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Thursday, 16 January 2020 12:25

My Votes are in…for best courses in SC

        As a member of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, I am asked to vote every year for the best golf courses in the state. Some years we vote for the best public courses, some years for the best courses public and private combined. This year, we have been asked to vote for the 10 best “classic” courses in the state and for the 30 best “modern” courses, regardless of whether they are public or private. Results of the voting will be announced publicly coincident with the Panel’s annual meeting this spring.
Chanticleer 2Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr gem.
        Given the large number of excellent golf courses in the state, it is a difficult task but one I take seriously because South Carolina is my second state of residence. (I am a resident of Connecticut most of the year.) I also believe the panel’s judgment on best courses can be helpful to visiting golfers as well as for those retirees looking for a private club to join. I have played a majority of the courses in the state thanks to both my retirement gig as a golf community reviewer but also as a member of the panel. Many of those I haven’t played in the last few years left quite an impression; I have no problem comparing them fairly with those I have played more recently.
Palmetto locker roomEverything says "classic" and classy, locker room to golf course, at Palmetto Club.
        I played my number one rated “classic” course five years ago. The Chanticleer course in Greenville is part of a two-course membership inside the limits of one of the most popular cities in the Southeast. I rated its Greenville Country Club companion, the Riverside course, renovated a dozen years ago to “feel” like a design by Seth Raynor, #7 among the classic courses. But Chanticleer, designed by Robert Trent Jones the Elder, and renovated in the early aughts by his son, Rees, is so sleek, challenging and fun that I rated it just ahead of the heralded Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken and the famed Sea Pines Harbour Town course. The rest of my Top 10 include Camden Country Club (#4), The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach (#5), Florence Country Club (#6), the Surf Golf and Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach (#8), Orangeburg Country Club (#9) and the Wild Dunes Resort Links Course in Isle of Palms (#10).
        In the coming days, I will post in this space my choices for best modern courses in South Carolina.
Florence CC approachFlorence Country Club's course was designed 94 years ago in the "style of Donald Ross."

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Monday, 13 January 2020 19:11

What a Difference a Decade Makes

        We are set to publish our first Home On The Course newsletter of the new decade, and it is one of our most feature-packed communications of the last decade. We look back at the years that followed the Great Recession and the effects it had on the development of golf communities, and on the game of golf itself. We look at how the industry has slowly recovered and how, because of the millions of baby boomers still retiring every day, homes in golf communities are getting harder to find, and more expensive (both the relatively few new ones and resales). At any one time, Myrtle Beach, SC, is a good indicator for the strength – or weakness -- of golf community sales, and we demonstrate that all indications are that the scale is currently tilted toward strong.
        All that and more in the January edition of Home On The Course. Subscribe here for free.

