NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC - If you believe what you read lately, a dark cloud is hovering over Myrtle Beach golf. The ensuing storm is hitting local courses with decreasing rounds, substantial losses in revenue, and even forcing the sale of some properties.
According to a report prepared for Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, 1.61 million rounds of golf were played on Grand Strand courses this year through April - a 1.3 percent decline from last year and a 2.3 percent decrease from 1999.
Sammy Puglia will have nothing to do with this portrait of gloom and doom. When the developer of the eminently popular Barefoot Landing shops in North Myrtle Beach envisioned four golf courses designed by two of the game's foremost designers, and two of its most popular players, he wasn't thinking about the short term business cycles.
Puglia wanted to forever change the face of Myrtle Beach golf from that of a middle-of-the-road, working man's golf destination to a mecca of high end, resort style golf fit for the most discriminating golf traveler.
Some might say that Puglia's mission has been accomplished.
Nearly a year and a half after its opening, Barefoot Resort is well on its way to becoming one of the east coast's premier golfing destinations. Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, Davis Love III and Greg Norman are the names you'll find on the resorts four stellar courses.
Not too shabby.
"No one has taken four designers like this and opened the courses simultaneously," says Tom Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Landmark Golf East, which manages the resort. "Usually one course opens after another, and this is almost a miracle that these courses are all successful."
According to Sullivan, golf rounds are holding steady at the Fazio, Norman and Love tracks - the Resort's three daily fee courses. And the Dye course, which will eventually go private, is procuring its fair share of members and select outside play. In their first year of operation, each course averaged between 30,000 and 35,000 rounds - the standard benchmark for high-end resort courses, according to Sullivan.
So are tales of Myrtle Beach's demise greatly exaggerated? Sullivan believes that the reduction in rounds played in the Grand Strand is a perfectly natural market response to a temporary over supply of golf courses.
"Everybody in the Strand is saying rounds are down, but there are several golf courses that have opened over the past few years," he says. "So everyone wants to go out and try those new courses. But we feel like we are still bringing in the same dollars."
Sullivan says that for the first time since its opening, Barefoot Resort's four award-winning courses are all peaking at the same time. With play spread out evenly among the four tracks, the A-1 bentgrass greens and GN-1 Bermuda fairways are flawless, and the thought-provoking layouts have made Barefoot the talk of the town.
"We had a little bad exposure because they were doing so much construction on the condos on the Norman course," Sullivan says. "Now it's in great shape and people love it. There is not one favorite course out here anymore. They (players) want to play them all."
Barefoot's resort courses have almost systematically prevailed themselves upon Strand golfers.
First it was the Love III Course. Voted the "6th Best New Course in the United States" by Golf Digest in 2000, "DLIII" shocked the golfing world by upstaging the venerable Fazio and Dye. In all fairness to the other great designers, the Love Course was the beneficiary of a great piece of property that winds its way through the ruins of an old plantation.
"Davis has done several courses, and he admits that this is the best one," Sullivan says. "He and his brother Mark spent a lot of time out there. The ruins of the old plantation set the mood and really add to the overall experience on the course."
Sullivan says that the Love Course will stand out to players for a couple of reasons.
"Davis has made his greens and tees a little different than the rest," he says. "Elevated greens, tree-lined fairways and challenging par fours are his trademark. That is just Davis."
The Love Course plays to over 7000 yards from the back tees, and "DL3's" North Carolina roots are unmistakable. Love was born in Charlotte, and his admiration and fascination with the neighboring Pinehurst Resort is woven throughout the course.
The green complexes are reminiscent of Donald Ross' famed No. 2 course, which hosted the U.S. Open in 1999. And if you love driving the golf ball, the Love Course's long straightaways and generous landing areas will rarely take the one wood out of your hand.
Whereas Love is just carving out his niche in the golf design world, Tom Fazio has long been regarded as one of the most influential course architects of the modern era. Fazio's Course at Barefoot Resort incorporates all the elements that golfers have come to expect: Sweeping fairways, white, sunsplashed bunkers, and traditional green complexes.
"You can tell as soon as you look at it that it is Fazio," Sullivan says. "It just has that feel to it, and that is what players have come to expect from Tom."
At just over 6800 yards, the Fazio course is slightly shorter than the Love Course, but with a par of 71 and Fazio's signature bunkering, players will find it to be just as challenging as its siblings.
So much of Fazio's reputation has been built upon what he does with the piece of land that he is given. But sometimes, it's what he doesn't do that truly makes his golf courses unique.
He completely redesigned the 458-yard par 4 second hole to protect the native Live Oaks, making it one of the better two-shotters on the golf course.
