May 31, 2007

Nothing But The Best in Myrtle Beach

What happens when a pair of buddies go looking for a 'Top-Shelf' experience in the home of budget golf

My brother and I are agreed. We don't like crowds. We refuse to drink out of Styrofoam cups. We hate standing in line. We avoid buffets and eschew salad bars. We prefer cloth napkins and linen tablecloths and veer straight toward the valet parking, propelled purely by muscle memory.

That's just how we roll.

We're guys who like an upgrade. Most of the time we'll do what we must to earn one. Collect points, stay brand-loyal, schmooze a desk clerk or two. And for that we get the small reward of avoiding the crowd, enjoying the view, creaking our legs outward into the extra four inches of legroom. It's worth it. When it comes to golf, we'll pay more for a little less humanity, a deeper whiff of aesthetics, even a golf shop with a higher markup. We'll drive an extra half-hour, pay an extra hundred bucks, to play a course that isn't packed with cigar-smoking loudmouths changing their shirts in the parking lot. We're just looking to feel, well, a little special. If that makes us shallow, fine. We're shallow.

So, when it comes to our yearly golf trip, we tend to avoid the golf meccas, where golfers come from all over the country to jam in as many rounds as they can, on as many different courses as possible, between daiquiris, roller-coaster rides and trips to the beach.

We don't have anything against a place like Myrtle Beach, which boasts 117 courses within easy driving distance. Still, big crowds, long lines, thick traffic and plastic signage? Not for us. We had each played there once in the past decade and left unimpressed, the landscape of strip malls and strip joints running contrary to the spirit of the upgrade guy that fills us both.

But I began thinking, what if we played only the very best courses in the area, paid the extra money, drove the extra miles? Would it be possible to feel like something other than just another pair of steer in an enormous, polo-shirted herd of cattle? Could we pluck a four-star experience from the midst of all that human—well—volume?

What about afterward, at night? Could we get a real martini? Or a '98 Kistler, a two-inch cut of Angus and an honest-to-goodness-made-in-the-bowl Caesar salad?

Deep philosophical questions like this were meant to be answered, either here or in the pages of less-academic journals, and so we undertook a trip I called Myrtle Beach Top Shelf. The best courses by day. By night: limos, top-notch restaurants, tips for everyone. First class all the way.

We knew the golf was there. As for the rest of it, we weren't sure it could be done, but we were determined.

Four stars—I liked to say—or death.

Setting up the golf was no problem. I logged onto my computer, clicked my way to mbgolf.com, and using Golf Digest's new, first-ever ranking of the top 50 courses in Myrtle Beach, I picked out 10 of the best. When I got the agent on the phone, I told him I was going first class all the way. Condos and courses. "Considering the list," he said, "I would say you are. These are some great courses."

I'd made the decision to go Top Shelf with only a week's notice, so accommodations were tricky. With beachfront condos book-ed months in advance, the agent did his best by getting us into a golf condo at Myrtlewood Villas. Nothing fancy, but it was so large that the two of us rattled around like forgotten guests in a Victorian mansion.

When I asked him about four-star restaurants, he paused so long that I could hear rain falling on his office roof. "Uh, have you ever actually been to Myrtle Beach?"

I inquired about renting a car, a really nice one. A Jaguar, maybe. "We're really amping things up," I said. "We want the full treatment."

"Jaguar," he said. "Hmm. That's a first." He assured me he'd do his best. Three days later, I got a call from a mysterious dude named Anthony offering to drive a Jaguar up from Atlanta for $1,000 and rent it to me for the week for another five grand. "I'm going to try for something a little closer," I told the guy, who claimed to be an auto broker.

Anthony loved this. It made him laugh. "Ain't nothing closer," Anthony said. "Not a Jaguar. Ain't no Jaguars in Myrtle Beach."

I believed the guy. So I opted for a Lincoln by day and a limo at night so we could enjoy a cocktail or two and not have to worry about driving home. Then I called my brother, Frank, and reminded him to pack his tux.

We started Myrtle Beach Top Shelf appropriately, at the most venerable and established course in the area, The Dunes Golf and Beach Club, a 1950 Robert Trent Jones design, tucked along an inlet. The course feels aged, fully mature, truly part of the place, a refreshing reminder of what staying power means in a world where development is king. For us, it scissored a sense of permanence here on the shore against the temporality of life along the beach road. The 590-yard 13th, with a 200-yard second shot over water, crushed us both, but we left with spirits high.

