By Ted McIntyre
It was the intriguing aesthetic of majestic oaks, rolling dunes and vast swaths of sandy beach that drew Myrtle Beach’s first settlers, the Waccamaaw and Winyah Indians. But it also proved a paradise for a more rousing crowd during the 18th century, when pirates such as Blackbeard laid their wrath off the Carolina coast. A legend of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, in fact, still lures the curious to the area surrounding Murrells Inlet.
A kinder, gentler crowd, however, first took notice of the region after Conway, SC businessman F. G. Burroughs acquired an 80,000-acre parcel of land in 1899 that included the entire coastline from Little River in the north to Murrells Inlet in the south. (Initially referred to as New Town, the name was soon changed to Myrtle Beach as a nod to the wax myrtle, the aromatic evergreen tree that predominated in the area.)
The first hotel, the Seaside Inn, offering $2 rooms, sprung up in 1901, while beachfront lots could be had for $25. Back then, beach goers needed to be aware of the occasional herd of semi-wild hogs. (These days, Harley Davidsons represent the only hog population vacationers need to take note of; this year’s annual Bike Week takes place May 10-19, this year.)
Helping to kick-start the city’s growth as a legitimate destination was the 1930 opening of the ritzy million-dollar Ocean Forest Hotel, which included horseback riding, tennis and the coast’s first golf course. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel decimated the area and severely damaged the Ocean Forest, but in its wake came a massive push of new resort development, which has remained fairly constant in the nearly 60 years since.
While the Ocean Forest fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1974, its adjoining golf course lived on and has become the granddaddy of Myrtle Beach links. Founded in 1927, the club was renamed Pine Lakes International 60 years ago. Apart from its stern test—updated in 2009 with a 2 ½-year, $27 million renovation by architect Craig Schreiner—the course drips with great stories, most notably the April 30, 1954 meeting of Time-Life executives to conceive a new weekly sports publication, Sports Illustrated.
Today, those hallowed grounds represent one of a staggering 102 courses that grace the Grand Strand, a more than 60-mile arc of beaches stretching from Little River in the north to Winyah Bay in the south, with Myrtle Beach marking the midway point.
While the area draws an estimated 14 million visitors annually, Canadians represent a sizeable chuck of the group. Indeed, they’re held is such high value that the week of March 9-17 marked the 52nd staging of the annual Can-Am Days Festival, with its myriad of special events and free activities for Canucks.
And getting there has just gotten a lot easier. Porter Airlines, based out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, had previously held a monopoly on direct passage to Myrtle Beach, but WestJet has entered the game by announcing twice-weekly seasonal flights beginning May 2 out of all of its Canadian centres. If that brings a smile to the faces of passionate players on this side of the border, it’s got Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday President Bill Golden positively beaming.
“Canadians have proven for more than 40 years now that they love Myrtle Beach, and we love Canada,” says Golden. “Besides domestic travel, Canada is our number one market. We have Porter Airlines and now it’s great news about WestJet. Lots of people drive down here, but now there’s an opportunity for more Canadians to grab a quick flight—even for a long weekend. We just need to do a better job now of communicating all that Myrtle Beach has to offer.”
Thinking of it as merely an economical buddies’ golf getaway is a dated concept that fails do the destination justice, says Golden. While that opportunity still exists, the depth and quality of golf throughout the Grand Strand often gets lost. In fact, four Myrtle Beach-area layouts have been named to Golf Digest’s America’s Top 100 Public Courses in recent years, including the Dunes Golf & Beach Club, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Tidewater GC and the Resort Club at Grande Dunes.
“We also have great quality in terms of accommodations, entertainment and restaurants,” notes Golden of a list that counts such intriguing eateries as Lee’s Inlet Kitchen, the oldest family-owned restaurant on the Grand Strand, a short drive south of the city. Opened in what had originally been a gas station, it’s been fuelling patrons with fresh seafood from the inlet since 1948.
“And thirty minutes south of the airport you have Pawleys Island,” Golden observes. “It’s a phenomenal place—fantastic golf courses and restaurants like Frank’s and Bistro 217, not to mention a world-class beach. The same exists in North Myrtle Beach.”
Great care has also been taken to enhance its family-friendly nature, notes Golden. “Kids 16-and-under play for free with an adult. Barefoot Landing is a great place for families. We have some great shopping, and there’s the new SkyWheel too!” The centrepiece of the 1.2-mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade, the 187-foot-tall Ferris wheel features glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled gondolas and jaw-dropping views from the top.
“It’s also a very easy place to navigate around,” Golden adds, with all streets that head toward the coastline being sequentially numbered.
And, of course, there’s the original lure manufactured by Mother Nature herself—miles and miles of alluring beach and ocean.
But Myrtle Beach’s fame remains anchored to its 2,000 holes of golf. “This year is also the 30th anniversary of the World Amateur Handicap Championship,” Golden says. “It’s one of the great events in golf. We’ll probably have 3,800 players this year with handicaps from 0 to 36. It’s everything that’s good about the game.
“And we’re also be putt-putt capital of the world, with more than 50 mini-golf courses in the area.
“There’s something here for everybody,” Golden reminds, “but the quality of golf in Myrtle Beach we will put up against anybody.”