Myrtle Beach has a rich and interesting history, and the golfing industry has been an important part of the area’s history from almost the beginning.
Golf was introduced to the Carolinas nearly 260 years ago. A Charleston merchant named Andrew Johnston returned from a trip to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1759 with an assortment of goods – including 12 golf clubs and some balls. Johnston lived on a plantation, so it’s likely he used them at some point before his death a few years later. Mr. Charles Price and George C. Rogers, Jr., a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, collaborated on a history of low country golf and documented the beginning of the South Carolina Golf Club, founded in Charleston in 1786. The club evolved into the Country Club of Charleston, which is still in existence today.
Families started visiting Myrtle Beach a little more than a century ago. The small, oceanside village was sparsely populated until 1908, when the railroad between the neighboring city of Conway and Myrtle Beach was built. The Seaside Inn and the Pavilion were built where today’s downtown is located.
In 1927, Pine Lakes Country Club, Myrtle Beach’s first golf course opened. The course was designed by Ron White, the first president of the PGA of America. The course was appropriately nicknamed “The Granddaddy.” Pine Lakes was the first step in a golf boom in Myrtle Beach and along the Grand Strand which transformed the little fishing town into what is now the Golf Capital of the World.
In 1947, construction began on the Dunes Golf & Beach Club with its multiple facilities and a golf course that created a new standard in golf. The Dunes Club golf course was designed by Robert Trent Jones and since its completion has been the host to numerous tournaments including multiple Senior PGA Tour events and the 1973 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. The course has won countless awards including Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in America. The course has undergone several major renovations.
More recent courses to open have been Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in 1994 and its sister course, True Blue in 1998. True Blue rests on the site of historic True Blue Plantation, a famous 19th century indigo and rice plantation. The Caledonia was built on a plantation that can be traced to Dr. Robert Nesbit. Nesbit was a Scotsman who dubbed it Caledonia, a Roman name for Scotland. It is not known whether Dr. Nesbit purchased the property or acquired it through his marriage in 1797 to Elizabeth Pawley or by purchase.
Myrtle Beach golf plunged ahead and the Grand Strand became known as a place where a golfer could tee off in the morning at Pawleys Plantation on the south and then tee off again the same day after lunch at Rivers Edge in the north and feel as if he was in a different state. Myrtle Beach golf became known for its wonderfully eccentric and diverse golfing atmosphere.
Without a doubt, decades from now two distinct yet sometimes intermingled groups of pleasure-seekers will still be moving to Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand. They’ll be coming for the water and the sand, but one group will prefer the sand to be part of a fairway hazard once in a while. The diverse group of beachgoers and golfers will continue to define the spirit of the area as well as the commercial and financial power of the Grand Strand.
But the golf industry’s easy days of the late ’90s, when Tigermania was at its peak and new resort courses were opening everywhere you looked up and down the beach are long gone. Since 2000, there have been more than a dozen course closings in Myrtle Beach.
“Since Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand attract golfers from every metro market, certainly east of the Mississippi and even beyond that, golf’s success in the Low Country and especially in Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand depends on the state of the game nationally,” said Natalie Cruz, a former golf professional and one of The Trembley Group’s Real Estate Professionals. “We’re not a three-course or four-course community that’s immune to fluctuations in the golf industry. Because of the size of the local golfing industry, Myrtle Beach relies on the health of the industry as a whole.”
Natalie Cruse is The Trembley Group Real Estate’s resident expert on Grand Strand and Myrtle Beach Golf communities. As evidenced by her Zillow reviews, Natalie provides her clients with excellent and timely communication and service.
Natalie is a native of London, England, and moved to the Grand Strand in 2001 to attend Coastal Carolina University on a golf scholarship. Natalie graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in Sports & Recreation for Disadvantaged Children.
For eleven years prior to becoming a Trembley Group Real Estate Professional, Natalie was an LPGA Teaching Professional with the Classic Swing Golf School in Myrtle Beach. She also taught golf in Deal, NJ and Key Largo, FL. Natalie still enjoys playing golf socially and competitively, and participates in many charity golf days. Through Natalie’s experience as an LPGA Teaching Professional she understands that exceptional and professional service is the key to developing an effective and successful partnership with her clients.
To some degree, the Myrtle Beach golf and housing boom was a scene repeated throughout the country during mid-2000s. Myrtle Beach and the Grand strand once boasted nearly 120 courses in the heady days when real estate loans were easy to come by and Tiger Woods’ dominance stoked golf fervor to unprecedented heights.
Things are quite a bit different now, a decade after a recession that brought golf plummeting back to reality and helped reshape the golf topography of a Myrtle Beach area that’s home to around 85 courses today. And Myrtle Beach is still one of the top real estate markets in the country.
Golf is still big business in Myrtle Beach — according a 2016 impact study done by the S.C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, golf in the Palmetto State generates $2.7 billion in direct and indirect sales, provides 33,188 jobs and $881 million in personal income, and accounts for $270 million in state, local, and federal taxes. For Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand, that amounts to an economic impact of $650 million.
But when golf hurts, Myrtle Beach suffers.
The pain from the recession is still being felt, even years after it officially ended in 2009. The number of courses nationally has declined 7 percent over the last 10 to 12 years, according to the National Golf Foundation. The amount spent on course construction has been declining since the recession, rounds played has remained sluggish even as the economy has picked up again, and millennials are not taking up the sport in the same numbers as those in previous generations.
“There were two bubbles that burst – the Tiger bubble and the economy,” says Natalie Cruse. “They both burst at the same time, and it made the golf industry quite a challenge.”
