambiance is, quite understandably, lacking compared to the peerless original.
The real treat of the entire layout is that many of the replicas are of holes on ultra-exclusive private courses, such as Pine Valley and Seminole Golf Club.
The sixth on the International Nine is a replica of 15 at Seminole, and it offers probably the most difficult tee shot on any nine. As a 498-yard par 5 from the tips, it's eminently reachable in two, but only if you choose the perfect line over a row of cross bunkers and cross palms and the perfect club to avoid running through the left-to-right cape-style fairway.
International World Tour Golf Links: The verdict
Myrtle Beach promises to fulfill many fantasies, and International World Tour lets golfers live 27 of them. Buy a yardage book, and absorb the back stories of the holes as you play them to truly immerse yourself in the experience.
The hole designs themselves are very well done. (Although the "valley of sin" on the replica of 18 on the Old Course felt more like the "valley of mildly regrettable behavior.") The holes that were chosen fit nicely into the landscape and do not feel forced, despite the fact that the land surrounding the holes cannot always recreate the entire experience of playing the original.
The clubhouse and staff are spectacular, having been voted several times as the best in Myrtle Beach.
During 2012, all 27 holes are being renovated on a rotating basis, one nine at a time, so as not to interrupt play too much. When the work is done, the greens, bunkers and cart paths will all be sparkling like new.
Off-course fantasies in Myrtle Beach
I'm tempted to break into the voice of Ricardo Montalban as Mr. Roarke while enumerating the fantastical attractions of Myrtle Beach. If your desire is to walk through shark-filled seas, pet eagle rays or even watch frolicking mermaids, Ripley's Aquarium at Broadway at the Beach is for you.
Also at Broadway at the Beach (S.C.'s biggest tourist attraction), is WonderWorks, where a collection of mind-bending and intellectually engaging displays and activities are housed in an enormous upside-down building.
Children will be enthralled during a pirate-themed dinner and show at Pirate's Voyage or by knights embroiled in martial combat on foot and horseback at Medieval Times. Take extra hand wipes to the medieval castle, though, as you'll eat with your hands as they did in days of yore.
And that's just it about Myrtle Beach, isn't it? A visit here is also a visit to countless other places, including some of the greatest golf courses in the world.