A major player in the growth of the Myrtle Beach area golf and hotel industries has died.
Les Morris, who developed Pawleys Plantation and built Sands Resorts into one of the Grand Strand’s leading providers of golf packages and vacations with longtime business partner Tom Baugh, died on Thursday at the age of 73 in Jupiter, Fla.
Morris was an owner of numerous Strand businesses and attractions. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who designed Pawleys Plantation and later became friends with Morris, called him a “a great man” on Monday.
Morris was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., grew up in Gastonia, N.C., graduated from Wake Forest University and received his Masters in Business Administration from The College of William and Mary.
He and Baugh, who died in 2012, moved from Gastonia to Myrtle Beach and founded Sands Investments in 1973.
They built several condominium buildings called A Place at the Beach off Shore Drive in Myrtle Beach, then grew the condotel and resort business Sands Resorts to include six properties with approximately 2,000 combined rooms.
The properties were Ocean Dunes, Sand Dunes. Sands Ocean Club, Sands Beach Club, Ocean Forest Villas and Ocean Forest Plaza, and all were heavily involved in the golf package business.
According to Sands Investment records and Lee Rawcliffe, a longtime Myrtle Beach area businessman and current owner of Sands Beach Club and Sands Ocean Club, Morris and Baugh built the first phase of Sand Dunes in 1979. They then purchased a Howard Johnson’s on Shore Drive, changed its name to Sands Ocean Club and expanded it from 250 to 500 rooms by 1985, eventually adding another 100 rooms for 600.
They developed sister property Sands Beach Club in the early and mid-1980s, purchased Ocean Dunes and expanded Sand Dunes on 74th-75th Avenues North in Myrtle Beach with additional towers and amenities. They operated Sands Resorts through 1998.
“They were very large players in the golf market because Sands was the pioneer in the golf package business in the late 1980s, early 1990s,” Rawcliffe said. “They did a lot of innovative things. In the ’80s and ’90s they had a pretty good-sized footprint here.”
Their other Strand business ventures included multiple golf course investments, the construction of hundreds of additional villas and condos, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and go-kart and water park attractions.
Sands Resorts also had a property in Wilmington, N.C. and properties in Hilton Head Island, and Morris and Baugh also had developments or projects in the Virgin Islands and Bahamas.
Both were also involved in several civic and community organizations, including the Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday marketing cooperative.
“They did a lot together and obviously formed a great partnership that was very successful for many years,” said Dick Baugh, Tom’s brother and the Group Golf Sales Director for Sands Ocean Club and Sands Beach Club who has worked at Sands Resorts properties since 1992.
“Passion for the game”
Morris had a passion for golf, and in the mid-1980s he hired Nicklaus to design Pawleys Plantation, which is regarded as one of the golf market’s better courses, having been rated among the top 25 courses in South Carolina by Golf Magazine, Golf World and the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel.
Nicklaus told The Sun News on Monday that he first met Morris in the mid-1980s and they became friends through the process of building Pawleys Plantation, which opened in 1988.
Morris moved to Florida in 2007 and joined The Bear’s Club, the Nicklaus family’s home club in Jupiter. Nicklaus said he and his wife, Barbara, became much better friends with Morris and his wife, Wendy, and would see them often before Morris became ill in recent years.
“Les was a good man, a great man,” said Nicklaus, who owned a home off Pawleys Plantation’s 14th fairway for a time following the course’s opening and returned to Pawleys Island in October to help celebrate the club’s 30th anniversary. “He had a love and passion for the game of golf, whether it was playing it or creating places for others to play. Personally, I loved having him as a member of our club.
“And I should say that I loved that he gave me the opportunity to design a golf course for him, because in the end and most important, that gave me the opportunity to meet and get to know a truly good person.”
Morris sold Pawleys Plantation, which included more than 100 villas and dining and convention facilities including three restaurants and more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space highlighted by the Plantation Ballroom.
Morris was remembered for his generosity, kindness and optimism.
He had a home in Cape Eleuthera, The Bahamas and helped create The Island School in 1999, a student leadership institution that supports hands-on student work outside traditional classrooms while focusing on conservation, sustainability and supporting underserved communities. He was the school’s founding chairman of the board.
Morris also supported Wake Forest University and its student-athletes through the Leslie M. Morris Athletic Endowed Scholarship.
Among those Morris is survived by are his wife and three sons, including Christopher Morris and his wife Grayson Morris of Myrtle Beach, who currently reside in The Bahamas.
Morris’ services will be held in Florida, with visitation Friday and a celebration of life gathering Saturday. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions in his name to The Island School.