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Saturday, 15 February 2020 10:42

Talking Winter Golf Weather

        My wife and I are spending a couple of weeks on the South Carolina coast at Pawleys Plantation after our son’s marriage in Vero Beach, FL a week ago. As you might expect in February, the weather was much more suited to golf in Vero than it is in Pawleys Island, SC. The 530 miles between those two cities makes a big difference in terms of climate.
        This morning (Saturday) in Pawleys Island, it is 38 degrees and the Saturday men’s golfing group just called off its round. Although the sun is shining brightly, the wind is blowing at about a 10-mph clip. My wife has headed for a walk on the beach, but I believe the over/under on her beach walk will be about five minutes; I have been out there on cold days and the wind blows stronger and the air feels much colder than they do just one mile inland.
        Mindful of Mark Twain’s quote that “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it,” I understand that when it comes to golfing, especially in the winter, there is no perfect climate in America; okay, I have heard San Diego comes close, but if your target is the Southeast for a retirement location with golf, you will have to pick your poison. Florida this time of the year is terrific, with many days in the 70s and even the worst days tolerable in terms of temperature, even if it rains a bit. But, oh, those summers in Florida can be relentlessly hot and humid, forcing the inveterate golfer to play early in the day or late.
        On the Carolina coast, summers can be almost as hot as in Florida, but the ocean breezes and almost predictable afternoon thunderstorms – they last a few minutes and cool things down a little bit for an hour or so – make summer golf in the Carolinas slightly more tolerable. But winter is a catch-as-catch-can endeavor, as the men’s group at Pawleys Plantation found out today. Bottom line: If you can stand the heat, Florida golf is the best bet year-round. But if you don’t mind losing a few days of golf each winter, South Carolina is a great alternative. 
        By the way, my wife just returned from the beach. She says she made it just over six minutes. She loves the beach.

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Sunday, 02 February 2020 12:47

My Favorite Modern Courses in South Carolina

        A couple of weeks ago, I posted my choices for the best “classic” courses in South Carolina (scroll down two articles below this one). Here are my choices for the best “modern” courses in the state. (Note: As a panelist on the South Carolina Rating Panel, I am asked each year to rank the state’s courses. This year’s voting will be published in late March, but you can read our past rankings at scgolfpanel.org.)
        After an unbroken string of five years voting with my fellow panel members that the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island was the best course in the state, I decided this year to vote purely on “playability” and the fun factor, rather than design quality alone. And for that reason, I relegated the Ocean Course to number two because the experience can be daunting, depending on the wind. And frankly, as one ages – I am now 71 – a layout like Pete Dye’s by the ocean can feel unrelentingly brutal. Still, it is impossible to ignore just how dramatic and visually delightful – and intimidating – it is.
Secession first teeThe farther you walk along the first tee at Secession, the closer you get to the green on the tricky par 4 1st hole.
        My top course this time around is Secession near Beaufort, SC which, in terms of location, is not that much different from the Ocean Course given the prevailing winds that whip in from the Atlantic, although in Secession’s case, a scenic bit of marshland separates the course from the water. The private Secession course is certainly challenging and scenic, but the overall experience is loaded with a kind of atmosphere the more public Ocean Course does not enjoy. To relax with a post-round libation and cigar on the sprawling deck behind the clubhouse, overlooking the expansive marsh as the ocean light dims, is an experience you don’t forget.
        The Jack Nicklaus course at Colleton River in Bluffton fills my third slot almost entirely based on its greens, the fastest I have played in the last 10 years. If you watch a lot of golf on television, especially the big tournaments like The Master’s, the commentators often grouse about the speed of the greens. Give me fast greens any day of the week because for me, and I suspect for many of my fellow golfers, our putting strokes go to pot the farther back we take the clubhead. Fast greens force a shorter backstroke and, thus, a better chance at hitting the ball on the projected line. The greens at Colleton River, which is also home to a Pete Dye course, were running at 13+ on the stimpmeter when I played them but were as true as any I have ever enjoyed. They were fast but not furious.
Secession island greenThe 17th's tiny island green is almost impossible to hit when the wind is blowing. But not to worry; you are permitted to play from the adjacent marsh without penalty (hah).
        The layout at May River, also in Bluffton and also designed by Nicklaus, feels like a golf course that has been sculpted rather than laid out. Because the course sports a lot of sand and some scrub trees, it feels a bit wild in a Pine Valley “barrens” kind of way -- or somewhat like Bulls Bay in Awendaw, just north of Charleston, which landed at #5 on my list because it is a quintessential marsh course, using the tidelands as both framing and hazard and capturing all the best elements of the imagination of the late Mike Strantz, whose small collection of courses provide more fun than any other designer’s.
        My 6th favorite course in South Carolina is another Strantz gem, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in Pawleys Island, the darling of visiting golfers and the best of the 90 courses on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach. It is certainly more “refined” than Strantz’s other courses, but the huge greens, wide fairways, and imaginative placement of trees, sand and water are unmistakably his.
        Rounding out my top 10 are Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island, the Cassique Course at Kiawah Island, and the Cliffs at Mountain Park in Travelers Rest, just outside Greenville and, I just realized as I wrote this sentence, the only layout on my list not on the coast. Of my top 10 classic courses, only three are on the coast.
ColletonNicklausbywaterJack Nicklaus knows how to feature to great effect sand and water on his coastal layouts, but at Colleton River, it is all about the greens.

