The Golf Coast: Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head put South Carolina among world’s top golf destinations

The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island was the site of the 2012 PGA Championship and will host the event again in 2021. Chris Hanclosky/postandcourier.com

How many shots would it take Rory McIlroy to hit a golf ball the 187-mile length of South Carolina’s coast?

If the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer were to use his average distance off the tee for every shot (305.9 yards), McIlroy could do it in about 1,076 swings.

On shot No. 41 McIlory would find himself at world-renowned Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. On his 357th shot, he probably would pause and reflect on one of his crowning achievements, an 8-shot victory in the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. Stroke 966 would find McIlroy in Myrtle Beach at the famed Dunes Club.

Along the way, he would pass within a few shots left (the Atlantic Ocean being to his right) of 191 of South Carolina’s approximately 368 public and private golf courses.

“I don’t think there’s a stronger package in terms of three distinct destinations in a four-hour stretch than coastal South Carolina,” said Joe Passov, who writes a monthly travel column for Golf Magazine and oversees the publication’s golf course rankings. “I’m a huge fan of coastal South Carolina. It’s a pretty easy endorsement for me to give.”

Golf Digest, in ranking the 10 Best Golf States based on top public courses per capita, says South Carolina is No. 2 behind Hawaii and is home to three of the golf world’s most popular hubs, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Kiawah Island.

“By most accounts, tourism is the largest industry in the state with an economic impact of more than $18 billion a year. Golf is a niche market, but it is the biggest niche in tourism,” said Duane Parrish, director of South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

The most recent statewide golf economic impact study, conducted by Dudley Jackson of PRT for the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association in 2011, stated that golf courses and off-course expenditures of visiting golfers had a total economic impact in South Carolina of $2.7 billion. It also said golf provided 34,785 jobs in the state, accounting for $872 million in personal income, along with $312 million in federal, state and local taxes. Green fees and club membership dues generated $12.6 million in admission tax revenue alone, accounting for 38 percent of state admission tax collections. It was noted that the impact of real estate sales in golf communities and off-site purchases of golf equipment by local golfers were not included in those totals.

The top golf destinations in the state were Myrtle Beach (51 percent), Hilton Head (16 percent) and Charleston (13 percent).

The study revealed that the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage, played on Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, injects $81 million annually into the economy.

The 2012 PGA Championship, played at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, had an estimated economic impact of $193 million. The PGA Championship will return to the Ocean Course in 2021.

Parrish said he expects another golf economic impact study to be commissioned within the next year.

“When the next one is done, I feel the numbers will be even better,” he said.

Parrish said the economic recession took its toll on golf, not just in South Carolina but nationally.

“There are many, many factors in play,” Parrish said. “The Baby Boomers put their clubs in the garage in the recession and they haven’t taken them out for a variety of reasons. The downfall of Tiger Woods. A lot of things have played into that. It’s a national issue.

“From a state perspective, we’ve done pretty well. We have been flat when the rest of the country has been down. We’re now trending up where the rest of the country is still trying to get flat.”

Golf is included in South Carolina’s international marketing done by PRT and Coastal South Carolina USA, which focuses on the three coastal destinations.

Parrish said PRT spends 20 to 25 percent of its advertising budget specifically on golf. It’s not all on coastal golf, he said, because there are other great golf courses in other parts of the state.

South Carolina has a wealth of golf courses, many of which are considered among the finest in the country.

Three courses are included in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. — the Ocean Course (No. 25); Harbour Town (No. 42); and the private Yeamans Hall Club in Hanahan (66).

America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses compiled by Golf Digest has the Ocean Course ranked third among the nation’s public courses, with Harbour Town at No. 19 and the Caledonia Golf and Fish Club on Pawley’s Island ranked No. 73.

In Golf Digest’s rankings of all U.S. courses — public and private — the Ocean Course is No. 20 and Yeamans Hall is No. 64. Other state courses in the rankings are Harbour Town (106); Sage Valley, Graniteville (107); Cassique-Kiawah Island (117); Long Cove, Hilton Head (139); Secession, Beaufort (171); May River at Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton (175); Chanticleer, Greenville (190); and Chechessee Creek, Okatie (197).