Woods’ 2009 downfall robbed the game of its biggest star, ever. Tiger was the most bankable personality in the industry and his fall on the heels of a recession, forced many golf stores, courses and equipment providers out of business. While Woods is playing again, and occasionally in contention, many national indicators continue to suggest issues within the game. But in South Carolina, where coastal real estate is as sought-after as ever and golf is a critical component in the area’s attraction, the consensus is that the state has weathered the worst of it.
“The golf industry has been through some tough times,” said Natalie Cruse. “But I really think we’re in a turnaround, and all the well managed Myrtle Beach courses that survived all this are going to prosper.”
But the last decade left a mark. “The golf industry had always been a pretty simple operation. But that’s changed,” Natalie says.
The golf industry has changed. Online tee time systems, high-tech equipment changes, relaxed dress codes, dynamic pricing, a digital and social media presence, and cautiousness of overbuilding are all on the top of mind more than ever in South Carolina. “The climb back has forged a new sense of perspective for a sport that can’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” says Natalie.
“Personally, I’m excited about the golf industry in Myrtle Beach. The area’s golf course professionals have the tools and expertise to serve the Myrtle Beach residents as well as attract new residents to the Grand Strand,” said Natalie Cruse. “The real estate and the golf industries have all the mechanisms to make both industries thrive, knowing there’s really no margin for error in either the real estate or the golf businesses.”
In Myrtle Beach, expectations have been adjusted to meet the new reality. “There were 3.2 million rounds of golf played last year on the Grand Strand,” says Natalie Cruse. “That’s off quite a few rounds from pre-recession highs. But for the past five years, that total has remained steady.” And Cruse says revenue from Myrtle Beach-area courses showed “a sharp improvement” in 2017 over the previous year.
“I am confident that since the economy rebounded, golf is rebounding as well,” Natalie Cruse says. “That’s true in many ways. As the economy improves, we’re seeing a big rebound in the residential housing market and we’re seeing more people on the golf courses as well.”
Online, it’s easy to find blogs and columns about how millennials have little interest in golf, despite the number of stars in their age group who are dominating the PGA Tour. Enjoying a few drinks while taking a whack at an electronic target in Topgolf, some would argue, isn’t quite the same as ponying up for lessons or a club initiation fee. But the real growth area may be found in the next generation down.
Junior golf is booming, both in South Carolina and nationally. The American Junior Golf Association, whose membership typically hovers around 5,000, is on pace to break 7,000 this year for the first time in the organization’s history. Drive, Chip and Putt, which started in 2014 with 110 local qualifiers, now has 300. The PGA Junior League, a team format involving boys and girls, has ballooned from 9,000 competitors in its first year of 2013 to 50,000 today.
Natalie Cruse has seen a similar increase in South Carolina. “The Grant Bennett Junior at Florence Country Club and had to turn away 65 kids this year,” she said. “There hasn’t been a junior event in the past year where they didn’t have to turn away 50 to 100 kids because there wasn’t room for them to play. So from a tournament standpoint, the numbers are really rising.”
There are other hopeful indicators as well. In South Carolina there are roughly 35 fewer courses now sharing total rounds played. Natalie says that’s helped offset the stagnancy. Spring inbound air traffic to Myrtle Beach was up 20 percent over 2017, she said, a positive sign for the region’s golf tourism business. The Grand Strand’s reputation as a “buddy trip” destination remains intact. And the PGA management program at Coastal Carolina University, Natalie Cruse’s alma mater, has not seen a drop in applications, says the program’s director Will Mann.
Myrtle Beach and Grand Strand clubs are once again spending money on capital improvements, a sure sign of growth. But the growth has limits. “Golf’s rebound on the Grand strand comes with what Natalie Cruse calls an adjusted lower expectation.
“Myrtle Beach golf is back to where it was pre-Tiger Woods. And that’s not a bad place to be,” says Natalie. “I read all these articles that say nobody can afford golf, that it’s the death of the game. In my opinion, many of the clubs that have closed down probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place. And a lot of the folks that had been playing those now-closed courses have just moved on to the courses that did stay in business.”
“The results of the past year are positive,” says Natalie. “I believe the trend in South Carolina is a positive one. Those golf course operators who were doing good and managing correctly and efficiently, are saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing good, and we’re coming out of this.’ There’s been a natural growth cycle, and the golf industry is getting through it. Overall, the Myrtle Beach and Grand Strand golf industry is strong.”
The trend in the golf business, in South Carolina and nationwide, is a lot better today than the way it was a decade ago. The interim demanded the industry make changes, from better online reservations systems to improvements in marketing and cost reduction. The PGA has a pair of initiatives, one encouraging nine-hole golf and another hitting from the front tees, to try and make the sport quicker and more enjoyable. Some see further incorporation of technology as critical in enticing a video-game generation.
And in the meantime, there are the physical scars of the past 10 years, evident in the terrain of the Grand Strand. Big-box stores standing where golf courses used to be, the ghostly remains of greens and bunkers in never-completed developments – all the remaining vestiges of a boom that went bust.
“It’s unlikely we’ll ever get back to the Tiger-crazy pandemonium and the golf-economy we had in 2006,” Natalie says. “I don’t think we’ll ever see that happening. That was a ‘perfect storm.’ There were too many things that perfectly fit together then. That was a crazy time for golf in Myrtle Beach and along the Grand Strand and I don’t think it was a good indication of what a strong golf industry looks like. I think today’s Myrtle Beach golf economy is strong and a lot more realistic now. Over the long haul, the golf economy is a lot more sustainable today and that’s good for Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand.”
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