        If you are a long-time golfer, you have surely stumbled across golf courses that wowed you beyond expectations – most likely because you had no expectations. That feeling of serendipity and discovery is at the heart of why I have just launched a new web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. There you will find reviews from average golfers of unexpected gems that are unknown outside their local community and under-appreciated by the rest of us because we have never heard of them. They may not be difficult to get to – indeed my favorite such golf course, Keney Park, is “hidden” in plain sight in the city of Hartford, CT – but they certainly are worth going a little out of the way to play.
        I purchased the web site OffTheBeatenCartPath more than a decade ago from another devoted golfer. There is a small trove of reviews from the mid 2000s at the site that span a number of states and provide enough guidance to consider playing those courses; I have checked, and they are all still in business. (Given the golf industry’s woes of recent years, these survivor golf courses are likely to be very good indeed.)
        I want OffTheBeatenCartPath.com to feature as many reviews by our readers as possible and, over time, to inspire some of you to “show off” your hidden gems to other readers who may be passing through your area. (I extend an invitation to play with me at Keney Park to any of you who might be in the Hartford, CT, area. The first post-round drink will be on me.)
        In coming weeks and months, I intend to build other features into the site, including short recommendations for a pre- or post-round meal; and since life is not all about golf (nyuk, nyuk), we might add some local color to our reviews. And we certainly intend to expand the number of states that feature excellent golf off the beaten path.
        Mostly, though, I hope OffTheBeatenCartPath will inspire others to share their favorite local golf courses with the rest of us. Send us your ideas through the web site and we will make it as easy as possible to post your review. And don’t worry about writing skills; I spent 40 years in a career that included editing, and I enjoy the art of wordsmithing.
        I look forward to seeing you off the beaten cart path.
IMG 1400Way off the beaten path: Ladybank Golf Club, Cupar, Scotland

Thursday, 16 January 2020 12:25

My Votes are in…for best courses in SC

        As a member of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, I am asked to vote every year for the best golf courses in the state. Some years we vote for the best public courses, some years for the best courses public and private combined. This year, we have been asked to vote for the 10 best “classic” courses in the state and for the 30 best “modern” courses, regardless of whether they are public or private. Results of the voting will be announced publicly coincident with the Panel’s annual meeting this spring.
Chanticleer 2Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr gem.
        Given the large number of excellent golf courses in the state, it is a difficult task but one I take seriously because South Carolina is my second state of residence. (I am a resident of Connecticut most of the year.) I also believe the panel’s judgment on best courses can be helpful to visiting golfers as well as for those retirees looking for a private club to join. I have played a majority of the courses in the state thanks to both my retirement gig as a golf community reviewer but also as a member of the panel. Many of those I haven’t played in the last few years left quite an impression; I have no problem comparing them fairly with those I have played more recently.
Palmetto locker roomEverything says "classic" and classy, locker room to golf course, at Palmetto Club.
        I played my number one rated “classic” course five years ago. The Chanticleer course in Greenville is part of a two-course membership inside the limits of one of the most popular cities in the Southeast. I rated its Greenville Country Club companion, the Riverside course, renovated a dozen years ago to “feel” like a design by Seth Raynor, #7 among the classic courses. But Chanticleer, designed by Robert Trent Jones the Elder, and renovated in the early aughts by his son, Rees, is so sleek, challenging and fun that I rated it just ahead of the heralded Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken and the famed Sea Pines Harbour Town course. The rest of my Top 10 include Camden Country Club (#4), The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach (#5), Florence Country Club (#6), the Surf Golf and Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach (#8), Orangeburg Country Club (#9) and the Wild Dunes Resort Links Course in Isle of Palms (#10).
        In the coming days, I will post in this space my choices for best modern courses in South Carolina.
Florence CC approachFlorence Country Club's course was designed 94 years ago in the "style of Donald Ross."

