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Where It All Began: Myrtle Beach

Chris Rogers Chef Bellamy dishes the chowder at the seventh tee.

Photo: Chris Rogers

Before I start, let me concede for the record that Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is the "Golf Capital of the World." That's what Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a local marketing group, would like me (and you) to call it. As evidence he offers the town's 115 golf courses and $833 million in golf-related income each year, plus another $75 million in golf-related taxes. "

That's almost a billion dollars a year," I said when McCamish trotted out those figures over the phone.

"Yep," said McCamish in a thick Southern drawl. "We love our golf here in Myrtle Beach."

Not that it's a big secret. Heck, when I got down there and stopped at a Hooters on the Strip and fell into a conversation with a bartender named Andrea, she said, "Did you know that Myrtle Beach is the Golf Capital of the World?I'll bet because of golf, this city makes a billion dollars a year!" And Andrea doesn't even play golf.

Clearly, McCamish is either doing his job spectacularly well or has been enjoying too many 5-Wing Flappertizers.

But anyone who has been to the town knows that another good nickname for it would be "Instant Gratification, South Carolina." Because along with the golf comes a world-class array of fluorescent activity: mini-golf parks and floodlit driving ranges, discount cigarette shops and chain hotels, gentlemen's clubs and sports bars. Indeed, its theme-park atmosphere of fast food and cheap thrills defines Myrtle Beach as much as the golf—even though the golf, after a building boom in the nineties, now offers quality as much as quantity.

But just off the Strip, behind the back fences of the tourist traps, is a remnant of a different age, an age when golf and refinement always went hand in hand. The first golf course built in Myrtle Beach, in fact, was designed by a famous Scottish architect at the behest of a Southern textile tycoon for the pleasure of visiting Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. It is the course that gave birth not only to the mayhem of today's Myrtle Beach but to Sports Illustrated, the magazine that redefined athletic endeavor for generations of Americans. That the course has survived at all is surprising; that it has retained so much of its Old World charm while modern Myrtle Beach has blossomed all around it is something of a miracle.

From Singapore to Spyglass, few courses I've played have the stately and immediate gravitas of Pine Lakes International Country Club. As I pulled off Myrtle Beach's largest north-south traffic artery, Highway 17, and rolled up the club's ribbonlike entrance drive, the world seemed to change within a hundred yards.

Behind me lay the smash-and-grab modern Sun Belt. Ahead lay another—some might say mythical—place: a landscape right out of the Old South, dotted with perfectly pruned dogwoods and magnolias. On the horizon, a graceful white-columned mansion sprawled across a knoll, fronted by a huge veranda.

Since I'd done a little homework, I knew this was the Pine Lakes clubhouse, all sixty-two rooms of it. Designed in 1927 by Henry Bacon McCoy—who'd just completed the Lincoln Memorial—the building has its own monumental feel. Surrounding it are a demanding eighteen holes with their own pedigree, derived from the original twenty-seven holes on the site designed by Robert White, first president of the PGA and a native of St. Andrews (yes, the Scottish one). It's in deference to White and his Auld Sod birthplace that all Pine Lakes starters, caddiemasters and attendants wear the MacGregor tartan as their uniform.

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