The following piece appears in the January-February 2016 issue of Virginia Golfer Magazine.
Myrtle Beach National, the first multi-course facility on the Grand Strand, set a new standard for the golf mecca when it opened more than 40 years ago.
by Tom Cunneff
AS THE COUNTRY’S TOP GOLF DESTINATION, Myrtle Beach is chock full of great golf resorts with multiple course offerings. Think of Barefoot, Legends, and Grande Dunes. But before them was Myrtle Beach National, which became the first multi-course resort on the Grand Strand when it opened in the early ‘70s. The eight courses in the area then, like the Dunes Club, the Surf Club, and Pine Lakes, were just 18-hole facilities and didn’t have enough tee times to accommodate all the golfers who started coming to Myrtle in the late ‘60s.
“When I moved to Myrtle Beach in 1959 we had 27 holes of golf, 18 at the Dunes Club and 9 at Pine Lakes,” recalls Cecil Brandon, the man who did so much to make Myrtle Beach what it is today. “I had been there about 10 years and it was hard to get a starting time. Myrtle Beach had become so popular that when you left in spring, you better make your tee time for next spring or you’d have a hard time getting on.”
A developer asked Brandon if he could find some land for a multi-course complex and he knew just the spot.
THE MASTER PLAN
Brandon liked to bird hunt about 10 miles west of town on land that was perfectly suited for golf. “It was a high sand ridge that drained real well,” he says. “In the Lowcountry, you have to be careful of your drainage.”
For the design, Brandon called on his old friend, Arnold Palmer, whom he had known since the late ‘40s when they competed against each other in college. The original plan called for Palmer and his design associate, Frank Dwayne, to design four courses, but conservation easements reduced it to three: the North, West, and South.
“The single golf courses in Myrtle Beach were doing very, very well, so about eight investors got together, most of them hotel owners or partners, and they had a really clever feeder system,” recalls Gary Schaal, who was an assistant pro when the courses first opened before becoming head pro a couple of years later. “You stayed at the hotel and they sent you to the course you were a partner in.”
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
The North Course was the first layout to open in 1973 with the pro shop operating out of the enclosed end of a cart shed that measured about 15 feet by 30 feet. There was only one bathroom and a Coca-Cola machine, but the tee sheet was full from the get-go. The West opened the following year, followed by the South, but the North has always been the premier course, particularly after Palmer renovated it in 1995 and the course was renamed “King’s North.”
“The land was all the same—same amount of elevation, same amount of trees—but the North was the most popular,” recalls Schaal, who went on to own his own courses and become president of the PGA of America. “As we got in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you needed signature courses and signature holes to take it to another level. That certainly worked for Myrtle Beach National. The North was the same grass, same contours, but had some tee and green enhancements that made it a little more dramatic and gave golfers better vistas.”
Perhaps the strongest indications of a good design are shot options and the ability to recall every hole after the round. King’s North offers that in abundance. Some courses have island greens, but King’s North has an island fairway on its most famous hole, the 568-yard 6th known as “The Gambler” because of the risk-reward factor. There’s even a sign on the tee with the lyrics from the Kenny Rogers’ song of the same name. In fact, Rogers came to the sign dedication after Palmer created the hole during the renovation. Players have a choice of either playing safely right with a longer route to the green or taking a more direct line via the island fairway, which is about 30 yards wide.
“I always seemed to be singing the song when I tee off,” says head pro Brad Crumling. “I have hit right in between the two fairways many times—the dreaded straight ball.”
The layout also features an island green at the 140-yard 12th, which also has the distinction of two bunkers in the shape of the state’s initials to the left of the green, as well as a drivable par four at the 365-yard 3rd. Golfers have the option of playing safe to the fairway to the right and having a short iron in or trying to carry the lake (about 220 yards from the white tees) and going for the green. Another memorable hole is the 464-yard 18th where about all you see off the tee are bunkers—there are 40 of them alone on the hole.
The South Course is the shortest and tightest of the three designs, winding through community housing, while the West is longer and more open without any homes like King’s North. The West also finishes on a brutal par three over water that can be a pretty daunting hole to end a round on in one of the many tournaments the club hosts each year. First and foremost is the George Holliday Memorial Junior Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend that pulls almost 200 players from around the country, as well as quite a few college coaches to do some scouting.
Another big event for the last 32 years is the National Retired Military Golf Classic in late May. Although it’s played over six courses over four days, Myrtle Beach National with its striking, white, contemporary-style clubhouse is the epicenter of the tournament.
Of course, this being Myrtle Beach, golfers on buddy trips in the spring and fall make up a big portion of the tee times at Myrtle Beach National, which also sees its fair share of women’s groups. “We recently hosted one ladies group of 52 who played all three courses three straight days,” says Crumling. “That was good retail days for us!”
With $100 gift cards standard in the Rewards Package where you get to choose from any four of the Founders Group’s 22 courses, even the guys have been known to shop a little. It’s also not surprising for them to play three of the four rounds at Myrtle Beach National since two things all the courses share are superb conditioning and great customer service.
“Myrtle Beach National is one of the flagships of the Myrtle Beach area,” says Crum- ling. “It’s synonymous with Myrtle Beach. You have three totally different courses that attract a lot of different golfers. Most want to play King’s North. It’s our premier course so it’s a little more expensive, but if the price is right, then you’ll definitely want to try and take on ‘The Gambler.’”
No matter which course you play, Myrtle Beach National is a sure thing.
Author Tom Cunneff is a senior editor with Links Magazine and a regular contributor to Virginia Golfer.