That afternoon we moved onto Tidewater Golf Club Plantation, where we tooled along, debating with our playing partners about whether we'd be able to find a good bottle of wine in Myrtle Beach. The course skirted a broad and expansive saltwater marsh, and the views of the vast sleepy inlets were nearly as pleasurable as the golf. Like any great course, it looked as if it were miraculously found by the first people to set foot there. As we walked up the 18th, we could not have felt farther from the clamor and hubbub of the nearby beach town. "So far," Frank said, after he'd jarred a long putt on 18, "it's all first class."

That night, all tuxed up, riding in our limo past the Piggly Wiggly, waiting for the beach traffic to thin out, over the dull hum of the virtual army of minivans through which we crawled, our driver claimed that the best food in Myrtle Beach was at an exotic Italian restaurant called "Olive Garden." He said it was rated second of all restaurants in the area. So, with a heavy heart, we submitted to the local knowledge. We stood there at the bar drinking cheap glasses of merlot, shaking our heads. The special, the bartender told us, was "shrimp."

We ate. What choice did we have? Maybe this was Myrtle Beach Top Shelf. Still, I felt like David Niven visiting a lumberyard—cultured maybe, but unprepared, overdressed and generally far from home without the right tools. Out the window, the parking lot swelled.

On the golf course, demanding Top Shelf only helped us to fit in. The quietude of the game and the excellence of the courses, such as two we played the next day at Barefoot Resort Golf, one by Davis Love III, the other by Tom Fazio, provided no less than that. Opinion in the group was split between the Love course, with its unforced evocation of Pinehurst No. 2, and the Fazio course, blanketed with enough fairway bunkers to leave my brother bruised and low. A member we played with sighed whenever he found the sand, blaming it on someone he called "Fazi-hole."

That night our driver slipped us in and around the city, dropping us off for a look at the beach, where I stood at a bar in my tux and drank a margarita out of a 36-inch tall pink glass, watching a guy in a "Chick Magnet" T-shirt sing "Folsom Prison Blues" into a karaoke machine. No matter, I still had the tux. Here, in public, people stared, and I felt for all the world like a kid who had stumbled out of his prom into Hooters. After about 108 inches of margarita, it started to feel awkward and fun all at once.

Next morning we traveled a bit, heading over the border to North Carolina to play two incredible courses under heavy skies. The Tiger's Eye course at Ocean Ridge Plantation, Tim Cate's 7,014-yard creation, felt unlike anything we had seen yet, sloping through virgin forest, confronting us with dramatic elevation changes again and again. The weather closed in on us at Rivers Edge, a course that combined the hilly terrain with a fantastic location along another stunning inlet. Here, fighting off the margaritas and clam basket from the night before, I started to shoot a number, birdieing two holes in the first six, only to be rushed off by fierce lightning. I sulked all the way to our condo, robbed of a great round on a great course by something as unimportant as life-threatening conditions.

That night we explained to our next driver what we were after. "You have to try New York Prime then," he said. "There's no alternative." We decided to give into local knowledge once again and were glad we did, as we soon found ourselves in an urbane and sophisticated restaurant on 28th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, enjoying a perfectly rare porterhouse. Frank loosened his tie when they started playing Tony Bennett, and no one gave the two guys in tuxes a second look. Still, there were echoes of a chain restaurant throughout the night—the bartender was fired in front of our eyes for comping a cocktail to a pretty woman, and the waiters spent most of their time punching orders into a computer screen. The food was good, however, and the wine, recommended to us by a bartender who was now walking the bricks, was undeniably so. We languished there till late in the night, car idling in the lot, driver at the ready, having found a measure of what we were seeking.

The next day we Played our final round in Myrtle Beach proper at Arnold Palmer's Myrtle Beach National (King's North), where we experienced a course that seemed distinctly more public. Maybe it was the Floridian feel of the layout—flat, long and open, allowing for too many 360-degree views in which a foursome was evident in every direction—that made me feel that way. But it could have been that my brother finally got his game together and spanked me all around the course. In any case, we had another terrific dinner that night, at the Aspen Grill on North Kings Highway, where I ate the best sea bass I've ever tasted, and I went to bed a happy man.