The 379-yard par 4 13th offers a rare glimpse into the nontraditional world of Fazio. The hole features one green to the left of the fairway, located on the far side of a small pond, and another at the end of the fairway. To keep every score conscious player from opting for the unprotected green to the right, Fazio's severe sloping allows only the most well placed approach shots to hold on for a shot at a birdie putt.
With most of its construction related issues behind it, the Norman Course is the latest Barefoot layout to gain increased popularity with players and critics.
Tales of the Norman Course taking a backseat to the Love and Fazio Courses may have been a bit premature.
Norman has been trying his hand in course design since the late 1980's, with a number of his layouts garnering critical acclaim from national and international media outlets. Sullivan says that the Norman Course at Barefoot represents two extremes that are paramount to Norman's design philosophy: Aesthetic beauty and harsh reality."
"Augusta meets the Outback with no in between," says Sullivan of the Norman Course. "He chose Augusta because of the quality and playability, but if you miss the fairway you are in trouble. The course is not inspired by the holes at Augusta, just the quality of the course."
Despite fairways that feature all the elevation change of an airport runway, Norman's use of severely penal punishment for wayward drives ranks this track as the most difficult among the three resort courses.
"The pros that play out there say that the Norman Course is the most challenging," Sullivan says. "The contrast between where you are supposed to hit the ball and where you are not is striking."
And far be it from the Shark to settle for an inferior chunk of land. Seven holes run along the Intracoastal Waterway, adding a maritime element to the acres of bunkered waste areas.
Norman claims Augusta as the model for his Barefoot Resort creation, but the old courses of the British Isles seem to serve as his true inspiration. The majority of holes allow players to bump-and-run the ball onto greens, and the course's seemingly infinite number of bunkers sport sloping grass and sand faces, a la Allister MacKenzie.
Back in the late 1980's, Norman was known as one of the best drivers of the golf ball on the PGA Tour. Norman was long before being long was cool, and if the 571-yard par 5 fifth hole is any indication, Norman still appreciates a well-struck, 300-yard poke.
It may defy logic, but financially gifted golfers around the country seem to have no problem throwing down a few stacks of high society to join a private Pete Dye Course that will beat the pants off of them day after day.
The Dye Course at Barefoot is no exception, and it is easily the most gut wrenching of the four layouts. First there is length, and it's not a misprint: 7343 from the back tees. Then there is Dye - the jaw- dropping mounding, the bulkheads, centipede grass and even waste bunkers can be found throughout the course.
The first four holes, three medium length par 4's and a manageable par 3, are billed as "warm up" holes, and with good reason. The 564-yard par 5 fifth hole is unreachable for anyone who doesn't have his name embroidered on his bag.
"The Dye Course takes every club in your bag, and every thought process you can come up with," Sullivan says."
Even with four prominent golf course architects on the bill, Sullivan says it was a no-brainer when it came time to decide who would craft the Resort's private facility.
"The Dye Course Real Estate came into play by having lots for sale with high end homes," Sullivan says. "The nature of his golf courses is that they turn into private golf courses. We have done 17 or 18 courses with Pete and they always sell the best. His touch out there, people like the look and how popular the name is."
If you are looking to cut your teeth against the Dye Course before it turns private, now is the time. Tee times are available to the general public this summer, but the course will ultimately be available to members and guests of the exclusive lodge that is slated to open this winter along with the clubhouse.
When you dub yourself "The Golf Capital of the World" and lose two professional golfing events in one year - the Senior Tour Championship and the LPGA's City of Hope Classic - your collective ego can take a serious pounding. Sullivan believes that Barefoot Resort may actually be able to re-establish Myrtle Beach as a viable tournament venue.
"We have the talent and facilities to bring a tournament back here," Sullivan says. "I can say that Landmark has never lost one. We have contracted for multiple years and we have always been successful. We would like to have the opportunity to show that any tour event can be held here in Myrtle Beach."
Sullivan knows what it takes to bring in and maintain a professional golf tournament. He served as general manager at PGA West for eight years, and enjoyed successful stints at La Quinta Hotel Golf and Tennis Resort and Mission Hills Rancho Mirage.
Barefoot has already dabbled in hosting a professional event, just over a year after its opening. The three resort courses hosted a string of Canadian Tour events last February and March that were televised on the Golf Channel.
The Resort Clubhouse for the Love, Norman and Fazio courses is scheduled to open the first part of August, and a state-of-the-art practice facility that should rival that of the Legends is slated to open before the end of the year.
August 6, 2001