by Dave Finn
Does your ideal vacation include unwinding and relaxing on island time while playing a different championship course every day? Are you looking for fewer crowds and more open tee times when planning your next golf-buddy’s getaway or family vacation? … then the barrier islands of Brunswick County offer limitless possibilities and a very different experience on the Grand Strand than nearby Myrtle Beach.
Affectionately known as North Carolina’s Golf Coast, this region stretches southwest from Wilmington NC along the Atlantic coast line to Calabash and the Carolina Shores to South Carolina’s border. It’s an area comprised of maritime forests, inter coastal waterways, pristine beaches and natural preserves that form the foundation for more than 30 outstanding golf courses, all within 15 minutes striking distance of one another. With a temperate climate and a variety of charming B&Bs, affordable hotels, inns and vacation rental homes, scenic attractions and some of the best seafood in the world, Brunswick Islands are truly a golfer’s never ending playground.
If you hail from the northeastern part of the US or the eastern provinces of Canada you easily drive here in a day but if you are as fortunate as I was to fly into Wilmington NC then, more than likely, you can play the same day that you arrive at Cape Fear National, a short ten minute hop from the airport.
Opened in 2010, this newest area course has already received plenty of accolades including a listing in the “Best New Courses” category by a number of the major American golf publications. Despite its somewhat intimidating name, Architect Tim Cate designed Cape Fear National with a gently rolling layout that meanders its way through the delta marshland of the Brunswick Forest. Every hole has water or wetland to contend with and the natural grasses that line the fairways ensure that you will lose at least a couple of balls, as I can attest to. The conditioning here is superb with great sand in the bunkers and huge greens that average around 14,000 square feet. With a slope of 143 and a course rating of 74.5 from the tips on this par 72, as their moniker infers, I would suggest that you play from one of the five sets of tee blocks that best suits your game and hit ‘em straight. 18 holes rates with cart for non-residents are $100USD.
We then headed about 40 miles southwest on I-70 to check out a number of great tracks and play Sandpiper Bay Golf and Country Club. This 27-hole complex recently replaced all their greens with MiniVerde turf and was justly rewarded for its’ efforts by being voted the “2010 Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course of the Year”. Architect Dan Maples designed some of the holes with a more parkland feeling layout carved out of towering pine trees and others that are more open but protected by water hazards and undisturbed marshland. The greens here are quite a bit smaller but the positioning of the tee blocks make it one of the most women-friendly courses in the area. Unfortunately I found the sand in the bunkers to be much coarser than the areas fabled white sand that is said to be on par with Augusta National’s. Green fees with cart are $68 to $78USD depending on the time year.
A short ten minutes away was the Brunswick Plantation & Golf Resort where we couldn’t resist squeezing in another 18 holes on the Magnolia and Dogwood courses but the Azalea course would have to wait for another day. All three of the courses are in pristine condition and unique in their own way. Azalea features towering Carolina pines and several large lakes while the Dogwood has more hardwood trees and hazards created by the many intersections of the Caw Caw Creek. In contrast the Magnolia nine offer you a links-style experience.
Each nine meanders through a well-established housing development where you can see that everyone in this community exudes a pride of ownership but their proximity does not interfere with your golf game. And, we did get a chance to check out the on-site villas and condos to see what makes this resort a perennial favorite and fantastic base for any of us Northerners. Besides location, location, location, these self-contained units are up-to-date, well-maintained and come with all the amenities you need to enjoy your home away from home! Stay and Play packages range from $49.95 to $79.95USD per night including lodging and 18 holes with cart.
If you ‘want to have a foot in both camps’ then check out the nearby Farmstead Golf Links that straddles the North and South Carolina state border. There are a number of memorable holes here but by far the most unique one has to be the 18th hole, the only par 6 on the Grand Strand, where you tee off in South Carolina and finish off some 767 yards back in North Carolina. But be forewarned, every hole on this William Byrd designed course features water so come prepared or risk being humbled! Green fee are $49-$95USD and include a power cart.
If you’re interested in ‘big game’ then you won’t want to miss playing one or more of Ocean Ridge Plantation four, soon to be five championship 18-hole courses including Panther’s Run, Lion’s Paw, Leopard’s Chase and the newest member Jaguar’s Lair which is actually a masterpiece in the making slated to open soon.
On this trip, I managed to claw my way around the Tiger’s Eye Golf Links which continues to be voted one of the “Top 100 U.S. Public Golf Courses” and my personal favorite this time around. Walking up the clubhouse entrance staircase I was immediately struck by the panoramic view from the covered veranda and knew that I was in for something special. Here Tim Cate has taken maximum advantage of the land’s natural setting giving each hole a unique personality so be sure to bring your camera. There are generous, fast-paced, undulating greens including the intimidating Island green on the par three 11th hole surrounded by native Coquina boulder bulkheads. All the holes offer well tree-lined rolling fairways but the back nine features over sixty feet of elevation change, five holes where water must be carried, a par 3 island green and a very picturesque waterfall just left of the 18thtee. With five sets of tees ranging from 4,502 to 7,014 Tiger’s Eye caters to all levels of skill and has been carefully designed for those who choose to walk. My only wish is that I could have played all of the other “Cat Courses” so definitely one more reason to return to the Brunswick Islands. 18-hole rates with cart range from $80 to $120USD depending on the course and time of year.
And if that’s not enough, try as I might I couldn’t get my fill of fresh seafood whether dining at fabulous restaurants in self-proclaimed and aptly named “The Seafood Capital of the World” – Calabash – made famous for its unique style of lightly battering and quick frying clams and oysters to lock in the delicious flavor or making a purchase from a shrimper and then heading home to grill our ‘catch’ to perfection on our back-deck BBQ.
For those of you who favor ‘Fins and Skins’, away from the hustle and bustle and the ‘madding crowds’ then the Brunswick County of North Carolina is calling your name. For more information on the area you can visit www.ncbrunswickgolf.com or request a golf guide at: http://www.ncbrunswick.com/RequestGuide.aspx?guide=golf.
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