For our final three rounds, we headed south, to Pawleys Island, where we stayed in a condo that fit our Top Shelf ideal: subtle on the outside, barely visible in the shade trees, and well appointed inside. We played a trio of courses—True Blue Golf Plantation, Heritage Club and Pawleys Plantation Golf Country Club—each of which wound its way deep into and out of the marshes, inlets and waterways, with a kind of native artistry. Pawleys Island is a 20-minute drive from Myrtle Beach, and it was here where the texture of development seemed to match the magnificent design of the golf courses.

On Pawleys Island, the wildlife—the alligators on the shore line, crabs shuttling across the marsh beds, the anhinga marching with just their beaks above the water—was so prevalent that the courses seemed to breathe differently. We had the sense that the golf wasn't overwhelming the place, that the world of men might never completely take over. After leaving behind the dense strips of development in Myrtle Beach proper, it seemed there was hope anyway.

On our final night, we gave up on the tuxes. Out of starch, literally and figuratively, we called a family friend who recommended a restaurant, a place called Orobosa's Lowcountry Café. It was a new spot that had just set up in what my friend called an "old ice-cream shack" on the North Causeway in Pawleys Island. At that point, our golf behind us, we'd given up the mission for martinis and blood-red steaks. We'd found all that, in some small fashion. Now we just wanted to eat.

It was about then, after we sat down at the screened-in dining room at Orobosa's, with our Top-Shelf search at a close, that we found ourselves in front of the best menu we'd seen in a week. While we waited for our food, we reflected on what we had found on this trip. Ten miraculous golf courses, cut into and holding fast against the waves of development that had pounded the area for decades. A series of playing partners—a UPS man, two doormen, a retired high-school counselor, a graphic artist, a college professor, a couple looking for their retirement home, a fireman and a construction engineer—offering up a fair version of the wondrous range of humanity one meets in the sport. We'd wandered the streets, the bars and the clubs of Myrtle Beach in search of something intangible: class, privilege, exclusivity. We didn't really find it, but we'd had fun trying, laughing at ourselves and our conceit all the way.

The food arrived. The scallops and salmon I ordered, delicately cooked, lay on the plate as beautifully as any entrée you could find in all of Manhattan, and my brother found himself staring at a luscious cut of tuna on a bed of native wild rice. We had run into a real chef, out here at the edge of nowhere, in an old ice-cream shack. There were candles on the table. The beer was icy cold, straight out of the bottle. There, with the moths circling under the lights outside, flies banging the screens around us, with all that incredible golf just at our heels, we had suddenly and absolutely found Myrtle Beach Top Shelf.

"Now this," my brother said, poking his fork into another bite, "is four stars."

I had to agree. "Too bad we underdressed," I said.

It's that way in Myrtle Beach. You're never in your tuxedo when you need to be. Maybe that's why they'll take you anyway you come.

All-in, including airfare, our six-day Top-Shelf trip to Myrtle Beach cost slightly less than $6,700. Some of the bigger elements: 10 rounds for two plus accommodations at Myrtlewood Villas and Pawleys Plantation, $2,952; rental car, $602; limo, $390 a night; dinner at New York Prime, $201; Aspen Grill, $159; Orobosa's Lowcountry Café, $73.

Pricing a trip to Myrtle

There's never a bad time to go to Myrtle Beach, but some seasons are cheaper than others. To get a sense of the price range, we picked courses from the first 10, middle 10 and lower 10 of our new Top 50 ranking to make up three different three-course packages. We then asked Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday to price each package at four different times of the year.

All prices are from 2005 and are based on a Friday and Saturday night stay in a two-bedroom villa at the Legends Resorts. Prices include breakfast buffet, food and beverage Friday night, and use of the lighted range.

First 10: Ocean Ridge (Tiger's Eye), Barefoot Resort (Love), Caledonia G. Fish C. January: $284, April: $490, July: $301, October: $437.

Middle 10: Wild Wing (The Avocet), Legends (Parkland), Wachesaw East January: $232, April: $424, July: $256, October: $367.

Lower 10: The Witch, Int'l Club, Tradition G.C. January: $240, April: $397, July: $240, October: $354.