Craig Aiken’s wife doesn’t bother asking him what he wants for Christmas any more.
It was the same thing so often, it became annoyingly repetitious. “I said, ‘A week in Myrtle Beach’ every year. She doesn’t ask anymore. She knows,” Aiken said.
Once Aiken became part of a foursome from the Philadelphia suburbs that makes an annual pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for a fall golf vacation, he wasn’t going to miss a year. The others haven’t for 45 years.
Ron Bingeman, Everett Cassel and Larry Spangler have been making the trip since 1970. Aiken has been coming for the past 25 years, and replaced Bob Hayes, who had to end his journeys after 20 years because of health issues and has since died.
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“The key to the trip is No. 1 having understanding wives,” Bingeman said. “No. 2 is having loyal friends, and No. 3 is having understanding wives.”
Everyone in the foursome is married, though wives have never come on the fall trip. “As we’ve gotten older I think they’re happy to get rid of us for a week,” Spangler said.
Cassel, Bingeman and Spangler are in their 70s, while Aiken is 58. Cassel and Bingeman worked together for 20 years at Sunoco, Spangler is the cousin of Ron’s wife and has worked in marketing for Thomasville Furniture and Armstrong flooring and ceilings, and Aiken and Bingeman were coworkers for 30 years at Imperial Chemical Industries.
Limiting the group to a foursome has made it possible to continue the streak so long. “That’s how we got to 45, by keeping it simple,” Bingeman said. “It’s easy to organize.”
The group planned to play 45 different holes Monday at Barefoot Resort to commemorate 45 years, and the three founding members are scheduled to play their 10,000th Grand Strand hole on Tuesday at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club.
They will complete 388 days of golf packages by the end of the week. Their trips are usually at least a full week, and they played 36 holes on many of their days.
The stay was only four days in the first year. “We came for four days just to see what it was like then we were mad going home that we hadn’t gone for the week,” Cassel said. “We planned on [coming back every year] as soon as we saw it. The price was great, the people were so friendly, and you had your choice of restaurants.”
Bingeman first considered visiting the Strand after co-workers at Sunoco had vacationed in the area in the late 1960s on a company-organized trip. The beach's affordability ultimately attracted his friends.
The first year the trip was $25 per day per person including lodging at The Caravelle hotel, breakfast, dinner and green fees each day. “It was a nice hotel. Even back then it was a nutty price,” Bingeman said. Carts were $6 extra, though the group often walked in the early days. “We were cheap,” Spangler said.
The trips have been eventful.
The group has kept every scorecard. There were barely 10 Strand courses at the time of the inaugural visit, and each new course has provided incentive to return. “Fortunately there’s more than 100 courses here,” Spangler said.
Amazingly, the group has lost only three days of golf to rain in the 45 years “and we don’t play if it’s raining,” Cassel said. They don’t even bother packing rain suits.
Despite coming between September and November each year, they have managed to avoid hurricanes for the most part, though they were forced to push their vacation back a week in 1989 and came in the immediate aftermath of devastating Hurricane Hugo. They were scheduled to stay at the Caravelle Resort but the hotel was hit by a storm surge and was closed.
Bingeman began calling accommodations providers farther north until he found a condo at Oyster Bay Golf Links. “We realized then we had a streak and we wanted to keep the thing alive,” Bingeman said. “We had the place to ourselves. We owned the town.”
Spangler suggested they go somewhere else that year, like St. Andrews. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Bingeman said. “After 30 years he wants to do something different.”
They drove the 550 miles to Myrtle Beach for the first 30 years – they’d usually play a round on the way down and on the way back to Philly – and have flown and rented a car locally for the past 15.
“The real joy in the early years was riding in a Volkswagon mini-bus for 12 hours coming down here with hoagies and six packs in the back,” Cassel said.
One year in the early 1970s, Ron was driving Cassel’s Volkswagon to Myrtle Beach and it broke down at about 9 p.m. The cable from the back engine to the accelerator peddle broke, forcing the group to get creative.
They used a pair of pliers and a knife to peel the steel from the rubber on shards of truck tire tread on the side of the road, and used the steel belts to make a makeshift cable that they connected. “I made a figure-eight out of each end and it worked,” Cassel explained, “but there was so much slack we couldn’t get more than 50 mph out of it the rest of the trip. We drove all the way to Myrtle, spent the week there and drove all the way home with that linkage like that.”
“Can you think of any other scenario where you make use of a truck tire shred that’s lying on the side of the road,” Bingeman added. “I mean, ‘What good are they?’ It served us well.”
They also blew a head gasket on Cassel’s Dodge Caravan one year in the 1980s. They managed to get the vehicle to a mechanic at a gas station, but he wasn’t going to be able to fix it for several days and they were due to leave. So they bought a five-gallon jug of water and stopped three or four times on the way back to Philly to refill the radiator with water and keep the car cool enough to drive.
The daily ritual for several years included closing the bar down at the Holiday Inn in North Myrtle Beach, sleeping about four hours and playing 36 holes the ensuing day. They were headed back to Philly after one of those typical days when Bingeman, in the front passenger seat, glanced to his left to see the vehicle speedometer at 35 mph on I-95 and Cassel asleep at the wheel.
“I grabbed the wheel and said, ‘Hey Everett, how about we get a room?’ ”
“We lived to tell about it,” Cassel said.
The highest score on a hole in the 45 years? It has to be the 24 made on the 13th hole at The Dunes Club by Tom Perbula, who was filling in for Hayes one year. The long par-5 known as “Waterloo” curls right around Lake Singleton.
“He was determined he was going to cut that corner and he couldn’t do it,” Cassel recalled. “After he hit two balls in the water he said, ‘I know the problem, I’m not using new balls,’ so he got a brand new sleeve of balls out and put all three of those in the water.”
Perbula had a 6-foot putt to make a 23 and his playing partners steadfastly failed to concede it. “It has to be an honest 24, you know,” Bingeman joked.
The group has made friends with people throughout the area golf industry, and annually meets with longtime area pro Gene Weldon for dinners. Weldon also visits with them in Pennsylvania. They first met while waiting out a frost delay when Weldon was the pro at Waterway Hills Golf Links. “A golf trip is a golf trip, but having him here as a friend over the years has taken it to a new level,” Bingeman said.
The group has had its fun, “but we’ve never been arrested,” Spangler boasted. “You don’t have a care in the world – play golf, eat, drink and be merry and turn off the world for a week, and this is a nice place to do it.”