Monday, 13 January 2020 19:11

What a Difference a Decade Makes

        We are set to publish our first Home On The Course newsletter of the new decade, and it is one of our most feature-packed communications of the last decade. We look back at the years that followed the Great Recession and the effects it had on the development of golf communities, and on the game of golf itself. We look at how the industry has slowly recovered and how, because of the millions of baby boomers still retiring every day, homes in golf communities are getting harder to find, and more expensive (both the relatively few new ones and resales). At any one time, Myrtle Beach, SC, is a good indicator for the strength – or weakness -- of golf community sales, and we demonstrate that all indications are that the scale is currently tilted toward strong.
        All that and more in the January edition of Home On The Course. Subscribe here for free.

Wednesday, 01 January 2020 11:33

Myrtle Beach Defines a Decade

        We humans tend to celebrate round numbers. I write this mere hours after the ball dropped in Times Square in front of tens of thousands of people celebrating a specific cycle of 365 days. The newspapers and magazines are filled with stories about highlights – and a few lowlights – of a decade that ended at midnight and a new one that started just after.
        In reality, a decade can start and end anywhere you want it to, as long as it comprises 10 years exactly. In terms of the life span of golf communities, I would argue that the previous decade ended – and a new one began – with the 2008 recession, which threw the entire real estate market into chaos, caused some golf communities to close and others to change in fundamental and long lasting ways. That decade from 2008 to 2018 was one of restoration, as golf communities could no longer count on an endless supply of golf-interested baby boomers and were forced to accommodate a swath of retirees less interested in golf. Myrtle Beach, the quintessential area for golfing retirees, as well as visiting golfers, suffered as much as any area. It is littered with golf communities whose former fairways and greens are now populated with condos and small single-family homes -- assuming they aren’t populated with overgrown grass and tall weeds. (The latest victim, Indian Wells, is a fine public course I have enjoyed playing over the last few decades.)
Caledonia18thapproachAs if the approach shot on the par 4 18th at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is not intimidating enough, you could find yourself with a clubhouse audience overlooking the green.
        Golf lost a few million regular players during that ’08 to ’18 decade, and that meant golf courses that were neither efficiently run nor well-designed faced financial crises. Myrtle Beach, which is the ultimate symbol of golf-centric locations, became a microcosm of what happens when an economy hits the skids and discretionary income dries up. Troubled golf courses became easy targets for any group of people with cash. A few Myrtle Beach golf course operators tacked on local courses, for pennies on the dollar, to their already established operations, creating multi-course memberships for $99 and up.
        Since Chinese companies in the early 2010s were flush with cash and eager to take advantage of the EB-5 Visa program that offers permanent residency for certain investments in American companies (including golf courses), one Chinese firm purchased 23 of the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand’s most iconic layouts. Retirees with an itinerant golfing streak will find a membership in Founders International’s Prime Honor’s program a way to play a different course every day on the cheap. And for those who prefer the highest quality golf in smaller quantities, Caledonia and True Blue, arguably two of the top five courses among Myrtle Beach’s 90-plus layouts, offers an annual membership that will pay for itself in fewer than 30 rounds.
        Real estate in Myrtle Beach still hasn’t fully recovered from the recession. I know that personally. Thinking we might build a home in Pawleys Plantation (Pawleys Island), where we had owned a condo since 2000, my wife and I purchased a lot overlooking the 16th fairway with a long view of the marsh and the island beyond. I laugh, to keep from crying, when I tell people I bought the lot about 15 minutes before the recession began. Within a week, it was worth about 50% of what I paid for it. (Note to readers who would like to build a home with a golf and marsh view beside a terrific Jack Nicklaus golf course: I will give you the special Golf Community Reviews reader discount if you are interested; and I will pay for your initiation fee in the semi-private club.)
Lot20PILot for sale on the 16th fairway of Jack Nicklaus' Pawleys Plantation golf course, just a six-minute ride to a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach. Contact me if you would like more details,.
        Pawleys Plantation, one of the courses owned by the Chinese firm mentioned above, is another example of how golf courses responded to the changes in the market. When my wife and I bought our condo in 2000, the developer offered to pay $7,500, half the initiation fee for golf club membership. Last year, Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club reduced its initiation fee from $15,000 to $2,500 – about 20 years too late for me.
        Who knows what the next decade will bring? Happy New Year to all.