“Any time you can put a natural body of water next to a golf hole, you have something special,” said Bradley Klein, the author of several golf architecture books and a senior writer for Golfweek magazine.

“We’re used to it being the ocean, but in the case of those three distinct South Carolina destinations you also have the opportunity to play along the tidal marsh and the Intracoastal Waterway. That’s something special.

“Obviously, the Myrtle Beach market is special because of its accessibility and value. Charleston has a more old world feel to it, tied to both the design heritage and access to downtown and King Street. And the Hilton Head area, which extends north into Beaufort, has a charm and ease that draws a lot of people for wintertime residences.”

No one would argue that Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island and Wild Dunes aren’t world-class golf resorts. But is Charleston itself a golf destination? The popular golf resorts are a 45-minute drive from downtown Charleston, but there are plenty of top quality golf courses sprinkled throughout the area.

Unlike Myrtle Beach to the north and Hilton Head to the south, golf isn’t the reason most visitors head to Charleston. History, food, architecture, beaches and cultural events are top reasons tourists list for visiting the Holy City.

But golf is very much in the fabric of Charleston, with the first golf clubs and balls shipped to America, specifically Charleston, in 1739. More recently, the 1991 Ryder Cup Matches and 2012 PGA Championship, both held at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, made Charleston an international destination for golf.

“Charleston is a very multi-dimensional destination and is a wonderful destination with great golf. For us to present ourselves as a pure golf destination would be unfair to the visitor and to the destination,” explained Gary Edwards of Coastal South Carolina USA, an organization that markets tourism internationally for Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head.

Passov said Charleston vexes him.

“It’s home to some great golf, clearly. It’s home to trophy golf in the form of Kiawah, starting with the Ocean Course. But Kiawah’s other golf offerings would be all-stars anywhere else,” Passov said. “Wild Dunes, the Links Course, maybe not as acclaimed as it once was due to the development and due to the beach erosion but it’s still a very good place to play. And there are some under-the-radar bargain courses in the area that the rest of the country doesn’t know about.

“But the reason Charleston vexes me is because of the non-golf attractions. Sometimes it’s hard to think about a pure golf vacation in Charleston. It’s so much fun spending time in Charleston with the culture, the arts, with the restaurants, with the history, with the views down by The Battery. I almost tell people to split your vacation into two separate sections. When you go to Charleston, do a top-quality resort, and then go spend a couple of days in the city and immerse yourself in one of the nation’s best cities.”

Bradley Klein, the author of several golf architecture books and a senior writer for Golfweek magazine, praises not only the resorts, but also the 36-hole Daniel Island Club.

“The charm of downtown Charleston is a major factor. I love it, everybody I know loves going there. It’s a very sophisticated small city with very easy access to golf and quality shopping. That’s great,” Klein said.

Much of the marketing of Charleston as a golf destination began 20 years ago when the Charleston Golf Course Owners Association and the Convention and Visitors Bureau started Charleston Golf Inc., said Terry Sedalik, executive director of the Charleston Golf Course Owners Association. The two organizations pooled money and petitioned for matching grants. Out of that grew Charleston Golf Guide (charlestongolfguide.com), a one-stop location for tee times, hotels and package deals.

When it comes to marketing itself as a golf destination, no one can come close to Myrtle Beach. Numbers. Variety. Quality. The Grand Strand has it all.

“It’s something I’ve said for quite a while. It’s the supermarket of golf,” said Passov. “It’s honestly everything a vacationing golfer could want in a golf experience. The value is absolutely tremendous because Myrtle Beach was the pioneer in golf packages. And over the years they’ve refined and perfected them.”

Passov said the quality of the golf courses built over the past 20 years has taken Myrtle Beach from a value-oriented getaway into a tremendous value for all golfers.

Courses like Grande Dunes, Barefoot Landing, Caldeonia and True Blue offer tremendous variety and quality, noted Klein. “It wasn’t that way 30 years ago,” he said.

