Story by Ian Guerin
PAWLEYS ISLAND S.C. | Jack Nicklaus’ philanthropic efforts are nearly as big a part of his life now as golf was during his playing days. His Florida-based Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation created the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and nine satellite facilities in and around Miami, all of which provide free or heavily discounted medical services. He’s given his name, time and money to plenty of others causes benefitting military, schools and wildlife.
There’s also his well-publicized work with the First Tee, the national program aimed at growing the game of golf, most importantly, outside of traditional avenues. During Nicklaus’ visit to Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club in October, he met with a local chapter of the organization. Almost immediately, Nicklaus the famed golfer and course designer transformed into Nicklaus the doting father and grandfather. He hugged children he had never met - some of whom were too young to still understand the full gravity of the moment.
“You’re teaching kids how to play golf, but it’s not about golf,” Nicklaus told reporters after the appearance. He recounted several stories along the way of children of addicts or low-income families getting a shot to compete and learn about the tenets of First Tee throughout his highly anticipated visit to the Grand Strand. Pawleys Plantation members heard one, while he shared another with media and yet a completely different memory with a private film crew. Nicklaus’ trip to the course he designed 30-plus years ago, however, helped further kickstart something else entirely different that will pay dividends for the Myrtle Beach area for years to come.
A PROJECT BIGGER THAN GOLF
Back in June, golf industry leaders from around the Grand Strand announced the formation of Project Golf, a community-first program that would - much like First Tee - work to increase golf activity from the ground up. In short, stimulating access to and organization of golf would create decades of future players. That wasn’t all that Project Golf was all about.
Another branded initiative falling under the umbrella of the 501(c)(3) organization was named Myrtle Beach Golf Cares. For lack of a better phrase, this was a way to aid those in need, be it area citizens who were or weren’t a part of the local golf scene. The first singular Project Golf fundraiser was a tournament and gala to benefit two men in the industry who were dealing with major health issues and required support paying medical bills. Less than two months after that fundraiser, tragedy struck on a wider scale.
Hurricane Florence’s initial impact and its ensuing flooding ravaged the area, and within weeks, government officials estimated a minimum of $40 million in damage to residences and businesses. That number will surely grow through more discovery, something Founders Group International Director of Golf Operations Matt Daly knows all too well.
Daly, who lives west of Myrtle Beach in Conway, could do little from afar as the first floor of his home was consumed by approximately 30 inches of water from the nearby Waccamaw River. “It comes very slowly,” Daly said. “We had never had water in our house before. During Hurricane Matthew (in 2016), it came up to the door step, but it had never been inside. We watched the river forecasts and it was inevitable that it would come inside. We just kind of waited for the water to crest and fall back down before we could get back into the house and survey the damage.” Daly believes his family will have to stay with relatives for six months to a year while they await final insurance and renovation estimates. Not a directly beneficiary of Project Golf, he recognizes how important it will be to others who will be.
That is thanks to events like the fundraising conducted during Nicklaus’ visit. FGI Vice President Max Morgan put it bluntly. “You get Jack Nicklaus in town,” Morgan said, “And that moves the needle.” Certainly, that was the case. In the span of just a few hours with Nicklaus, Project Golf raised what is believed to be in the low-mid five figures, depending on final costs and last-minute donations that were still be counted. It wasn’t an eye-popping figure, necessarily, but what it will do is build the coffers for the next time its expanding charitable reach needed. It will also spread the word that the Project Golf campaign’s infancy can spawn something even bigger. “That’s the community we live in. We’re fortunate to have a bunch of people around this community that care about others,” Daly said. “I’ve seen it from both ends. To see what we’ve did [during the Nicklaus-related fundraiser] for this area and the positive impact it will have just from having an event like that, it feeds off of that. It helps you cope. It’s great to have that support when needed.”
The Golden Bear had not been to South Carolina’s northern coastline since his design at Long Bay Golf Club opened just after Pawleys Plantation did in 1988. After the storm, the staffs at both FGI and Golf Tourism Solutions (formerly Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday) went all in to lock down Nicklaus. False narratives from outside the market created an idea that the Myrtle Beach golf scene was somehow crippled. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nearly all of the area’s 90 or so courses were accepting tee times within weeks or even days of the initial storm, and very few of them were showing noticeable signs of damage a month later. Golf leaders hoped Nicklaus’ highly visible presence would display that Myrtle Beach golf was very much alive, but also capable of thriving.
“The area has struggled so much,” FGI President Steve Mays said. “We couldn’t get a message out that Myrtle Beach golf was open because there was so much going on. This is a way for us to say ‘We’re back. We’re playing golf - the community is playing golf.’ “This is the right thing to do, not only for us, but the entire community. What else could inject more excitement into the golf industry than bringing in the greatest golfer of all time to our area?” Moments after Mays said that, Nicklaus’ plane was touching down at a nearby airport and he was en route to his Lowcountry design.He stepped out of the back seat of a white SUV and onto the property. For the next seven hours, he was the focal point of not only Pawleys Plantation, but the rebounding Grand Strand as a whole. “If I can help, I’m happy to,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t like being the center of attention for anything. But if I can help, and help with what’s going on, I enjoy being a part of that.”