The carved hedges at the first tee hint at the landscaping on the rest of the course.
I can't complain about the golf courses I've played these last few weeks in coastal South Carolina. Most have been in good condition but showing the effects of drought conditions along the coast. I've putted on greens that had been stress-relieved by aeration just a few weeks earlier and were still a wee bit bumpy. (Note: I turned down a chance to play Patriots Point near Charleston when the pro shop, to its credit, informed me they had aerated two days earlier.) Those that hadn't been aerated were less than close cut, for obvious reasons. Until yesterday, I hadn't putted on any green that I could call fast. The layouts of the courses I've played have been good to near-excellent; I'd put Arthur Hills' Coosaw Creek course near the Charleston International Airport and Rees Jones' Charleston National in the near-excellent category.
Yesterday I played the best course this year at the highly rated Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, SC. Raters in Zagat's golf guide gave it a 28 of 30, ranking it up there with most storied layouts in the land. The condition yesterday for the dead of summer was phenomenal, and the layout was better than I had remembered it from the half dozen times I had played it previously, the most recent three years ago. The course managers, who also run the companion True Blue Golf Club down the street, spend a lot of money on landscaping and irrigation, and they tend to the course with the fussiness and tender loving care of an Augusta National. Although it hadn't rained the night before, we were relegated to cart path only until 9 a.m. after some early morning watering (our tee time was 7:30). The course drains well and the fairways could have easily handled the cart traffic, but who is going to argue with folks who seem to have every blade of grass in place?
Caledonia was designed by the late Mike Strantz whose eight other golf courses are a little bizarre for my taste. Strantz has his fans, my teenage son among them, because his courses are unique, with landscapes that often seem as if they are of another world. Huge mounds hiding landing areas, greens perched on bulldozer-made hills, misshapen greens with often-severe dips and turns...you can expect the unexpected at such Strantz-designed tracks as Tobacco Road, Royal New Kent, and the sand-surrounded True Blue, which is almost a "normal" routing that had to be modified a few years ago because it was gaining a reputation as too tough for the average vacationing golfer.
But Caledonia can stand up to the best from all the great modern designers. It begins with a fair, routine par 4 whose only "troubles" are a fairway trap and elevated green; and it ends with a par 4 with an all carry approach shot over water that offers all sorts of options off the tee and from the fairway. On the finisher, you can hit something less than a wood off the tee to lay-up just short of the water, but your 160 yard approach shot will have about a 20-yard margin in which to land on the long-but-not-deep green; short is water and long is a menacing trap. Or you can try to bust the ball down the middle, which will leave you an approach over the narrow part of the water to the 50-yard-long green. Push the drive right, and you are hitting three to the green after a drop. Pull it left, and you'll be negotiating a hill and downhill lie over the water. When you get to the green, the fun really begins, not just because it is 150 feet long and severely contoured, but also because the deck of the adjacent plantation style clubhouse almost hangs over the back of the green. Try making a five-foot putt to halve the match while those who have come before you are watching, second and third beers in hand.
What makes Caledonia special is that, unlike Strantz's other courses, the hazards are clear and evident, not hidden, and you have bail-out options that don't necessarily cost you a stroke (if you can handle 60-foot putts on slick greens). The devilish little par 3 11th is an excellent example, especially when the pin is up front, as it was yesterday. A stream runs along the front left half of the narrow green and feeds a pond along the entire left side. The pond isn't really in play, but if you want to get close to the pin, you will need to play a high shot into the prevailing breezes. Too much finesse will put you in the muck in front, from which bogey or double is a sure thing. You can take the more conservative long left route, but that leaves a downhill putt through a valley and up again to the pin. Or you can lay-up - yes, I know, it's a short par 3 - and give yourself a 15-yard flop wedge up the hill and hope for a one putt.
Most of the customary Strantz "drama" at Caledonia is in the greens. The eighth green on the par 5, reachable for the longer hitters, is severely banked with a hill about 1/3 of the way back. Third shots into front pin positions are relatively easy, as you can use the three-foot high bank as a backstop. But make the mistake of hitting up top, and your putt downhill will risk rolling past the pin and over the retaining wall into the water.
The greens were near flawless yesterday, and fast. I did not feel cheated on any putt, even though I lipped out three or four times. Although there was plenty of dew on the fairways before the sun burned everything off, I didn't come close to needing to improve my lie in the immaculate fairways. Workers, who stayed discreetly out of the way, were all over the course raking the flower beds and cutting grass in the rough, demonstrating Caledonia's commitment to live up to its reputation as "Augusta like." Although the course looks its best during spring blooming season, it looked fantastic today, with lots of pinks and reds in the flowered areas to contrast with the bright greens, sand-trap whites and muted blues of the water.
Caledonia is part of the Waccamaw Golf Trail, a newly invented marketing venture that packages the best of the South Strand's courses. Besides Caledonia, the Trail includes its companion course, True Blue, plus Heritage, Pawleys Plantation, the soon to open Founders Club and a few other good courses just 10 minutes north. But Caledonia is easily the best. It is not inexpensive to play, although the Myrtle Beach Passport I described here a couple of weeks ago knocked $30 off the $97 greens fees for my guests and me. (Note: You must be a full or part-time resident of one of the three local counties to qualify for the $39 card.) In the high seasons of spring and fall, fees approach $200, the highest on the Grand Strand. Caledonia is well worth it.
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, which is not part of a housing development, is located 1 ½ miles off U.S. Highway 17 in Pawleys Island, SC. The club offers annual memberships that provide deeply discounted rounds, but you would have to play nearly 100 rounds to make the investment worthwhile. Phone: (800) 483-6800, or (843) 237-3675. Web site: www.fishclub.com. Par 70. Back tees: 6,526 yards, rating 72.1, slope 140. Middle tees: 6,121 yards, rating 69.9, slope 134. Front tees: 5,710, rating 67.8 (M), 73.0 (W), slope 129 (M), 128 (W). Tees are also available from 4,957 yards.
The 8th green is one example of the steeply banked greens at Caledonia. You can play the approach off the bank behind a front pin position. But if you are too long, your comeback putt could be lost in the marsh in front.