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This feature appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Golf Georgia Magazine.
By Ian Guerin
Defining the intrinsic value of Willbrook Plantation compared to the rest of South Carolina’s Grand Strand, or even its worth as part of the South Strand’s renowned Waccamaw Golf Trail, is no easy task. But nestled among some of the Myrtle Beach area’s biggest and brightest courses is one that draws high praise all its own.
In many ways, Willbrook offers exactly the experience Lowcountry golf is supposed to exemplify. Every longtime player or first-time visitor is swinging the sticks on an historical piece of land that was cut through an oak forest and two separate plantations. The scenery doesn’t stop as the holes and cart paths weave through natural grasses, wetlands and marshlands highlighted by just the right amount of sand and water.
With all of that, golfers find a player-friendly track that mixes its challenges with forgiveness.
History Favors the Bold
Established residences and even the first churches of Pawleys Island are nearing the 300-year mark. But for our purposes, a trek back just shy of three decades will do the trick.
It was in 1986 that Pawleys Island became an incorporated town. It did everything in its power to avoid the trample often caused by massive hotels and the traffic they attract. The residents fought that trend, and the residents won.
The locals, though, saw no such conflict with golf. But one issue remained: There were only two courses to choose from. That was about to change, and in a hurry.
Two years later, Willbrook Plantation and nearby Pawleys Plantation joined the fold. Within a decade, five more. It just so happened they all had a similar goal: Pawleys Island’s courses, now with the backing of an official town to call their own, became renowned as the biggest collection of high-end tracks in and around Myrtle Beach.
It’s safe to say that Willbrook Plantation had quite a bit to do with forging that upscale identity.
Gates to a Masterpiece
When Dan Maples’ design first opened, it became readily clear that Willbrook Plantation would not get lost in the shuffle of a golf-course boom that would reach an estimated 100 tracks, and establish the Myrtle Beach area as “The Golf Capital of the World.”
The clubhouse exuded an air of confidence that radiates to this day. It may have something to do with the stunning scenery just outside its back doors. Maples made sure to respect the existing foundation of the land, even if a few trees had to come down to make it all work.
The eye-popping colors of the natural habitat craft a photographer’s dream, even before the course ties it all together. Sprinkle in the scores of native bird species and other assorted wildlife - many making use of the water on 14 of the 18 holes - and the moving aspects of the course draw the lens nearly as much as all that green.
All of that, however, is only another complement to what keeps bringing people back.
A Player’s Course
One of the true status symbols of the top-dollar courses of old was to make them so difficult that only the best of the best would even try to make a run at them.
What many of those white-glove establishments found was a future surrounded by condos when the tee sheets dipped.
With Willbrook Plantation, Maples was ahead of his time.
The course’s beauty was one thing, but it wasn’t its only redeeming feature that helped inspire an area. Pristine surfaces were a priority, making a bad lie in regulation nearly impossible. And the course didn’t stop there.
Willbrook’s 18 holes were made extremely playable for golfers of all skill levels. Despite its continual high rating among women and seniors, it has avoided the typecast as a short-player’s dream by its ability to confound those who reach.
The 6,292-yard middle tees offer challenges the two sets of forward tees do not; if that’s not enough, you can add another 500 yards by playing the tips - and find those wide landing areas start to narrow as the oaks and Spanish moss become more than a visual stimulant.
The combination of it all has made Willbrook Plantation a destination golf experience with something for everyone, both then and now.