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Bear Season on the Carolina Coast

By Tom Bedell

Playing one of the most difficult golf courses in the United States, against one of the game's most formidable competitors, was all Jack Nicklaus had to negotiate in 1962 when he won his first professional tour event. It also happened to be the U.S. Open. The course was Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, where the 2016 U.S. Open will be played, and his opponent in an 18-hole playoff was none other than Arnold Palmer.

Every golfer knows the journey that began with that first win for Nicklaus. He went on to win four U.S. Opens in all, tying the record for most victories with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. It's nice that both Palmer and Nicklaus were named honorable chairman for this year's return to Oakmont, a course that is routinely rated one of the country's most challenging. It's also fitting to ponder one's own Nicklaus Challenge, a feat easily accomplished at two courses in the Myrtle Beach area that are testament to the Golden Bear's equally outsized design talents.

Both Nicklaus signature courses in the area may be tough nuts to crack, but both are exhilarating experiences in areas of great natural beauty: Long Bay Golf Club in Longs, and Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club in Pawleys Island, which bookend the 60-mile stretch of South Carolina’s Grand Strand.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that Nicklaus, as his regular Tour playing career was winding down and his designing career revving up, became known early on for creating tough courses that demand some real skill from players. And lacking that, at least some common sense about the right tees to pick.

There are five sets of tees at the Long Bay Golf Club, ranging from 4,994 to 7,021 yards. Mortal men tend to play from the 6,593 blue tees at a 134 slope, or the 6,209 white tees, still a 131 slope, so it's clear that an A game is a good thing to bring along.

Jason Mitchell, the general manager and head pro at Long Bay, said, “In simple terms, it's a challenging course. It's a relatively early Nicklaus course (it opened in 1989), and I wonder if it would be as challenging if he had it to do over again today. But some people like that challenge.”

Mitchell is one of them. From Ohio like Nicklaus, he's a huge fan of Jack's courses. “Long Bay is characterized by lots of fairway mounding, huge waste bunkers (that you can drive your cart through and ground your club in), and medium-sized greens. The greens are always in great condition, at a good resort speed, but they're pretty undulating. The fairways are fairly generous so, yes, this is a strong second-shot course.”

The postcard hole is number 10, a relatively short par-4 that plays up a narrow fairway completely surrounded by a vast, drumstick-shaped waste bunker. The second shot has to fly to a green abruptly elevated above the waste bunker. “And it's one of the smaller greens on the course. It's a memorable hole, and all about accuracy,” said Mitchell.

But his favorite is 13, an island green, short and scary, “but just a gorgeous par-3.”

Asked to compare Long Bay with the course at Pawleys Plantation, Mitchell hinted, “That's a great question, but I'd need to play that one a couple more times to really say. They're both equally demanding, but I would say Pawleys is a little tighter off the tee.”

The head professional at Pawleys Plantation, Ryan Mooney, hasn't had the pleasure of playing at Long Bay yet, but he said, “We're pretty much the southernmost golf course on the Grand Strand, one of three that actually head out into the ocean a bit; our signature 13 and 16 share a green that goes out into the marsh here, where wind can really be a factor.”

Unless you snag a calmer early morning or late afternoon tee time, the wind may have you dialing up or down by two or three clubs on the inbound nine, which is more exposed than the front.

“Right, the front is quite wooded,” said Mooney, and the trees are part of the Nicklaus strategy. “If we ever wanted to remove a tree we're obligated to contact his design team. They need to come here and give permission. There are quite a few holes, like nine, where there's a tree right in the middle of the fairway. You either have to hit short of it, to the side or, if a longer hitter, to try and just go up and over it.

“There's one on 14 we call Jack's Tree right in the middle of the fairway in front of his old house here. He does still have one—right at the 200-yard marker on hole 14. And we're hoping he'll come down for our 30th anniversary in two years.”

Still, the front nine is the Bear in relative hibernation. The claws come out on the back, which heads out onto a causeway with breathtaking views and those troublesome winds. Beauty and the beast, to be sure, and a good test case for the Tee It Forward program.

Indeed, there are signs by the Golden Bear tees (7,026 yards, 148 slope) that suggest they can be played with “Permission Only.” Mooney said, “We don't want you to kill yourself out there. Heck, even Jack Nicklaus himself shot a 72 when he played them years ago.”

Most players scale down to the White Egret tee (72.0/139 slope), or Yellow Finch (69.2/132), which is still plenty of golf.

“I'd certainly put it in the top five in difficulty in Myrtle Beach,” said Mooney. “But while it's a demanding course, it's a lot of fun to play. It makes you think, makes you use a lot of clubs. It's not just a grip it and rip it course. There's lots of strategy involved.”

The best strategy, for either course, would be to secure a tee time as soon as possible, and have a go at the Nicklaus Challenge.

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