Story by Ian Guerin
The biggest names in course design certainly delivered some haymakers along South Carolina’s Grand Strand golfing mecca. But for everything guys like Nicklaus and Fazio and Palmer and Dye did to influence the sport, the tenets of Myrtle Beach golf lay with four others.
Willard Byrd, Gene Hamm, Tom Jackson and Dan Maples can be credited with bringing the game into the mainstream, changing it into one that invited all to take up golf, and maybe just as importantly, to do so in the once-budding northeast corridor of the Palmetto State. In total, the foursome has their names attached to 20 current designs in the Myrtle Beach area (31 if you count the additional 11 just across the border in North Carolina). That’s roughly one-third of the total courses here.
Frankly, Maples, Jackson, Hamm and Byrd are the design monsters of Myrtle Beach golf.“If it wasn’t for those golf courses, those guys creating those courses and giving people to a place to come from all over the world to have fantastic vacations with fun golf courses to play, none of it would be there,” said Mike Whitaker, the executive director of the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel. “Those guys built basic, fun golf courses. They weren’t trying to win awards. Back then, all of these ranking lists that are done today that people use for their marketing and advertising, those things didn’t really exist. [It made people] not only want to come, but want to come back. That’s what made it all successful.”
Whitaker isn’t solely in charge of the most respected in-state rankings system. He’s also an avid Myrtle Beach golf visitor, having made his first trip to the area nearly 60 years ago. He remembers playing Hamm’s design at Quail Creek Golf Club (now the General James Hackler Course) in the 1960s. And what Whitaker recognized back then is what has allowed Hamm and his three design brethren’s layouts stand the test of time.
Those four architects scattered their projects up and down the Strand, carving them out of wetlands and woodlands, flat terrain loaded with sand from the nearby Atlantic Ocean and tracks facing elevation changes unlike anywhere else locally. But what Hamm, Byrd, Jackson and Maples took turns orchestrating were ways to expand the sport’s base by bringing it to everybody. Coal miners from West Virginia were paired with businessmen from the Northeast. You didn’t need the fanciest equipment or the deepest pockets to play most of these courses.And you certainly didn’t need a PGA Tour card.
Chris King, a long-time area industry follower and contributor to Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said those courses laid the foundation. “Those are all golf courses that people found playable. While we don’t necessarily look back at their resumes right now and see any top-100 courses, those were the courses that were good enough to start bringing people to Myrtle Beach every year,” King said. “Those were the golf courses that paved that way for others to come in. The Tidewaters and Caledonias, they never get here if the courses [from those four designers] don’t get people coming here. In many ways, that’s their legacy.”
That legacy is also a credit to what the four men perceived to be a soon-to-be hotbed of golf activity when others were still questioning it.
Byrd’s Litchfield Country Club layout and Hamm’s Sea Gull Golf Club (later re-designed and re-opened as Founders Club at Pawleys Island) each opened in 1966, when only four other courses in this part of the state had be erected. Hamm’s work at Hackler (1967) and Beachwood Golf Club (1968) followed soon after.
By the time the 1980s came to a close, the four designers had 16 courses already opened for business or getting ready to do so. It’s no secret that proximity had quite a bit to do with that. Hamm, Byrd and Maples were all from North Carolina; Jackson, originally born in Pennsylvania, relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, in the early 1970s.
It’s also no secret that all four and their design firms (when they used them) weren’t charging an arm and a leg to course owners for their work. Still, it wasn’t like they were throwing junk together in hopes of making a few quick bucks.
History, in fact, proves otherwise.
Overall, approximately 30 local courses have closed in recent years, a bloodletting of sorts as the industry closed ranks and focused more on the more sustainable playing options. Only two of the closures were designed by those four men - three of whom are already members of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame and a fourth (Byrd) who appears headed there eventually
Indeed, their five decades of work continues to buoy the market.
Hamm and Maples, Jackson and Byrd. We’d tell you to remember their work. But there’s a good chance we don’t need to. You know it, and you’ve almost assuredly played their courses time and again.
“Those courses are the ones that put Myrtle Beach on the map,” Whitaker said. “Those golf courses represent entertaining resort golf. That’s what they mean to me. Those are places people can go if they’re on vacation and have a good time. They’re enjoyable. They’re not going to beat you up for the most part. “They’ve served their purpose, and they do it well. And they’ve done it for a long, long time.”