When I joined The Sun News in 1988 there were, at our best count, 56 golf courses, with several more already in the works.
By the mid-2000s, that number rose to more than 120, stretching from Wedgefield Plantation in Georgetown to St. James Plantation in Southport, N.C.
The number followed a boon in golf, caused partly by a strong economy and easy real estate loans and partly, in the eyes of many, by a new popularity of the sport triggered by Tiger Woods.
Myrtle Beach had indeed become “the mecca of golf,” the term used by Woods when he came to christen the new All Star Café in 1997.
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Those numbers, unfortunately, soon began falling almost as fast as they rose.
I don’t really remember the first to go. Was it Gator Hole in North Myrtle Beach? Or Marsh Harbor and its sister Ocean Harbor in Sunset Beach? Maybe Raccoon Run in Socastee?
I can’t speak for others, but for me the closing of a golf course is not unlike losing a friend. Each one holds good memories - the hole-in-one at Belle Terre, the Ryder Cup match against a Scottish team at Heather Glen.
I sat down the other day and came up with 30 closures off the top of my head; I’m sure there were more that I can’t recall.
The loss of golf courses over the past decade or more is not just a Grand Strand problem. The National Golf Foundation says that nationally there has been a 7 percent drop in golf courses in the last 10 years.
Experts blame the recession, the decline in disposable income and the bursting of “the Tiger bubble” - a reference to Woods’ personal and medical problems.
Both the economy and Woods have recovered, but rounds of golf played have remained sluggish, according to the foundation. Importantly, millennials are not taking up the sport in the same numbers as previous generations.
Some golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area failed for more specific reasons: poor maintenance or staffing problems, a general inability to compete against newer designer courses and a failure to keep up with technical advances in booking tee-times and vacations.
Golf course owners in coastal Myrtle Beach could also point to the economic lure of some golf course properties versus the declining rounds of golf played.
I think of the rich commercial mecca that has taken over the Gator Hole-Robbers Roost courses. I think of the hundreds of new homes that replaced the fairways at Belle Terre. And the home sites that will eventually cover Bay Tree Plantation’s three courses.
Bill Golden, CEO of Golf Tourism Solutions in Myrtle Beach, recently told Charleston’s Post & Courier that he saw better times ahead. He acknowledged that the 3.2 million rounds played last year on the Grand Strand was a “few hundred rounds” fewer than the pre-recession highs.
But he noted that spring air traffic to Myrtle Beach was up 20 percent and that the Grand Strand’s reputation as a buddy-trip destination was intact.
“We are bullish on golf in this area,” he said. “We know we have the tools and expertise to attract current travelers, potential new travelers, folks who haven’t been here in five or 10 years.”
I hope you’re right, Bill. I don’t want to lose any more old friends.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.