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The venerable Sea Gull Golf Club was one of the original 19 courses in the Myrtle Beach area around 1970 when I played my first rounds of golf on the Grand Strand. Over the next four decades, it was joined by 100 other courses, each vying for the hundreds of thousands of golfers that came every year to the Strand to feast on golf’s grandest buffet . All that choice seemed too good to be true, and it was.
In the last few years, nearly two-dozen courses have closed on the Strand, and one has gone totally private (the Surf Club). Competition and September 11 sealed the fate of the more mundane layouts. Even the “Grandaddy” of them all, Pine Lakes, has closed until 2008 to redo the course and add housing to its perimeter.
Sea Gull never closed, never gave in to an offer it couldn’t refuse from developers looking to convert the fairways to condos and patio homes. But the course did fall on hard times; its original layout by Gene Hamm came to be seen as a somewhat boring throwback to an era when the architect’s name didn’t matter and when large fairways and greens ruled. But with dramatically festooned courses nearby by Mike Strantz and Jack Nicklaus, Sea Gull was ignored, despite bargain basement greens fees. And as revenues decreased, so too did maintenance standards. Add to that the club’s location at the farthest southern extremity of the Strand, 40 miles from the popular beach hotels, and Sea Gull didn’t have a chance.
Enter the Classic Golf Group, which was willing to commit $7 million saving an enhancing their only course on the south end of the beach to complement their other four courses further north. The Classic Group hired Palm City, FL, architect Thomas Walker, former lead designer in the Gary Player shop, who started moving earth around last July. We stopped by yesterday and were impressed with the activity, although a promised fall opening still looks like a stretch…unless they mean the last day of fall. The holes are laid out, and the greens have their mix of foundation soils in place, waiting for seed. It looks to us as if it will be close.
A peek at a few holes indicates Walker has brought water closer to play, especially on the 9th along Highway 17. An innocent narrow lagoon that ran halfway down the left side of the fairway has been widened, and the landing area from the tee box appears extremely narrow. It may either be a short par 5 or long 4, but whatever it is, the tee ball will be crucial. Behind the green are the largest mounds we have seen on a golf course; they will offer a backstop to overly aggressive approach shots but we think they may be more an aesthetic than strategic consideration. They block most of the view from the fairway of the two floors of the adjacent, rather tacky Best Western motel.
The brand new clubhouse is nearing completion. It is modest sized but Low-Country sleek and certainly fine for a daily fee course. The motel will need to be upgraded to keep the entire ensemble from looking a little cheesy, but with all those other fine courses mentioned above less than three miles from the Founders Club, and with proper marketing, the hotel should have a good excuse to spruce itself up and generate solid income by offering competitive golf packages.
The Founders Club will be part of the recently formed Waccamaw Golf Trail on the South Strand, and we’re hoping the new club provides a little price competition to Caledonia and the other courses on the Trail. When we called Caledonia three days ago for a walk-in golf rate, we were told the current fee is $192. At least the cart is included.
Magazines like Golfweek bash some community courses for letting homes get too close. One remedy is to hide them, as Thomas Walker will do at The Founders Club, set to open in the fall. Walker's mounds behind the 9th green attempt to hide a two-floor hotel.
The founders of Old Chatham in Chapel Hill, NC, were looking to establish a private club purely dedicated to golf, and they chose wisely in giving the design job to Rees Jones. Out of the club’s 400 acres, two-thirds of which abut Federally owned land, Jones fashioned a course that fits comfortably into the wooded, rolling terrain. The layout plays 7,200 yards from the tips, with the 630-yard 11th the longest hole. The fairways are Jones generous, and the deep fairway bunkers and two-inch Bermuda rough come into play only after the worst of tee shots. The bent grass greens are fast, averaging 10.5 to 11 on the stimpmeter. Once used to them, the everyday player should feel quite comfortable with the near perfect rolls. Old Chatham deserves its accolades, but accomplished every day players might tire a little of a course that provides little challenge from its tee boxes. Last July, the club hosted a two-round qualifier for the U.S. Amateur, and the low score was 132.
Old Chatham opened just two days before September 11, 2001, but the tragic events did not affect the club’s success; many of its memberships were pre-sold. Golf Digest declared it the best course in the area and the 10th best private course in the nation shortly after it opened. More recently, the magazine named it the 8th best course in North Carolina, not bad given the competition in a golf rich state that includes so many excellent courses in the Pinehurst area.
Old Chatham aims to be private in the manner of classic clubs, and you will need a nominator and two sponsors to be considered. At full membership, the club will have a roster of 280 members, a number of them non-resident, or “national,” members. If you long for a pure golf club on a fair golf course, without the encroachment of houses or tennis courts or swimming pools, you might want to start making friends now in the Chapel Hill area.
Old Chatham telephone: (919) 361 - 1400
Note: I did not personally visit Old Chatham, but my former colleague at HomeOnTheCourse and friend, Tom Hunter, did, and this review represents his observations, which are always astute. Tom is a resident of Chapel Hill.