Tee Time

South Carolina: Three days, 36 holes a day. It's spring, and at Myrtle Beach, a middle-aged man's fancy turns to thoughts of golf.

April 22, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd | By Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

For most people, Interstate 95 south is a pitiless ribbon of car-choked asphalt and wild-eyed drivers that drains the spirit of all who travel it. But for those to whom swinging a golf club is the very essence of life, every spring it becomes the road to their mecca: Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Myrtle Beach is Disney World for middle-aged men, a wonderfully tacky melding of golf courses, sports bars and cheap chain restaurants -- not to mention a NASCAR Speedpark, country-music honky-tonks and those ubiquitous clubs offering, um, adult entertainment.

We went just for the golf, honest. For decades, legions of golfers have flocked here each spring to fine-tune their games in the moderate climate and play a variety of great courses. So five of us, all making our first trip here, were psyched.

Yet on the day we arrived, the sky was the color of ashes and the rain was falling so hard it was pinging off the hood of our Dodge Grand Caravan and bouncing six inches in the air.

As we drove into town on U.S. 501 and listened on an all-news radio station to the gloomy forecast -- apparently the entire United States was enjoying wonderful weather except for a batch of squalls perched smack over Myrtle Beach -- we exchanged nervous glances.

By the way, originally six of us were scheduled to take this golf vacation. But at 4:30 on the morning of our departure from Baltimore, one of our group, Ed, woke up with severe pain in his lower abdomen.

When the pain didn't subside, he drove himself to the emergency room, fearing appendicitis. If it was nothing more than, say, bad indigestion and the doctors gave him the all-clear, he planned to jump in his car and make the nine-hour drive on his own.

But when we finally pulled into our hotel, the 92-room Compass Cove Oceanfront Resort on South Ocean Boulevard, a phone message was waiting. Ed would not be teeing off with us -- or anyone else, for that matter. The diagnosis at the hospital: kidney stones. He was back home, woozy on painkillers, staring forlornly at the TV.

Being true golfers, our reaction was: Gee, that's too bad about Ed. Now where's the nearest driving range?

By now, at 5 in the afternoon, the sky had cleared. So we hit a couple of buckets of balls and then -- because you can never play too much golf the day before your golf vacation officially starts -- we played 9 holes at a nearby par-3 course. Soon it was time for dinner, a few beers and then an early lights-out.

The next morning, we were up at 6:30 to get to the course for our first tee time, 7:51 at Burning Ridge East, a moderately challenging 16-year-old course off U.S. 501. As we drove to the course, the rain was falling in sheets, and we imagined golfers all over town peering out their hotel windows and cursing violently.

Golf is huge in Myrtle Beach; with 102 courses, it's become the top golf resort area in the country. The Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of coastline on which the town is located, attracts more than 13.5 million visitors a year.

And while Myrtle Beach lacks the sophistication and glamour of Augusta or Pebble Beach -- no fancy PGA tournaments are held here, with their big-name fields and acres of corporate tents -- this isn't the place for Tiger Woods and his 300-yard drives, anyway. It's for the little guy who loves the game. So while the town itself has only 70,000 full-time residents, in the spring it turns into nothing less than a golfer's Woodstock.

And just like at Woodstock, we began chanting: "No rain! No rain!" on the way to Burning Ridge. Also just like at Woodstock, the chant wasn't working.

Golfers' package

Our schedule at Myrtle Beach was simple: 36 holes a day for three days, Friday through Sunday. Booked through Compass Cove, our golf package cost each man about $450 and included a double-occupancy room for three nights, greens fees at six different courses, cart fees (a rip-off at $20 per man per round) and a full Southern breakfast daily.

(I never knew there were so many ways to make grits. None of them made the stuff taste better, either.)

Almost all the hotels in and around Myrtle Beach -- and there are nearly 500 of them -- offer golf packages. If you're planning your first golf outing here, it's a good idea to call the Chamber of Commerce (800-845-4653) and have them send you a free copy of the invaluable Golf Vacation Planner.

Miraculously, just as we pulled into the Burning Ridge parking lot, the rain let up. We teed off in a light mist and found the 6,216-yard (from the white tees), par-72 East course soggy and fairly nondescript, except for the hellacious amount of bunkers -- just what the high handicapper, jangled from three cups of coffee and the prospect of seeing his opening round washed out, wants to see.

Here's another thing you could do without: a gaunt, wild-eyed man emerging from the woods on the first tee, offering to sell you a dozen used golf balls for a few bucks. We looked at each other and thought: At Myrtle Beach, even the psychos make money off golf.

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