Wednesday, 01 January 2020 11:33

Myrtle Beach Defines a Decade

        We humans tend to celebrate round numbers. I write this mere hours after the ball dropped in Times Square in front of tens of thousands of people celebrating a specific cycle of 365 days. The newspapers and magazines are filled with stories about highlights – and a few lowlights – of a decade that ended at midnight and a new one that started just after.
        In reality, a decade can start and end anywhere you want it to, as long as it comprises 10 years exactly. In terms of the life span of golf communities, I would argue that the previous decade ended – and a new one began – with the 2008 recession, which threw the entire real estate market into chaos, caused some golf communities to close and others to change in fundamental and long lasting ways. That decade from 2008 to 2018 was one of restoration, as golf communities could no longer count on an endless supply of golf-interested baby boomers and were forced to accommodate a swath of retirees less interested in golf. Myrtle Beach, the quintessential area for golfing retirees, as well as visiting golfers, suffered as much as any area. It is littered with golf communities whose former fairways and greens are now populated with condos and small single-family homes -- assuming they aren’t populated with overgrown grass and tall weeds. (The latest victim, Indian Wells, is a fine public course I have enjoyed playing over the last few decades.)
Caledonia18thapproachAs if the approach shot on the par 4 18th at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is not intimidating enough, you could find yourself with a clubhouse audience overlooking the green.
        Golf lost a few million regular players during that ’08 to ’18 decade, and that meant golf courses that were neither efficiently run nor well-designed faced financial crises. Myrtle Beach, which is the ultimate symbol of golf-centric locations, became a microcosm of what happens when an economy hits the skids and discretionary income dries up. Troubled golf courses became easy targets for any group of people with cash. A few Myrtle Beach golf course operators tacked on local courses, for pennies on the dollar, to their already established operations, creating multi-course memberships for $99 and up.
        Since Chinese companies in the early 2010s were flush with cash and eager to take advantage of the EB-5 Visa program that offers permanent residency for certain investments in American companies (including golf courses), one Chinese firm purchased 23 of the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand’s most iconic layouts. Retirees with an itinerant golfing streak will find a membership in Founders International’s Prime Honor’s program a way to play a different course every day on the cheap. And for those who prefer the highest quality golf in smaller quantities, Caledonia and True Blue, arguably two of the top five courses among Myrtle Beach’s 90-plus layouts, offers an annual membership that will pay for itself in fewer than 30 rounds.
        Real estate in Myrtle Beach still hasn’t fully recovered from the recession. I know that personally. Thinking we might build a home in Pawleys Plantation (Pawleys Island), where we had owned a condo since 2000, my wife and I purchased a lot overlooking the 16th fairway with a long view of the marsh and the island beyond. I laugh, to keep from crying, when I tell people I bought the lot about 15 minutes before the recession began. Within a week, it was worth about 50% of what I paid for it. (Note to readers who would like to build a home with a golf and marsh view beside a terrific Jack Nicklaus golf course: I will give you the special Golf Community Reviews reader discount if you are interested; and I will pay for your initiation fee in the semi-private club.)
Lot20PILot for sale on the 16th fairway of Jack Nicklaus' Pawleys Plantation golf course, just a six-minute ride to a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach. Contact me if you would like more details,.
        Pawleys Plantation, one of the courses owned by the Chinese firm mentioned above, is another example of how golf courses responded to the changes in the market. When my wife and I bought our condo in 2000, the developer offered to pay $7,500, half the initiation fee for golf club membership. Last year, Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club reduced its initiation fee from $15,000 to $2,500 – about 20 years too late for me.
        Who knows what the next decade will bring? Happy New Year to all.

        In more than 12 years of visiting hundreds of golf course web sites, I had never come across one that published higher rates for seniors than for everyone else. But earlier this week, while doing some research on long-established golf courses, I found one that published a weekday rate for seniors that, at $33, was 25 cents higher than for all other golfers.
        The golf course is Boscobel, an upstate South Carolina fixture that opened originally mid-Depression in 1933 and is located just minutes from Clemson University and its well-regarded Walker Golf Course. Boscobel’s layout was designed by Fred Bolton but was refreshed a few decades later by the more celebrated Russell Breeden.

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        Ten years ago, Craig Distl, a Carolina public relations professional and golfer, reviewed Boscobel and wrote, “I love the routing. It flows nicely along knolls and valleys. And, I love the slick bent grass greens. They hint of Donald Ross architecture.” Craig had launched a web site back then called Off The Beaten Cart Path; it passed to me about eight years ago, and I intend to re-launch the site in the next few weeks. Craig’s review of Boscobel will be included.
        Boscobel has been through a couple of ownership changes since Craig’s review, and the offending web page with the senior discount in reverse is a legacy of a prior owner. I am happy to report that, from a discussion with a gentleman in Boscobel’s pro shop named Mike, a lifetime member of the PGA, I can report that senior rates on weekdays are now just $29, $11 less than what everyone else pays. Better yet, Mike informed me that the course had just reopened the day before we spoke, sporting new T1 bent grass greens. 
        Bent grass greens are rare as far south as the Clemson area, but Mike said the course has always had bent grass greens and the new owners wanted to honor that tradition. (Note of bias from a New Englander: Bent grass greens are the best putting surface, true and generally faster than other turfs.) In addition, more than 200 trees had been taken out around the green areas to promote grass growth. The new owners, Mike added, intend to work on the tee boxes and other aspects of the golf course in 2020.
        I plan to stop at Boscobel for a round of golf sometime in the first half of 2020. I will be 72 by then and may ask for a super senior rate.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019 12:22

