Courses that are difficult for high-handicap golfers don't always challenge the games of accomplished players.
At River Hills Golf & Country Club, the course's features and characteristics that challenge amateurs also present a test for better players.
Tree-lined fairways, odd-shaped and undulating greens, an abundance of water, elevation changes and testing bunkers combine to make the 6,923-yard Tom Jackson design demanding for all who play it.
"I like it because you can't find too many challenging golf courses around here, and I like to keep my game sharp playing tough courses," said touring pro Patrick Lundy of Little River, who took part in a review of the course in early October. "I think it has one of the most challenging layouts on the Grand Strand.
"It's tight. There's not much forgiveness on the course. I think it credits the ball-striker rather then someone who scrapes it around. ... So many holes can jump out and get you."
Joining me and Patrick in the review foursome was Bill Vondervor of Myrtle Beach, a retired MetLife IT systems project manager with a 21 handicap, and his wife Lynne Ticse, a retired MetLife IT systems analyst with a 26.5 handicap.
"I liked it design-wise," Bill said. "There was a lot of risk-reward and it's subtle on a lot of holes. ... There were a lot of signature holes that were beautiful and a lot of water to challenge all levels of golfer[s]."
The course finishes strong with an impressive back nine. Water comes significantly into play on eight of the nine holes. "I think the back nine is more picturesque and is more difficult than the front," Lynne said.
River Hills has a lot of elevation change for a course so close to the ocean. "The terrain changes were a pleasant change," Bill said. "You don't see that too much down here. You get to the second shot on 18 and it's straight uphill."
Champions Bermudagrass greens are considerably undulating and have varying sizes and shapes. The first green is heart-shaped. "If those greens are fast this course is really tough," Patrick said.
The course's sand is light and abundant. "I think the sand is awesome," Patrick said. "It's consistent."
Time and effort put into landscaping is evident, particularly on stone walls and vegetation on par-3s. "I look for aesthetics, and what they've done with the stone walls and bushes and trees is well done and pretty," Lynne said. "Though the houses on the course are nice, I like the lack of houses on many holes."
There is a unique message board in the pro shop giving the speed of greens on the Stimpmeter, fairway height, rough height, cart path situation, and special instructions such as overseeding and aerating processes.
Patrick appreciated the layout's shot-making requirements. "I'm a fan of challenging courses so I appreciate River Hills," Patrick said. "It doesn't have many forgiving holes which credits the better ball-striker."
Bill appreciated both the elevation changes and lack of houses on many holes, and he enjoyed the tree-lined narrow entrances to some fairways.
Lynne believes River Hills deserves more publicity for the quality of the layout. "I think they need to advertise more," she said. "I didn't expect this course to be this nice. It's a gem; an unexpected surprise."
Lynne thought at least a couple par-4s were long for ladies, particularly the 343-yard fifth and 338-yard ninth holes, and that added to a high level of difficulty for women. "A solid shot is needed every time, and every shot had to be managed and thought through," she said.
The pro shop had limited offerings with only Titleist and Pinnacle balls.
Patrick thought the conditions could have been better, though we played during a transition period for grasses, and he could see how the course could be penalizing for higher-handicap players. "For a woman or a poor player it's a bit unfair due to the length, out of bounds and water," he said.
Bill didn't find the course to be forgiving enough. "Some holes require extra long drives to clear water and there are plenty of sand traps to get lost in," Bill said. "It's a very precise course."
The par-3s measure between 165 and 190 from the tips. "The par-3s aren't very challenging," Patrick said. "They could probably be a bit longer."
The 187-yard third hole measures 167 from the white tee and is straightforward with a bunker front right.
The 180-yard sixth hole measures 162 from the white and has an elevated tee box lined by a stone wall and shrubbery, and features a tee shot over water that continues around the left side of the green. "No. 6 is a great par-3 because of the water short and left," Patrick said.
