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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Caldonia, Pride of Myrtle Beach Golf

Caledonia is one of the Grand Strand’s most acclaimed layouts, gaining top 100 accolades from every substantive list, and many players will tell you it’s their favorite Myrtle Beach golf course.

The expectations of players that turn onto Caledonia Drive and travel nearly a half-mile to the course’s clubhouse are higher than the soaring oak trees the line both sides of the road. Caledonia faces the daunting task of being the course everyone circles on their itinerary, and it always seems to deliver.

“It will exceed your expectations every time,” said Al Serafino, a Brookville, Md. resident. “You get excited every time you play a new course and it always seems to not live up to the hype, but here it’s just the opposite. We love it.”

The late Mike Strantz was denied the opportunity to assemble an extended resume as an elite golf course architect due to the ravages of cancer. But Strantz was supernova on the architecture scene, shining brightly during more than a decade-long stint working on his own. Renowned as equal parts artist and architect, much of Strantz’s lofty reputation is derived from his work at Caledonia (official site).

The Pawleys Island course was Strantz’s first design and he was given complete autonomy. Set on property that a thriving rice plantation called home through most of the 19th century, Strantz crafted a course that is as good technically as it is beautiful.

A 6,500-yard, par 70, Caledonia isn’t exceedingly long, but it is a thinking man’s golf course that delivers one memorable hole after another. Players shouldn't’t be fooled by the distance, three front nine par 3s, make the course seem a little shorter than it plays. Caledonia has several meaty par 4s, particularly on the back side, and isn’t susceptible to being gouged by anyone with a new driver and a sleeve of Pro-V1s.

Caledonia has greens that are three clubs long (60 yards) in some instances and are typically defended by sand, water or even the centuries old oak trees on the property. Ranked among America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses by Golf Digest and the Top 100 You Can Play by Golf Magazine, Caledonia is a second shot course.

With the size of some of the greens, a 100-foot putt isn’t inconceivable so a precision iron game goes a long way towards a good round.

The layout at Caledonia has been deservedly lauded, but it’s only part of the story. Starting with the alley of oak trees (which is longer than Magnolia Lane at Augusta National) leading into clubhouse, Caledonia has an aesthetic charm that few courses in the country can match. After a stunning drive to the clubhouse, the scent of the flowers, which seem to bloom throughout the year, is noticeable before players get to the antebellum style clubhouse.

“It’s something you can’t duplicate,” Todd Weldon, the only head pro Caledonia has ever known, said of the oak trees serve as an introduction to the course. “The feeling you get when you drive in, you know you are going to be in for something special and we don’t take that for granted. We take care of those trees like we take care of the clubhouse.”

Actually, everything is taken care of at Caledonia. From the first tee box to the last flower bed, every inch of the property is maintained as if it’s the most important.

Golfers don’t book tee times because of the clubhouse, but like the landscaping, the fish shed (which is still in use for private parties, and the oak trees, it contributes to the ambience at Caledonia. The clubhouse offers a magnificent view of the marsh and the stunning 18th hole. Golfers gather on the deck, drink in hand, to watch people finish and it’s a picturesque way to finish a round of golf.

Par 3s
Caledonia has five par 3s, including three on the front side, and they are an interesting, if not exceedingly long group of holes. The longest par 3 plays 187 yards from the tips, but lack of distance shouldn't’t be confused with lack of challenge.

A prime example is the 187-yard third hole. The green is 56 yards deep and shaped like a landing strip. The green has three levels and a waste bunker that runs from the tee through the right side of the green. It’s not exceedingly difficult to find the third green but getting down in par is a challenge.

Based on pin position and where the tee box is set up, the 157-yard sixth hole could require as little club as a nine iron or as much as a six, and therein lies the beauty of the course. The challenge varies and golfers have to be aware of changing dynamics.

The ninth hole is short at 118 yards, but exceedingly pretty. The oak trees that frame the back of the hole were the inspiration for Caledonia’s logo, which was also a Strantz design.

The back nine par threes – No. 11 and No. 17 – are equally memorable. The 11th, which features a creek that meanders between the tee box and green, is one of the course’s most photographed holes. The green is longer than it is wide and the creek comes into play on the left side, so players should always aim right to minimize risk. The 17th is defined by the waste bunker that surrounds the green. Stay out of the bunker and a possible par awaits.

Par 4s
Anyone that thinks 6,500 yards is to short likely hasn’t played Caledonia’s par 4s from the Pintail (or back) tees. Holes 12 through 16 are the course’s most challenging stretch. Only the 13th hole, which features a 90-degree dogleg and plays 398 yards, is less than 415 yards.

The 16th hole is the course’s toughest. A slight dogleg right, it plays 417 yards and has a bunker on the left side that virtually eliminates any chance of par. Throw in a large pond on the right side and a green that is narrow in the front, and a significant challenge awaits.

Any discussion of Caledonia’s par 4s has to include the 18th. The approach on the closing hole requires a shot over water with the clubhouse deck – typically full of people – looming in the background. In theory it’s not the most difficult hole on the course, but with all your buddies watching on the deck, the pressure is turned up. It’s a great finishing hole.

The easiest hole is the 376-yard first hole, the course’s shortest two-shotter. Strantz gives everyone a chance to get off to a good start. Any golfer that finds the fairway (and three bunkers on the left can make it difficult) will have a short iron into an accessible green.

Par 5s
Caledonia only has three par 5s but they are an enjoyable collection of holes. Strantz allowed players to ease into the layout on No. 1, but the second hole is a 570-yard par 5, the course’s longest. It’s a true, three-shot hole. With no water, the risk of hazard is minimized but anyone that records par will sign the card with a smile on his or her face.

The eighth is the classic gambler’s hole. At 528 yards from the tips, it is accessible in two to anyone that clears the three bunkers on the right hand side. The bunkers are approximately 260 yards from the tee so it takes a good poke. Anyone with dreams of making eagle also has to consider the pond directly in front the two-tiered green.

While the eighth can be reached in two, discretion is typically the better part of valor.

The 553-yard 10th hole also offers the possibility of going for the green in two for long hitters, but it’s fraught with risks. The fairway runs down into the green but a pair of nasty bunkers on the left are to be avoided at all costs. Like so many holes, don’t be fooled by distance on the 10th. Unless you are a superior player, layup to a distance that provides you a comfortable wedge and be happy with par (or better with a great shot).

Verdict: Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek all rank Caledonia among not just the best courses in the Myrtle Beach area but the best in the nation, and Caledonia deserves every accolade it receives.

It’s a superb golf course surrounded by the type of natural environment that every bulldozer Pete Dye has ever touched couldn't recreate. From the oak trees upon entry to sitting on the clubhouse deck watching friends finish on 18, Caledonia delivers on the expectations golfers have.

There is no better judge of golf course than the people who play it.

“Caledonia is great,” said North Carolinian Robbie Robinson, who has returned to the course for years. “You better get your tee time here because if you miss Caledonia, you’ve missed one of the greatest courses almost any place (in America).”

Enough said.

Repost from and written by Chris King (the Myrtle Beach Course Reviewer!)

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