Editorial | Golfers get their wish for Myrtle Beach’s Whispering Pines, at least for now

Whispering Pines, the Myrtle Beach area’s only municipal golf course, will have a new management arrangement that continues operation of the 18-hole layout with a great heritage of more than half a century.

The 6,730-yard course opened in 1962 on the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. After the base closed in 1993, the property, including the golf course, was transferred to the city of Myrtle Beach. That’s how the city came to be in the golf course business.

The land must continue to be used for park and recreation purposes. In the 1990s, area golf was in the best of times and nearly 50,000 rounds were played at Whispering Pines. The past three years, with rounds of golf in a general decline, the course has had an average of 36,500 rounds with green fees priced below the area average.

Whispering Pines has been struggling financially, with losses of $160,677 in fiscal year 2012-13 and $123,801 in 2011-12. Those performances at least were better than the $363,192 operating loss in 2010-11.

The losses are largely because of an annual fee, averaging $152,000 the past three fiscal years, charged by the city finance department to cover services such as human resources and payroll. Other major expenses are wages and benefits for 10 full-time employees – a challenge for a municipal course in a private market employing many part-time workers.

In many other places, municipal (or other governmental entity) courses are the norm for golf courses other than those at private country clubs.

As assistant city manager Ron Andrews said several months ago when the city looked at converting Whispering Pines to other recreational, “right now, golf is just a tough business to be in.’’

After much discussion, the city will have a concession agreement with Chip Smith, owner of Atlantic Golf Management of Murrells Inlet, and TPC Myrtle Beach. The concession agreement will be submitted for approval to the National Park Service because the property was part of a U.S. military base.

The City Council selected Smith’s firm despite city manager Tom Leath’s recommendation to negotiate with Robertson Golf. Leath said: “I believe that allows you maximum flexibility. At some point you can go in another direction, either making it an executive course or a nine-hole course, freeing up land for other recreational purposes.’’

Leath was looking ahead, as he should, to a time when the city may need space for special events held on the now-vacant sites of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Myrtle Square Mall.

Robertson Golf was the only firm expressing a willingness to manage Whispering Pines in a form other than 18 holes.

Mayor John Rhodes says changing the course could not happen in the near future and he has no concern about Smith’s hesitancy on managing a different type of layout.

Whispering Pines surely deserves to be operated under a concession agreement for a period of time to see if a better bottom line can be achieved. Atlantic has already said it plans to hire area college students for the course.

We join the many area golfers who welcome the City Council’s willingness to try different management.

That said, fans of Whispering Pines should realize that management is hardly the sole factor in achieving a better financial outcome. Ultimately, more rounds of golf is the medicine needed to cure Whispering Pines of its economic troubles.