MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - It's always nice to return to a place with so many happy memories.
Having spent many summers and school vacations along the South Carolina coast growing up, and then living there for almost three years after college, the Myrtle Beach area will always have a special place in my heart.
And amid a stretch of years where some courses have closed - a sign of health, overall, as the area became overpopulated by golf courses from the 1980s into the 2000s - it does my heart good to see several facilities taking both necessary and pragmatic steps to improve the experience for visiting and local golfers.
The single largest course-improvement movement afoot in Myrtle Beach was borne out of necessity. This past winter wrought havoc on the area's golf courses (along with many other parts of the Southeast). Alternating stretches of mild and frigid early-2018 weather, followed by brutal heat as rye overseeding gave way to summer-growing Bermuda, left many courses with massive patches of dead ground. That said, when I played in the Myrtle Beach World Amateur a few weeks ago, the courses were in uniformly good shape.
No fewer than a dozen area courses have replaced their greens this summer: International Club, Long Bay Club, Diamondback Golf Course, Tradition Golf Club, Panther's Run Golf Links, Lion's Paw Golf Links, the Moorland Course at Legends Resort, Indigo Creek Golf Club, Glen Dornoch Waterway Golf Links, both the Byrd and Jones Courses at Sea Trail Plantation and the PineHills Course at Myrtlewood Golf Club. Many others have had to sod large sections of many of their putting surfaces. Things are finally getting back to normal.
A common theme among these courses; the near-overnight penetration of a previously little-known greens grass called Sunday Bermuda. The superintendents and facility operators I spoke to praised Sunday's durability and lower-maintenance makeup, which should help it hold up well to high-season traffic.
Greens aren't the only parts of Myrtle Beach courses receiving some valuable TLC.
At TPC Myrtle Beach, superintendent Clayton DuBose (who oversees several courses operated by local firm Founders Group International) is finishing up a summer-long project that will make the popular Tom Fazio/Lanny Wadkins design more playable for its core clientele while also allowing it to show off a bit when it hosts an NCAA Regional tournament in May 2019.
The work revolves around the bunkering, which has been reduced in size (about seven of the course's original 75 or so bunkers have been eliminated or combined) and received both a functional and cosmetic overhaul.
More than perhaps any on the Grand Strand, TPC Myrtle Beach was a course where a golfer's score and overall experience tended to be dictated by how many bunkers he or she found over the course of 18 holes. The deep pits had steep, almost vertical faces, making for extremely difficult times along both fairways and greens. What's more, these steep faces would wash out disastrously after rainstorms, requiring multiple maintenance workers and numerous hours to be returned to playability.
Now, every single bunker on the course has been rebuilt using the "Better Billy" method. By laying a pipe into the low part of a bunker and installing a layer of gravel, plus another layer of sprayed polymer (to hold the gravel in place) between the gravel and the surface sand layer, this method effectively turns the entire bunker into a drainage port. In the past, bunker drainage was only available in the low points, and water would pool and turn them into quagmires.
There is a sizable cost to the Better Billy method, but it functions as a man-hours insurance policy that will pay off handsomely in the long term. Moreover, the layered construction of the bunkers has made them shallower and considerably more playable, which helps bring the challenge of playing the course into better balance.
TPC Myrtle Beach is not the only area course to introduce the Better Billy method. This summer, The Dunes Golf & Beach Club has been undergoing a similar project, with architect Rees Jones overseeing further fine-tuning of a course that stands out as one of the best in the portfolio of his father, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Modern golf technology has prompted some fine-tuning of bunker positioning, and in some cases, bunkers have been eliminated while clusters of bunkers have been combined for ease of maintenance.
A smaller though valuable project was also undertaken alongside greens replacement at Myrtlewood Golf Club's PineHills course. The 1992 Arthur Hills redesign of a 1966 George Cobb layout had seen its fairways shrink over recent years, hurting the playability of the course. As a remedy, superintendent David Hughes and his team recaptured more than two acres of fairway across the course, in many cases bringing fairway lines close to the edges of strategic fairway bunkers. Classic courses have been mowing fairways right into fairway bunkers; such a look would even further distinguish PineHills and make it a trendsetter in a competitive market.
One more course worth recognizing for its self-improvement efforts is Arcadian Shores Golf Club. One of the oldest courses on the beach - built in 1974, it was Rees Jones' first solo design - Arcadian Shores' own improvements go beyond the course, although its own year-old Sunday Bermuda greens and the removal of more than 1,000 trees back in 2013 and the subsequent loss of a couple hundred more from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 have given the course some much-needed breathing room. In addition, returning visitors to Arcadian Shores will notice a brand-new clubhouse, new starter building, new cart paths, bathrooms and an expanded practice facility. They can also celebrate the facility's refurbishment with a hat or shirt bearing a spiffy new logo.
Even though I'm fortunate to return somewhat regularly, Myrtle Beach changes each time I see it. It is one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in the country, with new apartment, condo and single-family house construction booming up and down the Grand Strand.
Thankfully, general infrastructure has not been overlooked, as two new overpasses on the historically notoriously crowded U.S. 17 have made north-south travel a bit faster. Here's hoping this investment, along with those at several area courses, brings more golfers, more steady non-tourist rounds and more revenue to one of the world's great golf places.
A couple weeks ago, things were looking pretty dire for the Grand Strand as Hurricane Florence bore down on the area, no doubt giving many long-timers flashbacks to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and, more recently, Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
While many people in the Carolinas are still recovering from historic rains the storm did bring, the Myrtle Beach golf industry was largely spared. Per a report by the Myrtle Beach Sun News' Alan Blondin, virtually all area golf courses should be open by this weekend. The two notable exceptions are Aberdeen Country Club and The Witch Golf Links, which sit close to the Waccamaw River and will be prone to severe flooding in the near term.
But overall, if you were thinking of heading to Myrtle Beach to play some golf in the coming weeks and were concerned about the weather, your trip can proceed as planned. As always, the area golf course operators and staff will be glad for your business.