Golf is no longer the only game in town at South Carolina's popular beach resort Myrtle Beach - COUNTRY MUSIC IS PLAYING THROUGH

June 05, 1994|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

"I'd Love to Love You Darlin' But My Tee Time's at 10."

"On the Putting Green of Our Love, You're Away."

OK, OK, so maybe those country song titles are far-fetched. What is real and remarkable is the marriage of golf and country music in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Talk about your odd couple.

It is Wednesday night. Music producer Calvin Gilmore is kicking off the second half of his Carolina Opry with a rousing, full-cast rendition of one of gospel's greatest hits, "Are You Ready for a Miracle?"

If not a miracle, Mr. Gilmore and Myrtle Beach certainly could use a little divine guidance as this country music gamble kicks into overdrive.

Sun-warmed Myrtle Beach, renowned for its Atlantic Ocean beaches, visitor attractions, a dance called the shag and dozens of America's dreamiest golf courses, is becoming known for theaters with live country music shows.

Mr. Gilmore has the Opry and two other theaters -- Southern Country Nights and the Dixie Jubilee -- playing to 750,000 fans a year.

Dolly Parton is part owner of Dixie Stampede, a dinner theater, next door to Gilmore's Opry.

The band Alabama has a rollicking theater up by North Myrtle Beach (it will play eight to 10 dates there this year). Kenny Rogers is talking about building a showplace; Lee Greenwood, too. The Gatlin Brothers already have broken ground.

Add to that other theaters either open or on the drawing boards, including a proposed theater district, and the curtain is clearly up on country music in Myrtle Beach.

Will it work? Is there enough year-round demand to fill theaters? Can show times and tee times co-exist?

"Absolutely," Mr. Gilmore says. But, he says, marketers need to create demand for country music. "Sure, there are 10 to 12 million people coming here, but they aren't coming specifically for country music."

In the summer, throngs of families crowd campgrounds, the motels of Ocean Boulevard, and miles and miles of Atlantic beaches that comprise the Grand Strand.

Kings Highway, the busy main drag, is the neon strip lined with restaurants, mini-golf, water slides, batting cages, T-shirt joints and -- my favorite -- numerous outlets of Mr. Fireworks.

On the busiest days it starts to resemble Highway 76 in Branson, Mo., the Ozarks town that exploded with country music theaters a few years back.

"I don't think this will be another Branson," Mr. Gilmore says. "That's a phenomenon."

For one thing, Branson has the big stars. The performers at the Myrtle Beach shows tend more toward home-grown talent.

Lots of it is Branson-like, however. These are non-alcoholic, feel-good shows aimed at families, the motor coach crowd and people weary of leaving a concert with their ears ringing.

Performers stay onstage at intermission and sometimes after the show for autographs. Fans don't seem to mind they aren't getting to chat up big-name stars like Branson's (the exception being the occasional celebrities at the Alabama Theatre).

Even if country music flops, Myrtle Beach still has the supporting cast of sand and surf that have made it an Atlantic coast draw for years. Branson doesn't.

Golf still drives Myrtle Beach right now. Especially to a winter-weary golfer, the Grand Strand's 85 courses seem lustrous, weaving among the bluffs, marshes and cypress swamps.

To be out on a green fairway again, among mirror lakes and chirping birds, is to feel the rush all golfers get the first time out after winter's long layoff.

Trying to get golfers interested in a different kind of country club could be Myrtle Beach's hardest sell. Even though golf is a daytime passion and the country shows kick up at night, they face direct competition from restaurants, strip joints, bars and dance halls. Also, golfers often are pretty single-minded.

"I think it's great that it's here," says Charles Crosson of Long Island, N.Y., about the music. "But I'm here to golf. Been coming six years in a row, and the packages are fantastic."

Golfers aren't the only ones lukewarm about Myrtle Beach becoming Branson-by-the-Sea.

"You've got sea and surf, gulls and tropical breezes on the one hand, cowboys and boots on the other," says a longtime resident who worries about the city becoming consumed by country music. "It's gonna be an adjustment. We'll see if it works."

IF YOU GO . . .

With rates ranging from $50 to $100 for greens fees and a cart, a package is your best value in Myrtle Beach. For one up-front price, you get a choice of courses, lodging and usually breakfast.

For a free, fact-filled trip planner listing dozens of lodging choices and packages for golfers and nongolfers, call Golf Holiday, (800) 845-4653 anytime. Most of the accommodations are seaside, along Ocean Boulevard. You'll find familiar marquees like Sheraton, Holiday Inn and Days Inn. But countless others are mom-and-pop operations -- usually with "Sea," "Sand," "Surf," "Breeze" or "Wind" somewhere in the name.

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