When it became apparent that the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base was going to close, Myrtle Beach city leaders created a bucket list of base properties they were interested in acquiring.
Whispering Pines Golf Club was at the top of that list. City leaders went after the course, and got it.
The course became and remains the only municipal course among approximately 100 on the Grand Strand.
“We knew at some point in time somebody was going to take it over,” said Richard Kirby, the city’s parks superintendent who held the same position when the course closed with the rest of the base in 1993. “In the early 1990s golf was hot in Myrtle Beach. A lot of people wanted this place.”
Kirby said the county wanted it, the city wanted it and Grand Strand golf course management companies wanted it.
Long before the base closed, City Manager Tom Leath, director of cultural and leisure services Jimmie Walters and Kirby put a plan together to go after pieces of it.
Then-mayor Robert Grissom, City Councilman John Maxwell and other city officials traveled to Washington to speak to Sen. Strom Thurmond and lobby for the city.
Maxwell said federal officials were wary of giving the golf course away because it might set a precedent for other bases. Thurmond listened to the city’s pitch and then turned to the bureaucrats holding up the golf course transfer, telling them in his Southern drawl: “See what you can do to help these people.”
“We got up and left the room and I turned to Jimmie [Walters] and told him, ‘We’ve got a golf course’,” Maxwell said. “Jimmie asked what I meant, and I told him, ‘Strom Thurmond is chairman of the Armed Services Committee we’re going to get a golf course.”
Other parts of the base including recreation centers, gymnasiums, parks, buildings and other properties were generally divvied up between state and local governments and Horry-Georgetown Technical College. “Some of the things we got and some we didn’t,” said Kirby, who was the course’s general manager from 1993 to 2005. “The golf course was one of the things we wanted really badly.
“We were sort of first in line, and that turned out to be a pretty big deal. We were the first people to talk about the golf course and we had a plan to manage it and operate it.”
Nine holes of the 6,731-yard par-72 layout opened in 1962 and a second nine opened in 1986. Golf course architects Joe Finger, Ken Dye and Baxter Spann designed the second nine and integrated them into the existing holes created by an Air Force engineer.
When it was military-owned, players had to be a guest of an active or retired military member to not only play the course, but get on the base. Rates for military members were based on rank – privates played for the least amount (at one point $5), generals the most.
The military closed the course in March 1993 and in April the base redevelopment agency hired the city of Myrtle Beach to be its caretaker. The city kept the course from being overgrow until it negotiated a lease with the Air Force to open and operate it in August 1993. The city eventually received the course at no cost through a public benefit conveyance from the Air Force.
After spending approximately $750,000 on the property, according to Kirby, on a new maintenance building, golf carts, maintenance equipment, clubhouse furniture, etc., the city reopened the course in November 1993.
Knowing the base was closing, Air Force operators spent little money on it in its final year, eschewing many maintenance practices. “Really the golf course deteriorated for 18 months,” Kirby said.
The city was awarded the title to the course in 1998. That was in the midst of a golf boom, and Kirby said the course peaked with about 52,000 rounds played in 1999.
Course improvements under city direction include new greens, new cart paths, several new tees, improved drainage and irrigation, expanded lakes, and mounding. “We’ve tried to add a little texture of the golf course,” Kirby said. “It was awfully flat. We spent a lot of time and effort on the golf course.” Updating the interior of the clubhouse is likely the next project.
At the urging of city council, local memberships and local rates were established. “We weren’t set up to be hugely profitable,” Kirby said. “When we opened the golf course locals could play for $19. We became a municipal golf course with a mission to serve local people.”
The course remains an affordable option focused on locals. It struggled financially along with many other courses in the market during a period of overbuilding into the early 2000s and a subsequent recession.
The building of Harrelson Boulevard along the course and in front of Myrtle Beach International Airport has changed Whispering Pines’ look and views.
The course has a new entrance off Harrelson Boulevard and the road has created unique views of the airport from the course, particularly on the par-3 17th hole, which features a peninsula green and a tee shot toward the terminal just a few hundred yards away. The par-4 18th hole also runs along the road.
Fifteen-year Whispering Pines head pro Alan Chasteen said the new entrance and increased visibility has shown signs of being a boon for the course.
“Location and accessibility is going to be huge,” Chasteen said. “We used to have people get discouraged because they couldn’t find us. Now we’re across the street from the airport.”