The 190-yard 12th measures 185 from the white and requires a tee shot over two separate water hazards that are both well short of a green protected on the left by two bunkers. The 165-yard 15th is 137 from the white, has a slightly uphill tee shot and a long and deep bunker front-left of the green. "The par-3s are all reachable and doable for ladies," Lynne said.
The par-4s measure between 368 and 448. The 371-yard first hole offers a benign start, and the 401-yard fourth hole has a tight fairway with a bunker left and trees and OB right, and a downhill approach over a stone wall-lined pond fronting the green. The 418-yard ninth is straightforward.
The 394-yard 10th is a slight dogleg right with a drive over water and bunkers pinching the fairway on both sides of the landing area. The 368-yard 16th hole is downhill from the tee to a green surrounded on all sides but the front by water that comes into play mostly on the right and behind the green.
The 429-yard 18th hole is a sharp dogleg right with a bunker on the inside of the bend that can generally be carried with a good drive. The drive is slightly uphill and the second shot is more steeply uphill. "It's not a typical finishing hole but I like it," Patrick said. "It has a challenging uphill approach."
"I think they have a great variety of par-4s," Patrick added. "They have long, short, hard and easy. A variety of water hazards and bunkers give the par-4s great character."
The par-5s measure between 526 and 572 yards from the tips, though three of the four measure less than 500 yards from the white tees.
The 531-yard second hole is the most vulnerable. It's a dogleg right around a single tree and houses with a slightly uphill approach. The 527-yard seventh has a downhill tee shot to a fairway that rises back up to the green and snakes around a water hazard on the right beginning about 170 yards from the green. A second water hazard is on the left side of the fairway.
"I think it's a good risk-reward hole," Patrick said. "If you go for it you've got the two bunkers in front of the green and the water if you really miss it, and the layup isn't all that easy for the average player with water left and right."
The 572-yard 11th is 548 from the white and runs along a water hazard down the entire left side of the hole. A trio of bunkers protect the right side of the fairway beginning 80 yards from the green. The 526-yard 17th is a dogleg left that has water to carry both off the tee and on the second shot, and a green well-protected by water to the right and a series of bunkers. A tree on the right side of the fairway can impede second shots.
"In my opinion, the par-5s are the course's best attributes," Patrick said. "There are a lot of risk-reward opportunities and the amount of water on holes makes it very scenic and difficult."
Lynne's favorite holes were the seventh, 17th and 18th holes partially because "they all have challenges around the greens with bunkers, water and elevation. Holes 7, 17 and 18 are gorgeous and challenging."
Patrick enjoyed the 429-yard, par-4 14th hole the most. It turns sharply left around a water hazard and has a narrow green that falls off back-left to a small pond. "It's definitely the hardest hole on the course, and the green is the hardest part about it," Patrick said. "It has a lot of undulations and water short and long. The hole has a great risk-reward tee shot. A 3-wood out to the right is a safe shot and driver over the water is the more aggressive play."
Bill's favorite holes were the par-3 third, par-5 seventh and 17th holes, and the par-4 13th. The 394-yard 13th measures 366 from the white and features a green situated over water to the right of the fairway. A ridge splits the lower front and higher back portions of the putting surface. "It's a great risk-reward and picturesque hole, with water in play on the back half," Bill said.
Least favorite holes
Lynne thought the par-4 fifth, a slight dogleg left with a shallow green that slopes from the middle to the back, and the straightforward par-4 ninth were "too long from my point of view," she said. "It's almost impossible to make par."
Patrick considers the 393-yard, par-4 eighth hole to be the only quirky hole on the course. It's a sharp dogleg left that doesn't require a driver for most and has two bunkers on the inside of the bend backed by a pine tree. "It's not a very well-designed hole," Patrick said. "A big tree blocks a poor shot or a short hitter."
Bill's least favorite holes were the par-5 11th and par-4 14th holes, both featuring water down the left side. "It was my first time playing the course and I found these holes difficult for first-time players," Bill said.