Fond memories: Myrtle Beach Family Fun Week

        The first time my son and I played in what was once called the Father/Son Event in Myrtle Beach, SC, he was eight years old. A few years later, we won our flight of 10 teams, mostly because, at age 11, he was permitted to play from the ladies tees. (He probably was hitting the ball 200 yards by then.) Win or lose, we always had a great time at the Father/Son, which is today called Family Week and includes father and daughter and mother and daughter competitions. I recommend Family Week, which will be held July 15 to 18 next year, to all who want to spend a few fun days competing with their child on some very nice golf courses. (Note: I have no relationship with the organizers and write this purely out of nostalgia.) This will be the 23rd year of the event.
        The Parent/Child definition is rather loose. An uncle can play with a niece or nephew, for example. Indeed, the only qualification is that a generation separates the older and younger players (and that you have established handicap ratings).
Legends HeathlandThe Heathland at The Legends, one of the Myrtle Beach Family Week golf courses.
        The golf part of Family Week, which also includes food and beverage at tournament events, lunch on the course and a few hundred dollars worth of golfing swag per team, extends over three days. The three nine-hole rounds start with a best ball competition, then a Texas Scramble, followed by Captain’s Choice. (When we played, the second round was a pure alternate shot event.). The only difference between Texas Scramble and Captain’s choice is that each competitor must contribute a minimum of six tee shots in the Texas Scramble format; otherwise it is what most of us know as a scramble.
        Selection of which of the eight courses competitors play on each day is random. The courses include Thistle Club, Arcadian Shores, Pine Lakes International, Glen Dornoch, Shaftesbury Glen, Barefoot Resort, Legends Heathland Course and Wachesaw Plantation East, former host of an LPGA event.
PineLakespar3Pine Lakes International
        The team fee of $995 may seem pricey but when you figure in the food and drink, the roughly $500 worth of gifts per team (including a $150 gift card per player that can be used at any of the host golf courses or at the event’s online store), three rounds of golf and the fun and priceless bonding across two generations, consider it an inexpensive golf vacation.
        For more information, visit the Myrtle Beach Family Week website.

        It takes quite an investment in time to get to Edisto Island (pronounced with the accent on “Ed”) in a remote area of the South Carolina coastline, some 40 miles from Highway 17. And once you are there, it still takes some doing to get to the Plantation Golf Course on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean on the southern tip of the island.
        Andy Litteral of Richmond, VA is a faithful reader of this blog site and our newsletter, and a frequent golf partner when I am in Virginia. Andy made the trip to Edisto in September, accompanying his wife, Anna, who attends annual reunions there with a group of friends from college. Andy played the Plantation course and wrote a review which will help me kick off a new web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath, that will debut before year’s end. But his pre-round warm-up is worth mentioning in advance.
Edisto driving range shackAll photos by Andy Litteral
        The Plantation course offers no practice range, although it has a couple of hitting nets, which doesn't help you to gauge distance. The only way to properly warm up for a round is to drive 10 minutes north to the Edisto Driving Range. Andy found no attendant waiting to take his $5 and present him with his bucket of balls. Instead, he found what he described as an array of buckets that reminded him of the line in the movie Forrest Gump that described “life (as) a box of chocolates.” A row of buckets awaited him, most bearing a generous assortment of golf balls in white and yellow, some striped, some not. Above them was a sign that touted an honor system that invited the golfer to drop $5 in the adjacent box and take a bucket of balls.
Edisto box of chocolates
        After the end of the peak season (Labor Day), the practice range is empty for periods of time, and it would be easy to grab a “box of chocolates” without paying the modest $5. But golf is based on honesty, and whoever owns the range surely depends on that. The Edisto Driving Range and its weather-beaten shack, according to Andy, look as if they have been there for decades. Whoever owns the place has counted on the honesty of golfers and, in the long run, apparently it has paid off.
Edisto Honor Basket

