The scenery transforms before your very eyes as you head south from Myrtle Beach, S.C. on Highway 17 towards the coastal resort town of Pawleys Island. Strip malls and surf stores make way for 300-year-old mossy live oaks and tiny boutique stores.
It is on this drive of about 20 miles from the heart of Myrtle Beach, you're literally witnessing the Carolina Lowcountry come to life. You're also entering one of America's most renowned golf destinations.
The Waccamaw Golf Trail is a cooperative of a dozen of the top golf courses south of Myrtle Beach, spanning from Murrells Inlet to Pawleys Island. Its namesake comes from the Waccamaw American Indian tribe who were inhabitants in this area and occupied the fertile land off the Waccamaw River, which later became home to thriving century rice plantations. Grand Strand plantation owners have been bringing their families down to this neck of the woods since the 1700s, making it one of the oldest resort towns in America.
"It's more of an upscale, Lowcountry vibe down here," said Kevin McGuire, head professional at Willbrook Plantation Golf Club, one of the several courses that is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. "The courses here are full of live oak trees, flora and fauna."
Many of them are full of 19th century plantation history as well. At Willbrook, a series of plaques offer golfers a brief history lesson on the land between shots. At the Heritage Club, a slave memorial grave site lies beside the fifth green.
While each Waccamaw Golf Trail course shares some common traits, you're not going to find two like courses within the bunch. Each brings something different to the table.
Waccamaw Golf Trail must-plays
While the Waccamaw Golf Trail features golf courses ranging in price from the $70 range up through $200, be sure and play at least one of these signature Waccamaw layouts during your trip:
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is a popular choice as one of Myrtle Beach's top golf courses thanks to its character well beyond its years, opened in 1994. It's a seamless blend of modern course design by architect Mike Strantz built through some of the oldest live oaks in this part of the woods.
"We try and tell people to keep it down out there, but it can be tough," admitted Head Professional Todd Weldon of Caledonia's famous patio.
Caledonia's next door neighbor, the Heritage Club, makes a case as one of the area's most scenic, not to mention challenging, golf courses. It has a similarly grand entranceway lined with mossy oaks toward a Southern antebellum clubhouse, and holes play along the Waccamaw River and old rice plantation fields. Holes are beautifully framed with old mossy oaks and the greens, spanning to over 50 feet deep, complete with multiple levels, take on a life of their own.
Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club holds the distinction of being the only golf course on the trail to offer a collection of salt water marsh holes just a whiff away from the Atlantic Ocean, which make up one of the area's prettiest back nines. Two par 3s, the 13th and 17th, steal the show on one of only two Jack Nicklaus designs on the Grand Strand.
Golfers who come to Willbrook Plantation Golf Club will be greeted with an old, Southern plantation atmosphere and a wonderful blend of holes designed by local favorite architect Dan Maples, including bar none the most difficult opening hole in the area: a 410-yard dogleg right that has a narrow fairway guarded by a marsh on the left. The signature island green sixth hole, though just 125-155 yards, is sure to speed up your pulse a little.
Perhaps Myrtle Beach's most striking course is True Blue Golf Plantation. The newer, sister course to Caledonia, True Blue is another Strantz design, which certainly takes it up a notch, with one-of-a-kind bunker and green shapes, and it even has a hole with alternating greens. This is a long-bombers course, featuring the widest fairways of any course in the area.
The elder statesman of the Waccamaw Golf Trail is Litchfield Country Club. Opened in 1966, it's a classic Willard Byrd design that, while a little short and tight for modern-day golf, remains one of the most pleasant walks today. It's walker friendly, and guests at the Litchfield Beach Resort can even bring their kids along to play for free.
Where to stay on the Waccamaw Golf Trail
It's easy to spot the Litchfield Golf & Beach Resort (tel. 888 766-4633) driving south on Highway 17. Just look for the massive, live oak tree with a fallen branch, a favorite photo op for visitors and area wedding pictures.
The resort is a sprawling, 600-acre facility with numerous lodging options, both on golf courses or lake and beach view rooms. There are weekly golf happy-hours most times of the year, and resort guests also receive free golf for kids at River Club, Litchfield C.C. and Willbrook Plantation with a paying adult.
For more information on the Waccamaw Golf Trail, see www.waccamawgolftrail.com or call (888) 293-7385. For Myrtle Beach tee times, call (866) 409-2177.