Thistle Golf Club is a departure from the number of courses on the Grand Strand that hope to speed players through their layouts during peak seasons.
The pace never changes at Tim Cate’s 27-hole design that opened in 1999 and 2000.
Things are done in moderation at the semi-private and gated course to enhance a country club experience, from 12-minute tee times compared to a frequency of 8 minutes at many courses, to having only 145 home sites around the 27 holes and homes that are upscale and mostly well off fairways.
Quality is a point of emphasis for the layout and its condition, the amenities of a grand clubhouse with a stone and rock façade, and the level of customer service.
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“I’m quite impressed by the way they handle people coming into the course and the service,” said Ron Armour, a Canadian snowbird from Carleton Place, Ontario, who spends winters in North Myrtle Beach and took part in a review of the course in late February. “They explained everything to you and had good personalities. Everybody there seems to be programmed.”
Joining me and Ron, a retired real estate salesman with a 20 handicap, in the review foursome were Ron’s wife, Sue, a retired real estate broker with a 25 handicap, and Cole Shapiro of Myrtle Beach, a salesman with a 3 handicap.
Thistle’s clubhouse has both expansive public and member areas. Members enjoy lavish amenities, and the public gets a sampling including televisions over the urinals in the men’s bathroom.
“The clubhouse is gorgeous,” Sue said. “It is very deluxe compared to other courses and the washrooms are immaculate. The furniture and everything looks so nice. I was quite impressed with the entire course.”
Thistle – which borrows its name from a thorny plant with a purplish plume as well as a Scottish golf society – combines traditional U.S. and links style designs. It has rolling terrain and a variety of wild grasses including cord, zebra, love and muhly that suffuse the landscape, some growing into the edges of bunkers to accentuate the links style.
“It’s a beautiful golf course,” Ron said. “I would say it’s difficult but fair. It’s a very good course with a very good layout. Course management is required on most holes.”
Our foursome played the Cameron and Stewart nines, measuring 6,801 from the tips and playing to a par of 71. The course also has the par-36 Mackay nine, which is the longest nine at 3,547 yards.
The Stewart nine is a par-35 with three par-3s. “They were difficult par-3s so it didn’t make the nine any easier,” Sue said. “I thought the par-3s were tricky, where you had to land the ball.”
The course is generally not tree-lined, but bunkers, hazards, mounding, native grasses and the occasional trees force players to move the ball on many holes and select particular landing areas. “It’s a course that forces you to shape your shots around the hazards and think out your shots, especially with some of the tough pins,” Cole said. “The course can be visually intimidating. It makes you think about your shot and makes you play smart.”
Greens are fairly large and have pin sheets with six locations. The course is one of about a dozen on the Strand that still has bentgrass, and it’s L93 variety was in good shape, though it had been recently aerated when we played. “I was impressed with the greens,” Ron said. “It’s nice to have [non-dormant] grass this time of year.”
Though the white tee is the third tee from the back and measures only 5,843 yards, there are three par-4s longer than 370 yards and three par-5s are at least 475 yards. “As a senior I should have played the gold because I found the white to be a little long,” Ron said. “I would suggest seniors play the gold.”
The group enjoyed wildlife that included blue herons and alligators. “The course is beautiful, there is lots of wildlife and it’s very quiet,” Sue said.
Ron thought the course had quality cart paths and sand in bunkers.
Sue believes the course is very playable from the red tees. “They gave you a good break on the red tee,” she said. “On some courses the red and gold are on the same tee box. If I could have hit second shots well I could have been on the greens in regulation.”
Course operators chose not to overseed any of the Bermuda on the course, including fairways, tee boxes and rough, and Ron would have preferred some greener grass. Though the Bermuda will green up quickly in the spring without the overseed to compete against.
“A course of this significance, I would think they should overseed the fairways,” said Ron, who also identified parts of cart bridges where wood could be replaced.
The course did not have up-to-date yardage books.
The five par-3s in our 18 holes were lengthy from the tips, measuring between 183 and 211 yards. “The par-3s were insanely difficult from the back tees,” Cole said.
On the Cameron, the 183-yard fourth hole measures 156 from the blue tees and has an island green that is large and rolling with several difficult pin positions and bunkers front left and front right. The 206-yard eighth is 190 from the blue and can be really tough with a pin tucked behind a long front-right bunker and water on the right and behind a fairly flat green. A wide bunker is back left.