Monday, 11 November 2019 11:04

A Best-of List Calculates Reader Interest

        We are a ranking-crazy nation, especially this time of the year when multiple organizations rate college football teams. (What an entertaining game LSU vs Alabama was this past Saturday!). Search online for a restaurant recommendation, for example, in a town you are traveling to and you will need to claw your way through multiple best of lists.
        And so it is with best towns to retire to or best towns to live in. No two rating agencies agree, and virtually all of them have some subjective bias, if only based on how they weight the factors that determine their choices. Financial web sites will tilt toward the economic, more mainstream journals will emphasize culture and entertainment. That leaves many of use wondering what “real” people think of the best places to live.
        TopRetirements.com, a web site I turn to a few times a week for discussions about best places to live, measures “best” in a unique way – it bases its choices on the specific interests of its readers. The more times readers access information about a specific town, the higher that town is rated on TopRetirements’ best of lists.
        The site recently published its latest rankings for the Southeast Region and, once again, Asheville, NC, tops its list. In the upcoming Home On The Course newsletter, we provide a rundown on Asheville and the other towns that made the grade.
        Nagging aches and pains are part of my golf game these days. One especially annoying set of “problems” imposed themselves on me during a recent round yet, despite them, I played some of my best golf in years – at least for seven holes. And that caused me, no New York Yankee fan, to think of the Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. Why, you ask? For the answer, please sign up for our free Home On The Course by clicking here.

        Getting to and from Hartford, CT, by plane is neither easy nor cheap. Most flights from anywhere to Hartford involve at least one change of planes and a few hundred dollars minimum. Other medium-sized market airports are in the same boat (sorry, mixed transportation metaphor). But thanks to the low-fare, few frills Spirit Airlines, golfers across the Midwest and Northeast have cheap access to one of the nation’s major golf markets, Myrtle Beach where, even after the loss of a couple of dozen golf courses in the last decade, golfers still have a choice of more than 90 layouts within an easy reach of their hotel or resort.
IMG 0422 1The porch that overlooks the 18th green at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club south of Myrtle Beach, just a $56 flight from Hartford, CT, and equally reasonable from 22 other markets from Plattsburgh, NY to Minneapolis.
        Based on my own recent experience, Spirit provides excellent service at a low cost, with the options to make yourself even more comfortable on an a la carte basis. I flew from Hartford, CT, non-stop to Myrtle Beach last week for just $56. To enhance the experience, I paid an extra $30 for an exit row seat giving me the ability to stretch my legs straight out. I had stuffed all my electronics and toiletries into my backpack which was small enough to qualify as a free “personal” item. If I had been toting a carry-on bag, I would have been assessed another fee. And if I had checked another bag and/or my golf clubs, the register would have kept ringing. (I had flown from Myrtle to Hartford a week earlier with my golf clubs, and they arrived safe and on-time.) Even with the extra charges, Spirit is cheaper than competing airlines, none of which fly non-stop from Hartford to Myrtle Beach. (Note that Spirit service is only during spring and summer on that route.) 
        The plane was only half full, immaculately clean and we took off and arrived on time (actually a few minutes early). Myrtle Beach has upgraded its airport significantly over recent years, and it now provides a comfortable atmosphere in which to arrive or to await your return flight home.
        The other 22 cities from which you can catch a non-stop Spirit flight to/from Myrtle Beach include Minneapolis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus (OH), Pittsburgh, Plattsburgh (NY), Niagara Falls, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
        If you would like to arrange to visit any golf communities in the Myrtle Beach area that match your preferences for a golf home, please contact me.