        In more than 12 years of visiting hundreds of golf course web sites, I had never come across one that published higher rates for seniors than for everyone else. But earlier this week, while doing some research on long-established golf courses, I found one that published a weekday rate for seniors that, at $33, was 25 cents higher than for all other golfers.
        The golf course is Boscobel, an upstate South Carolina fixture that opened originally mid-Depression in 1933 and is located just minutes from Clemson University and its well-regarded Walker Golf Course. Boscobel’s layout was designed by Fred Bolton but was refreshed a few decades later by the more celebrated Russell Breeden.


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        Ten years ago, Craig Distl, a Carolina public relations professional and golfer, reviewed Boscobel and wrote, “I love the routing. It flows nicely along knolls and valleys. And, I love the slick bent grass greens. They hint of Donald Ross architecture.” Craig had launched a web site back then called Off The Beaten Cart Path; it passed to me about eight years ago, and I intend to re-launch the site in the next few weeks. Craig’s review of Boscobel will be included.
        Boscobel has been through a couple of ownership changes since Craig’s review, and the offending web page with the senior discount in reverse is a legacy of a prior owner. I am happy to report that, from a discussion with a gentleman in Boscobel’s pro shop named Mike, a lifetime member of the PGA, I can report that senior rates on weekdays are now just $29, $11 less than what everyone else pays. Better yet, Mike informed me that the course had just reopened the day before we spoke, sporting new T1 bent grass greens. 
        Bent grass greens are rare as far south as the Clemson area, but Mike said the course has always had bent grass greens and the new owners wanted to honor that tradition. (Note of bias from a New Englander: Bent grass greens are the best putting surface, true and generally faster than other turfs.) In addition, more than 200 trees had been taken out around the green areas to promote grass growth. The new owners, Mike added, intend to work on the tee boxes and other aspects of the golf course in 2020.
        I plan to stop at Boscobel for a round of golf sometime in the first half of 2020. I will be 72 by then and may ask for a super senior rate.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019 12:22

Fond memories: Myrtle Beach Family Fun Week

        The first time my son and I played in what was once called the Father/Son Event in Myrtle Beach, SC, he was eight years old. A few years later, we won our flight of 10 teams, mostly because, at age 11, he was permitted to play from the ladies tees. (He probably was hitting the ball 200 yards by then.) Win or lose, we always had a great time at the Father/Son, which is today called Family Week and includes father and daughter and mother and daughter competitions. I recommend Family Week, which will be held July 15 to 18 next year, to all who want to spend a few fun days competing with their child on some very nice golf courses. (Note: I have no relationship with the organizers and write this purely out of nostalgia.) This will be the 23rd year of the event.
        The Parent/Child definition is rather loose. An uncle can play with a niece or nephew, for example. Indeed, the only qualification is that a generation separates the older and younger players (and that you have established handicap ratings).
Legends HeathlandThe Heathland at The Legends, one of the Myrtle Beach Family Week golf courses.
        The golf part of Family Week, which also includes food and beverage at tournament events, lunch on the course and a few hundred dollars worth of golfing swag per team, extends over three days. The three nine-hole rounds start with a best ball competition, then a Texas Scramble, followed by Captain’s Choice. (When we played, the second round was a pure alternate shot event.). The only difference between Texas Scramble and Captain’s choice is that each competitor must contribute a minimum of six tee shots in the Texas Scramble format; otherwise it is what most of us know as a scramble.
        Selection of which of the eight courses competitors play on each day is random. The courses include Thistle Club, Arcadian Shores, Pine Lakes International, Glen Dornoch, Shaftesbury Glen, Barefoot Resort, Legends Heathland Course and Wachesaw Plantation East, former host of an LPGA event.
PineLakespar3Pine Lakes International
        The team fee of $995 may seem pricey but when you figure in the food and drink, the roughly $500 worth of gifts per team (including a $150 gift card per player that can be used at any of the host golf courses or at the event’s online store), three rounds of golf and the fun and priceless bonding across two generations, consider it an inexpensive golf vacation.
        For more information, visit the Myrtle Beach Family Week website.