“The par-3s are very demanding with lots of water and sand traps,” Sue said.
On the Stewart, the 193-yard third is 178 from the blue and has a deep green that is surrounded by water on all but its left side, where bunkers are front left and back left. The green slopes mildly to the water.
The 200-yard fifth is 186 from the blue and has a slightly uphill tee shot to a green that turns around a deep front bunker. The 211-yard ninth is 193 from the blue and has an elevated green that is very elevated above water to its front and right with a stone wall bulkhead. A very undulating green falls off back left and front left.
“This is a beautiful hole,” Ron said. “I really like the stone work and the water.”
While three par-4s on our 18 are 380 yards or less, four are 420 or more.
On the Cameron, the 414-yard second hole is a sharp dogleg right around water. The tee shot has to avoid water right and housing and OB left behind pampas grass, and the approach shot is over bulkheaded water to a green with bunkers back and a mild ridge separating higher right and lower left sides.
The 433-yard third hole has water left and right off the tee that can be avoided entirely with a big drive, and the 421-yard sixth has bunkering on both sides of the fairway off the tee, a green angling to the left between wide bunkers and water to the right of the green. Water horseshoes around the fairway of the 380-yard seventh, leaving a shot over water to the green.
On the Stewart, the fairway on the 378-yard first hole slithers to the right through bunkers to a green that slopes to the right and left from a middle ridge. The 404-yard second hole is a dogleg right with a near-island green that can’t be seen from the tee because of a slightly uphill drive. The green slopes to the left from a middle ridge and is well-protected by bunkers.
“The par-4s are fairly straightforward and as a whole they are not too difficult from the red tee,” Sue said.
A tough finish to the Stewart nine includes the 434-yard seventh with a waste bunker that is carried off the tee then runs the remainder of the hole on the right side and pinches the fairway near the green. The 443-yard eighth requires a carry over water of 215 yards off the tee from the tips and 180 from the blue. A bunker is in the left landing area, water comes into play on the right on the second shot, and a wide bunker fronts a green that slopes to the front and right.
The four par-5s had solid lengths of between 518 and 545 yards, and three were 500 or more from the blue tees.
On the Cameron, the 518-yard fifth hole is reachable in two with a good drive that splits bunkers and trees on the right and marsh on the left that veers into the fairway 200 yards from a green that is higher behind a front-middle ridge and is protected by a large bunker on the left.
The 525-yard ninth has water down the entire right side, mounding down the left side along a cart path and tree line, and green that slopes mildly front and left and turns slightly around a right-front bunker with water alongside.
On the Stewart, the 543-yard fourth has a classic risk-reward option off the tee. It turns sharply to the right around a lake, and a drive over the water to the right that avoids a bunker on the water’s banks can set up a mid- to long-iron to the green but requires a carry of at least 245 yards from the back tees, 215 from the blue and 185 from the white. A drive to the right creates a three-shot hole. A long bunker runs along the water’s banks through the right side of an elevated green that slopes slightly toward the water.
The 545-yard sixth has a drive over a waste bunker, turns left around bunkers on the second shot and has a green angled to the left that slopes to the right from a middle ridge. “The par-5s are long, fair and interesting holes,” Ron said.
Both Sue and Ron enjoyed the par-3 ninth hole on the Stewart nine, which measured 177 from the white tee, 163 from the gold and 110 from the red. “It was very pretty with the green elevated above all the water around it,” said Sue, who also liked all of the par-5s.
“I really liked the stone work on the wall, plus the elevation,” Ron said.
One of Cole’s favorite holes was the 543-yard risk-reward par-5 fourth on the Stewart nine. “That’s a cool hole,” Cole said.
Least favorite holes
Sue’s least favorite holes were the par-4 seventh and eighth holes on the Stewart nine, which measured 877 yards combined from the back tees and were 335 and 270 yards from the red. “They’re extremely long for par-4s, and I didn’t like having a waste bunker down the entire right side [on the seventh],” Sue said.
Ron’s least favorite hole was the 370-yard Cameron first hole, which measures 326 from the white tee and curls slightly left along water and a pair of long bunkers along the water’s edge. A mild ridge splits the left and right sides of the green and there is little room between the water and left side of the green. Ron believes it’s a difficult starting hole.
Cole was wary of wild grass on the drive of the Cameron first hole. “You’d better get the ball up quick on the left side of the tee box with the brush in front of the tee box on that side,” Cole said.