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All through the 1990s p.r. firms in Myrtle Beach, S.C., sent out a steady stream of birth announcements--press releases trumpeting the grand openings of golf courses, the latest one nearly always grander than the last. Now, with much less fanfare, comes something else: a wave of death notices. � By the count of golf writer Alan Blondin of the city's daily, The Sun News, in 2001 there were 120 courses in and around Myrtle Beach, the epicenter of the middle-class golf boom. By the end of this year, Blondin estimates, the number will be down to 107, and by 2010 he thinks the total will be 100. The golf-course owners on the Grand Strand find themselves where the East Hampton potato farmers on Long Island found themselves 40 years ago--land-rich and cash-poor. When housing developers come rooting around your maintenance shed, checkbook in hand, it's hard to say no. You own 150 acres of golf course in Myrtle Beach. You're making $100,000 a year from those acres, maybe double that in a monster year. The guy with the alligator belt and the checkbook is talking about $25 million for the whole kit and caboodle. Beverly Hills, here we come.
Last week a Myrtle Beach p.r. firm sent out a press release under the headline MYRTLE BEACH, SOUTH CAROLINA, NAMED AS THE NUMBER ONE GOLF-HOME COMMUNITY IN THE UNITED STATES BY GOLF DIGEST. �It cited the Grand Strand's reasonable cost of living, the plethora of courses, the good weather--the very things that made entrepreneurs bullish on Myrtle Beach in the first place. But now, with many courses having succumbed and a bunch more on life support, Myrtle's in a state of flux. There will be more housing than ever and more golfers living there, but fewer holes to put them on. Golf architect Rees Jones, who has designed five Grand Strand courses, has now seen three of them sold to developers. The deaths in his golf family were not those of ho-hum layouts. The sellouts are happening wherever the land is worth more to the developers than the course is to the owners.
"It's hard to watch," Jones says. "You put two years of effort into building a course, and then in a week a bulldozer obliterates what you've done. I went to one of the courses, Belle Terre, before the bulldozers came. Played it with strangers. Didn't tell them who I was. Made a birdie on the last--a bittersweet experience. An empty feeling."
On May 15 there were three fatalities, the three courses of the Bay Tree Golf Plantation, in North Myrtle Beach. Closing day was like a wake for 54 holes, 55 if you count the mellow clubhouse bar, with its plastic cups and sandwiches to go. The courses (the Green, Gold and Silver) were relics of the early '70s, designed by George Fazio, the uncle of Tom, and built simultaneously for less than $1 million. Four men founded Bay Tree, and three of them are dead. The survivor--a man known as the General--and 20 other shareholders voted to sell the 586-acre spread to a developer called Centex, which plans to build 1,400 houses on the property. The General, James F. Hackler on his driver's license, tried to talk the Centex people into preserving one of the 18s, preferably the one that old Bay Treers call the Green Monster, home of the 1975 PGA Tour Q school attended by Bruce Lietzke, Calvin Peete, Tom Purtzer and many players you most likely haven't heard of. But Centex had no room in its heart, or in its phone-book-thick business plan, for a golf course. The purchase price was $20 million.
The greens fee at the end was $34, walking or riding, and everybody rode at Bay Tree. You'd see peppy carts bouncing along macadam paths, veiny with cracks from heat waves and swelling tree roots. Two 20 handicappers, Maggie Collins and Barbara Mullins, came out for the final day. The course was in nice condition. Not super spectacular TifEagle- Bermuda-hybrid-bent- USGA specs-on-steroids condition. Simply regular nice--green grass, firm earth underneath, same as it ever was. The Bay Tree courses were home to hundreds of black squirrels so at ease with the golfers that they acted like pets; one of their number sneaked into Collins's purse and stole her lunch. The girls (ladies of a certain age like that description) were undaunted. They intended to play only 18 on closing day but ended up playing 54, and they were the last golfers standing on that wistful Monday. Mullins had three rounds of 94, Collins three rounds of 90. Five-hundred and fifty-two shots and one lost ball. Beat that.
The Bay Tree fairways are--correction, were--flat as grits. The rough was nothing but a blanket of pine needles. The bunkers--correction, traps--had sand in them. You weren't going to power a putt off the green, and you didn't have to go two exits on the turnpike to get to the next tee. Bay Tree was unpretentious, affordable golf, played at a decent pace, the kind you see all over the Midwest and Texas and Canada. But when vacationing golfers, platinum cards in their wallets, go on vacation these days (to Orlando, to Las Vegas, to Scottsdale, even to Myrtle), they don't want unpretentious, affordable, fast golf. They're looking for spiffy. Five-hour rounds and $200 greens fees have become part of the cultural (golf division) expectation of excellence. It's a sucker's game.
Back in the day, when Evel Knievel--"world known daredevil," so described in a yellowing clip on a clubhouse wall--played the Green Monster, Bay Tree was spiffy. Once, anybody looking for action on the Strand came to Bay Tree, and there were games played for $200,000 a side, or more, in a state where even the $2 Nassau violates its gambling laws. Leonard Thompson, winner of the 1974 Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, represented Bay Tree on Tour in its early years. "Bay Tree didn't have hustlers," Thompson says. "It had gamblers." The three deceased founders, Howard Anderson, Brian Floyd and Ed Martin, were Thompson's backers when he first went on Tour in '71. You don't hear much about backers anymore. In the era of corporate golf, the equipment manufacturers are the backers. The Bay Tree founders were businessmen who liked being around golf.
By the end, visiting Bay Tree was like entering the Twilight Zone. General Hackler--West Point, World War II, once close to scratch, silver-haired and unstooped at 85--was at the course every day, the boss right to the end. Robert Riggins, a son of the South who spent 23 loyal years at Bay Tree, was the club's all-purpose groundsman and greeter, grabbing bags from arriving cars and getting them on carts. He made enough money at Bay Tree to buy a car and a lot for a trailer, a living wage and more. "I made more friends here than I ever thought imaginable," he says. In recent weeks Tracy Conner, Bay Tree's longtime general manager, has made calls for Riggins and many of the club's other 59 employees, helping them land jobs on courses elsewhere on the Strand. Everyone has something lined up, except the 40-year-old Conner. He's still looking at a few months of wrap-up work. When he's done, he wants to "slip away into that good night," he says. Etched in his mind is the tree that grew out of the pond in front of the 13th green on the Green, the people he worked with and the music.
Along the perimeter of the clubhouse, in the staging area and up and down the driving range, you'd hear a Myrtle Beach oldies station playing Peter Frampton, Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynrd. It was Bay Tree's way of drowning out the arrival noise and telling the paying customers what they already knew: They weren't at Augusta National, or even the Dunes, the most Brahmin of the Grand Strand courses.
That was the appeal and the problem. As the new Myrtle courses got fancier and more expensive, ambitious Strand golf tourists, looking to take home stories, not tidy scorecards with no X's on them, didn't want to come all that way to play Bay Tree's plain-Jane courses. The number of rounds played on the three courses didn't change substantially over the decades: Most years Bay Tree yielded between 110,000 and 120,000 rounds. In 1997 the three courses stood up to 128,000 rounds, the most played in Bay Tree's 34-year history. Hackler said that business slowed substantially after the 9/11 attacks. In 2002 Bay Tree had a poor year, with slightly more than 100,000 rounds played, and a lot of the golfers were locals, or visitors from nearby North Carolina. In 2000 Bay Tree's average greens fee was $50. By last year it was $35.