        It takes quite an investment in time to get to Edisto Island (pronounced with the accent on “Ed”) in a remote area of the South Carolina coastline, some 40 miles from Highway 17. And once you are there, it still takes some doing to get to the Plantation Golf Course on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean on the southern tip of the island.
        Andy Litteral of Richmond, VA is a faithful reader of this blog site and our newsletter, and a frequent golf partner when I am in Virginia. Andy made the trip to Edisto in September, accompanying his wife, Anna, who attends annual reunions there with a group of friends from college. Andy played the Plantation course and wrote a review which will help me kick off a new web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath, that will debut before year’s end. But his pre-round warm-up is worth mentioning in advance.
Edisto driving range shackAll photos by Andy Litteral
        The Plantation course offers no practice range, although it has a couple of hitting nets, which doesn't help you to gauge distance. The only way to properly warm up for a round is to drive 10 minutes north to the Edisto Driving Range. Andy found no attendant waiting to take his $5 and present him with his bucket of balls. Instead, he found what he described as an array of buckets that reminded him of the line in the movie Forrest Gump that described “life (as) a box of chocolates.” A row of buckets awaited him, most bearing a generous assortment of golf balls in white and yellow, some striped, some not. Above them was a sign that touted an honor system that invited the golfer to drop $5 in the adjacent box and take a bucket of balls.
Edisto box of chocolates
        After the end of the peak season (Labor Day), the practice range is empty for periods of time, and it would be easy to grab a “box of chocolates” without paying the modest $5. But golf is based on honesty, and whoever owns the range surely depends on that. The Edisto Driving Range and its weather-beaten shack, according to Andy, look as if they have been there for decades. Whoever owns the place has counted on the honesty of golfers and, in the long run, apparently it has paid off.
Edisto Honor Basket

Monday, 11 November 2019 11:04

A Best-of List Calculates Reader Interest

        We are a ranking-crazy nation, especially this time of the year when multiple organizations rate college football teams. (What an entertaining game LSU vs Alabama was this past Saturday!). Search online for a restaurant recommendation, for example, in a town you are traveling to and you will need to claw your way through multiple best of lists.
        And so it is with best towns to retire to or best towns to live in. No two rating agencies agree, and virtually all of them have some subjective bias, if only based on how they weight the factors that determine their choices. Financial web sites will tilt toward the economic, more mainstream journals will emphasize culture and entertainment. That leaves many of use wondering what “real” people think of the best places to live.
        TopRetirements.com, a web site I turn to a few times a week for discussions about best places to live, measures “best” in a unique way – it bases its choices on the specific interests of its readers. The more times readers access information about a specific town, the higher that town is rated on TopRetirements’ best of lists.
        The site recently published its latest rankings for the Southeast Region and, once again, Asheville, NC, tops its list. In the upcoming Home On The Course newsletter, we provide a rundown on Asheville and the other towns that made the grade.
        Nagging aches and pains are part of my golf game these days. One especially annoying set of “problems” imposed themselves on me during a recent round yet, despite them, I played some of my best golf in years – at least for seven holes. And that caused me, no New York Yankee fan, to think of the Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. Why, you ask? For the answer, please sign up for our free Home On The Course by clicking here.

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