Pine Lakes, built in 1927, was the first golf course in Myrtle Beach. The next course didn’t come along until The Dunes Golf and Beach Club was built in 1949 by Robert Trent Jones. Slowly more and more courses were built.

Another thing that made Myrtle Beach a recognizable golf destination was the idea in 1954 to hold a testimonial dinner for Jones and invite golf writers from around the country. It evolved into an annual event as writers on their way to cover the Masters in Augusta would play various courses throughout the Myrtle Beach area, finishing at The Dunes Club.

Cecil Brandon, a retired advertising executive and one of the former principals of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said that event went on for approximately 50 years.

“It’s not so much what you say about yourself; it’s what somebody else says about you,” Brandon said.

“What really made Myrtle Beach grow was when Buster Bryan and Jim Hackler started Golf-O-Tel (a package for golf, breakfast and a room for six nights).”

Golf-O-Tel eventually merged with another promotional collaboration, Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. Golf courses and hotels worked together to market the area and all benefitted. Brandon said there were 127 courses in Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday when he retired. Today, Myrtle Beach Holiday has approximately 80 member courses that produce almost 3 million rounds of golf each year. Golf’s Grand Strand stretches from Georgetown across the border into North Carolina.

The Chamber of Commerce also helped promote the area as a golf destination. One of its most successful efforts was the Myrtle Beach Can-Am Days Festival held in March or April. Canadian visitors, many of them golfers, were encouraged to visit, enjoy the beaches, play golf and get away from the cold.

The recent recession hit golf hard. Many areas of the country were overbuilt for golf, including Myrtle Beach. Approximately 20 Grand Strand courses were closed in the mid-2000s and a few more courses have closed recently, including Waterway Hills.

But Myrtle Beach still stands tall as one of the top golf destinations in the world.

No one gives a second thought today to the idea of using real state to sell golf. But that was a novel concept in the late 1950s when Charles Fraser approached his father with the idea. The Frasers were part of a group from Georgia who had purchased a portion of Hilton Head Island for the logging rights.

After spending some time at the logging camp, Fraser sold his father on the idea of a real estate development centered around golf that would become Sea Pines Resort.

“Charles was primarily the visionary behind residential development, not just from selling homes on the beach, but using golf as a marketing component to selling real estate,” said Cary Corbitt, director of the sports division of Sea Pines Resort.

“Charles had the golf courses laid out primarily to sell real estate. At that time, he had no idea golf was ever going to become the dominant force it would become.”

The first golf course on Hilton Head Island was built in 1962, the Sea Pines Ocean Course, and the genie was out of the bottle. More courses followed, at Sea Pines, at Palmetto Dunes, at Port Royal and so forth.

But the real explosion came in the late 1960s. Fraser had the idea of building a golf course and holding a PGA Tour event which became The Heritage Classic. He also had the idea for a marina with an iconic red and white lighthouse.

“Charles chose Jack Nicklaus, who was at the height of his playing career, to design the course and Jack recommended an up-and-comer (architect) Pete Dye. Pete became the architect and Jack became the design consultant,” Corbitt said.

“The golf tournament took place on Thanksgiving weekend in 1969 and Arnold Palmer won it. Arnold had been in a drought, won the golf tournament, and that just catapulted Sea Pines into stardom.”

Palmer’s victory was followed by other greats of the game including Nicklaus himself, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.

Hilton Head is more low-key than Myrtle Beach, said Passov, who lived on Hilton Head Island for five years.

“From Day 1, it was developed with good taste and low key in mind. No billboards. No neon. Just those forested plantations, the beach areas. It’s all pretty gorgeous,” she said.

“When I think of Hilton Head golf, I think of two things. One is Harbour Town, that being on everybody’s must-play list. Second, I think of the many, many excellent private golf developments. There are so many beautiful gated communities with golf courses designed by the top architects of the game.”

The Heritage, televised each April on CBS, does a lot for Hilton Head in terms of marketing and the South Carolina Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association, of which Corbitt is president, helps in promoting the area which is much more expansive than the island itself and reaches out to surrounding locations such as Bluffton and Beaufort.