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Story by Ian Guerin
LITTLE RIVER, S.C. | Back in the late 1980s, during a significant run of Myrtle Beach-area golf course openings, owners toyed with branding ideas that would resonate for years to come. Try to find another one more aptly named than River Hills Golf Club. The 18-hole Tom Jackson design combines the framing effects of a large amount of water with elevation changes so seldom seen along South Carolina’s Grand Strand golfing mecca. Without question, River Hills has earned its own description.
“On 18, for instance, you start below the houses. But by the end, you at the rooftop [level]. You’ll be above some of the roofs on some of them, actually,” said River Hills Head Golf Professional and General Manager David Spoone. “It’s not the northeast, but for Myrtle Beach, it’s a unique golf course.”
Playing at or just above sea level - as nearly all of the local tracks do - makes what the course is all about stand out that much more. No, there won’t be 150-foot drops (found even two hours to the west in South Carolina’s Midlands). However, by comparison with the nearby competition, River Hills challenges players to get up and down while recognizing that the actual distances may just feel wrong at times.
“The undulation here isn’t something you’d expect from a Horry County golf course,” local resident Stephen Grooms said after his first trip to River Hills. “It’s quite hilly.” That’s a relative term, but even for groups who travel to Myrtle Beach annually, a package inclusion here will stand out as something different to the rest of a week of Grand Strand golf. What pushes the undulation to its limits is the second half of what Jackson strived to portray at River Hills - all the water.
Larger ponds, meandering streams and a few seemingly mundane front-loaded pockets of turtle-loaded wet stuff have provided a nice living for divers. Those who escape the handful of water hazards on the front nine will find that much harder to do that after the turn, when Jackson decided he was going to unload without hole-to-hole distractions factoring in to specific shots.
“It’s a good, challenging course. One of the neat things is it plays out and then back in; there aren’t holes next to each other, so you don’t have balls flying at you,” Spoone said. “You’re always seeing something different as you work your way back to the clubhouse.”
What stands out nearly as much as the elevation and water is what comes at the end of each hole. As Spoone pointed out, the course was originally meant to be fully private. As such, greens were cropped down to add challenge to a repeat customer base while saving on some of the maintenance costs.
Of course, River Hills switched gears and opened to the public - to stellar reviews, no less. However, the approach to the greens remained and has added to its reputation for nearly 30 years.
“This is absolutely a shot-maker’s course, especially on the back nine,” Grooms said. “You’re hitting the ball above your feet or below your feet to a green that probably half the size of your regular courses. It forces you to make a smart club decision. You have to play short of the green because of the fear of unknown behind it. I think you need to play it more than once to get comfortable out here.”