One way a truly exceptional golf course distinguishes itself from its rivals is through the quality of excuses it makes available to golfers for poorly executed shots. Post-shot outbursts last weekend at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in South Carolina of “Both alligators surfaced closer at the same time” and “That heron stabbed a fish in my backswing” once again confirmed this course to be one of my all-time favorite layouts.
Caledonia and its sister course, True Blue Plantation, have been Myrtle Beach itinerary favorites for years, and every year on the way home someone says, “Man, we should just play those courses every day!” Last weekend, we played the same 36 holes of golf at Caledonia and True Blue at the same times for four days in a row to put it to the test. Is too much of a good thing wonderful?
These two courses, both designed by Mike Strantz, differ from each other so greatly that they make a great pairing.
Caledonia is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of flowers, wildlife and Spanish moss draped from massive century-old oak trees. This golf course has more energy than any other golf course I have ever played. Wing-drying cormorants line the banks, where alligators sun and white snowy egrets fly over southern fox squirrels at play. Fish jump when you are actually looking. The course feels like a Disney-animated, closed-circuit ecosystem. Caledonia showcases landscaping in a way that even the wildlife seems to appreciate.
The rolling, expansive and immaculate fairways of True Blue stand out amid what feels like 60 percent of the course that is made up of waste bunkers and has the opposite feel of being landscaped. It has a natural feel to it like Kiawah or Pinehurst. It also has a natural feel to it like a beach. The sheer amount of sand on some holes leaves open the possibility of getting so lost that your fellow golfers forget who you are by the time you get to the green. The trees and wildlife seem totally different at True Blue, and, once again, this makes for a great pairing with its big brother course. If Caledonia is the Who, then True Blue is Dire Straits.
Staying at True Blue in Pawleys Island, right next to both courses, was key to enjoying this many rounds at them. While Myrtle Beach has more than 100 courses, staying in the middle of it and running around to play golf all over has a cafeteria feel to it that I don’t like. I really liked getting to know the two courses well. I looked forward to improving on my play from prior rounds. There is a reason sports franchises compete with each other in a series. Look at the pros: they play the same course every day for five days, week in and week out. The downside to being afforded the ability to improve upon prior play is that you have no place to go but down after playing well, which can be tough. Repetitive play has a way of sucker punching the eternal optimist in every golfer.
Having the same golf schedule every day also makes it easier to plan meals, which — along with water, suntan lotion, and anti-inflammatories — become important factors in finishing rounds every day. Both courses have grill rooms with solid options and finishing hole views. Nosh and Bistro 217 are two excellent restaurants nearby for anyone left standing at the end of the day.
Golf magazine just came out with its 2014 list of “Top 100 U.S. Courses You Can Play,” and Caledonia was #27 and True Blue made the list for the first time at #77.
Architect Mike Strantz unfortunately died young in 2006 at the age of 50, or I am sure we would see a lot more of his courses in the spotlight. He worked under Tom Fazio before breaking out on his own with Caledonia in 1993. Virginia favorites Stonehouse and Royal New Kent are Strantz designs also. