Future of Whispering Pines could be decided at Myrtle Beach budget retreat

Myrtle Beach City Council members said they don’t know what the future holds for Whispering Pines Golf Course and will wait to see what options city staff present at their annual budget retreat, which begins Sunday night in Pinopolis.

The golf course, owned by the city, has lost an average of $250,000 a year over the last four years, according to assistant city manager Ron Andrews. The city has struggled to determine how best to handle the 6,700-yard course, which first opened for play in 1962 and is the only city- or government-owned course among about 100 on the Grand Strand.

In January, Andrews proposed turning Whispering Pines into a shorter executive course -- which typically would consist of par-3s, short- to mid-length par-4s and no par-5s -- and setting 40 acres aside for future park or recreation needs.

At the January City Council workshop, Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means suggested closing the course all together, but council delayed any decision on Whispering Pines until after city staff had time to research the impact of several options and present their findings at the budget retreat.

“Nothing has been done since that discussion [in January],” Andrews said. “After that discussion with the council about options, it was clear there wasn’t a consensus. … This is a serious issue and it needs to be given serious time.”

Andrews said several people had been invited to speak to council members about suggestions for the course at the council’s Tuesday workshop, but were asked not to come because the agenda got loaded with several other time-consuming items, and officials didn’t think there would be time for the golf course discussion.

Among those who planned to address council was a group that included past PGA of America presidents and Strand residents Gary Schaal and Will Mann, who is now director of Coastal Carolina University’s Professional Golf Management Program. The PGA of America is the association of club professionals and instructors.

Mann said he did not want to discuss his group’s proposal until he had an opportunity to discuss it with the city.

“We hope to meet with them at the next council meeting,” he said. “I’m looking forward to sitting down with them to go over [the proposal].”

The idea of closing Whispering Pines has created a vocal reaction from some residents who don’t want to see the course go.

Retired Horry County police officer J.J. Costello said he has played the course since the 1970s and hopes City Council finds a way to keep it running.

“It’s been there a long time,” he said. “It would be sad to see it go.”

He said he doesn’t feel like enough has been done to capitalize on its location directly across from the airport’s new main entrance on Harrelson Boulevard.

“When [golfers] fly in and get their clubs they want to play right away, and they want to play the day they leave,” he said. “If they put facilities in there so they can get cleaned up and drive around the corner to the airport to head home … they should market it that way.”

Councilman Randal Wallace said he hopes the course stays the way it is, but that he thinks marketing has been an issue at Whispering Pines for years.

“There are more things we can do to make it run more efficiently,” he said. “I think the question mark that’s been surrounding it has been a huge detriment. It makes people not want to spend money on [improving] the course. … I don’t think we’ve given it a chance to take advantage of that location right across from the airport.”

Means said she heard from several residents who have very strong opinions about wanting to keep the course open after they learned of her proposal to close it.

“I’m so torn about that whole thing,” Means said. “I’m not in favor of doing an executive course. I don’t like the idea of throwing good money after bad. … I would love to make it some type of recreation area. I’m just not sure what the answer to that is.”

Councilman Wayne Gray, who supported the idea of an executive course in January, said he still doesn’t think the city should walk away from Whispering Pines.

“I don’t know that the best and wisest decision is to just shut it down,” he said. “Maybe reduce it to an executive course [and] provide some level of a golf option where it becomes revenue generating.”

The U.S. government gave the former Air Force Base golf course to the city when the base closed in 1993. The course must be used for golf or other recreation, though Andrews said the federal government “frowned upon” changing the course to a park in the past.

Gray said when the city accepted Whispering Pines, it made sense to have a government-run course in the area.

“When the air base closed, that was at a time that tee times were difficult to get and the ones they could get weren’t affordable,” he said. “All of that has changed. The number of people that play golf has been declining for 15 to 20 years now.

“If the reason you took it no longer exists, you need to look at it again,” he said. “Those that play at Whispering Pines are able to find better or equal golf courses at better or [cheaper] rates.”

Myrtle Beach resident Kirby Kelly, who said he played at Whispering Pines on Tuesday, said he doesn’t think anything needs to change at the course except the way it’s marketed.

“Ripping up 200 acres of land would be like ripping up Central Park in New York,” he said. “I just don’t get it.”

Councilman Mike Lowder said he will have a better idea of how to proceed with the course once city staff presents the options at the retreat. Andrews said he hopes the discussion at retreat will determine policy-wise what the city will do going forward.

“Once the policy decisions are made about the future, we can make recommendations about what we need to do to get there,” Andrews said. “But the policy decisions need to be made first.”