        Many golfers, me included, love firm and fast greens as long as the greens are not too small and entrance points are generous. Columbia, SC’s eponymous country club, which actually moved decades ago from the city to the suburb of Blythewood, features enormous greens with all but the front-located pins accessible via shots played to the front third of the putting surfaces. On a 6,000-yard layout, from the white tees, most approaches should be lofted enough to not bound off the back.
Columbia CC par 3Water is not a big factor at Columbia, although it is attractively ornamental as it is on this par 3.
        But when it has rained hard for two days before your round, and your well struck drives are backing up in the soggy fairways, you expect the greens to follow suit and be receptive to your five and six irons. That was not the case this past Sunday, when I played the course with members of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel. One of the ladies in our group had an amazing day of chipping and posted a score in the low 80s. The rest of the foursome saw too many shots bounce over the greens, leaving mostly downhill chips shots to the extremely fast greens. (The pro shop attendant mentioned a reading of about 12 on the stimpmeter, a rare speedy condition even for private clubs).
        The Ellis Maples designed Columbia Country Club features three nines, and we played the Tall Pines and Ridgewood nines. (Lakeside is the other nine, shorter and sportier, the members in our group told us.) The Tall Pines/Ridgewood combo carries a rating of 70.4 and slope of 132 which, for a layout of 6,200 yards, is spells big challenge for a bogey golfer. But on this day, with the combination of shorter drives, longer approaches and firm greens that were not easily dented, both the rating and slope measures were light to the challenge.
Columbia CC par 4 over waterMost of the longer holes at Columbia are tree lined, giving the course a somewhat New England feel.
        Columbia, like many private clubs looking for supplementary income, will accept outside play from those passing through the area. (Call ahead.) It would be a good choice. All in all, the Columbia layout that winds its way through the tall pines is an impressive challenge, especially under milder late spring or early summer conditions. Understand that the city of Columbia has a reputation for being the hottest summer spot in all of the Carolinas. When I mentioned that to my cart mate, a local resident member of the club, he responded: “No, it is the hottest in the U.S.” If you are lucky enough to play the course, don’t forget to hydrate.
Columbia CC 18th greenThe 18th green at Columbia, the active clubhouse in the background.                                                                                                         *
        Columbia Country Club in Blythewood is set in an older neighborhood that developed slowly over time and features a mix of classic and modern homes. Lot prices are mostly between $70,000 and $100,000 and few in number; homes begin in the high $200s with the sweet spot appearing to be around $400,000. Blythewood is just 20 minutes up the interstate from Columbia, the state capital, and home to the large University of South Carolina. If you would like more information on Columbia Country Club and other golf communities in the area, contact me at editor@homeonthecourse.com and I will put you in touch with Mike Wyka, a golfer and terrific real estate professional for the area.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019 14:56

All the Ingredients for a Perfect Round

Ranch18fromteeThe finishing hole at The Ranch in Southwick, MA, plays straight downhill, and if you catch your drive well, you will have a short approach to the 400+ yard par 4.

