Story by Ian Guerin
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. | Chris King looks back on the earliest days of Myrtle Beach golf and needed no prodding to pinpoint an architect who played a vital role in the would-be popularity explosion. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s when we started to get a little bit of traction, the reality is that it was Gene Hamm’s work that people were coming down to play,” said King, a longtime contributor for Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. “Azalea, Beachwood, Eagle Nest - those courses brought people down here year after year after year.”
Before the package deals sprawled up the East Coast and golfers from around the globe were exposed to advertising campaigns to visit Myrtle Beach, reputation and word of mouth was what was doing the trick. And considering a third of first 15 local designs belonged to Hamm, well, it doesn’t take much to believe what King was saying.
Starting in 1966 with Sea Gull Golf Club (re-designed and re-named in the mid-2000s), Quail Creek (later changed to the Hackler Golf Course) the year after that, Beachwood Golf Club the year after that and Eagle Nest Golf Club and Azalea Sands Golf Club within another four years, and the man once known as the “Calvin Klein of Carolinas Golf” had made his mark in and around Myrtle Beach before Jack Nicklaus won the 1972 Masters.
But Hamm wasn’t done.
He dropped three more in our lap in the 1980s. Burning Ridge Golf Club, Indian Wells Golf Club and his joint effort with Tom Jackson at River Oaks Golf Plantation before he wound down his career. What all of seven of his still-running designs have in common is variety.
“In my opinion Gene Hamm did an excellent job building a golf course that can be played over and over again,” Indian Wells Head Golf Professional Steve Shaffer said. “There are a good number of holes to play strategically, along with risk-reward holes to keep you interested the entire way around the golf course.”
That design style worked, and it has worked well for others who copied the approach or looked to expand upon it. In the late 1980s, 1990s and even into the 2000s, many of the newest courses shot for the moon with some huge budgets and some of the biggest names in golf attached to their layouts.
Until Hamm had done his thing, though, that late-era scheme may never have been tested.
“Gene Hamm was kind of a gateway architect,” King said. “It served as the bridge between the Dunes Club, maybe Palmer at Myrtle Beach National in the 1970s and then that explosion in the 1980s where we went from being not only a value destination but a real quality destination as well.”
GENE HAMM’S GRAND STRAND DESIGNS
Year opened: 1967
Notable: Originally known as Quail Creek, Hackler was taken over by the Golf Management Program at Coastal Carolina University and used as the school’s teaching venue for aspiring professionals.
Course: Beachwood Golf Club
City: North Myrtle Beach
Year opened: 1968
Notable: Relatively untouched during its 50 years, Beachwood is set on 180 acres of North Myrtle Beach real estate between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. It has the same ownership group today that it did upon opening.
Course: Eagle Nest Golf Club
City: Little River
Year opened: 1971
Notable: Although not recommended to everyone, Eagle Nest recently added “Perch” tees, a mega-driving option that stretches the course to more than 7,900 yards and will be recognized as the longest in all of South Carolina.
Course: Azalea Sands Golf Club
City: North Myrtle Beach
Year opened: 1972
Notable: Speed golf is the name of the game at Azalea, with renovations made to clean up past problems while getting players on and off the course without gimmicks or too many hazards. It plays wide open nearly throughout.
Course: Burning Ridge
Year opened: 1980
Notable: Since 2005, when a second on-site course was closed and Burning Ridge was able to focus on one set of 18 holes, it has been able to successfully help bridge the gap between the Myrtle Beach hub and county seat of Conway.
Course: Indian Wells Golf Club
City: Murrells Inlet
Year opened: 1984
Notable: In 2003 and 2004, Hamm was invited back to spearhead a major renovation project that, among other things, flipped the two nines. It put the focus on the new No. 18, the course’s signature hole, while improving playability options elsewhere
Course: River Oaks Golf Plantation
City: Myrtle Beach
Year opened: 1987
Notable: Although the joint effort with Tom Jackson is nestled amid a relatively loaded stretch of courses just west of city limits, it is one of only two 27-hole options in a 10-mile radius. It improves pace of play while adding variety for repeat visitors.