        Quality of play aside, the ingredients for a great round of golf are weather, pace of play and an interesting and challenging layout. Oh, and if you can stop at the world’s best donut shop on the way to the golf course, you are bumping up against perfection.
        It doesn’t get any better than my round on Tuesday at The Ranch Golf Club in Southwick, MA.
        First, the donut. Mrs. Murphy’s is in an unassuming building in the center of Southwick, less than two miles from The Ranch. It is always crowded with locals huddled at the counters, sipping on excellent coffee and often chomping on a second donut of the morning. Every donut I have had at Mrs. Murphy’s over the last 20 years has nailed the combination of crispy/crunchy on the outside and perfectly cakey on the inside (except for the jelly or cream-filled varieties, which substitute a tasty center, or the glazed donut which has the slightly bouncy sponginess indicative of the genre). On this day, I chose the jelly stick, essentially a long cruller injected with jam; I ate it on the way to the course, even though I was an hour early for my online generated tee time.
        The Ranch, which was designed by someone few of us have heard of, Damian Pascuzzo, is set at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, and its most dramatic holes – the 9th, 16th and 18th – play off a steep mountain down roller coaster fairways toward greens that are well protected by water hazards. The drives from on high are real testosterone restorers, as a well struck ball can bound down the hill as many as 300 yards out. That means on the par 5 9th, for example, you have a shot at the green in two strokes on the 500 yard hole, as long as you can loft your approach shot over the pond that guards the front of the putting surface.
Ranch par 3 over waterThe par 3s at The Ranch are not long, but each has a guardian bunker or pond that makes getting close to the pin difficult. And the contours of the greens can put you easily in three-putt territory.
        I love short par 4s, and two at The Ranch are a mixed bag.  The 2nd hole, at 341 yards from the white tees I played (6,103 yards total) plays much shorter since it is a sharp dogleg right and the trees between tee box and fairway are easily surmounted by a fairway metal.  I skied my 3-wood over the trees and had just 75 yards into the green.  The 6th hole is another story.  It is about the same distance but with bunkers guarding the entire straight line to the green, and a narrow spit of fairway to the right.  Options from the tee are either drive over the bunkers to a narrow neck of fairway or play short on the right, leaving a tricky approach to an elevated and narrow green.
        I have seen the community of nicely landscaped homes beside a few holes on the course grow incrementally over the two decades I have played the course. I noted three new homes were in various states of construction as I made my way around the course. It is anecdotal, but this could be an indication that the local housing market is pretty strong. Massachusetts is a high tax state, and Southwick is a bit off the beaten path, although the medium-sized city of Springfield is a half hour commute away.  Lots for sale in the community run about $100,000, with the few homes I have seen listed for sale anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000.  There are no condos or townhouses on the property.
TheRanch11The par 4 11th hole at The Ranch echoes some of the other par fours and fives with a sloping fairway, bunkers to catch the most wayward shots and beautiful framing of trees, especially in autumn.
        The temperature at game time for my round was 54, and it gradually warmed up to the mid 60s as I came down the last fairway. Sunshine was abundant and the leaves on the surrounding trees and the distant mountains were probably at peak, vivid in their oranges and reds mixed in with the green of those trees that either hadn’t turned color yet or never will, like the sugar maple. (We have a few of those in New England.) My tee time was set for 9:48 a.m. but I arrived just before 9 and the pro shop attendant told me I could play whenever I wanted and that I would probably catch the foursome in front of me in six or seven holes. (I did, but they graciously invited me to play through.)
        I don’t get all spooled up about slow play as long as my own pace is consistent. Don’t get me wrong; if I have to wait three to five minutes on every shot, I am as angry as the next guy. But less than a minute or two is well within bounds; it takes a minute to choose a club, assess my options and swing the club a time or two. On this day, though, I did not wait at all except for when I caught the two foursomes that waived me through. Any rushed shots – there were a few – were of my own doing. When I checked my phone just after putting out on the last hole, it read 12:05, under three hours from when I had started. I felt a bit of schadenfreude as I looked at the groups heading for the first tee; they were about to take at least an hour longer than I had.
        The compelling features of my round at the Ranch on this day were the greens, which are large and typically challenging. But because nights are cool at the foot of the Berkshires, greens superintendents feel comfortable cutting the grass a little tighter than in the heat of the summer. It took me half the round to stop hitting 12-foot putts four or five feet past the cup. The greens were the fastest I had played all year, but they putted true and left me with no excuses for my multiple three putts.
        Located less than a half hour from Bradley International Airport and, combined with a few other outstanding courses in the Hartford/Springfield area, The Ranch could form part of a terrific homemade golf trail. Combine rounds at Keney Park in Hartford, Wintonbury Hills and Gillette Ridge in Bloomfield with one at The Ranch, and you have yourself a long weekend of splendid fly-in golf.  If you live in the Greater Hartford/Springfield areas, you are even luckier.
TheRanchbuildingsIts called The Ranch, but the buildings that include the clubhouse, cart barn and a former real estate office look more like they belong on a farm.

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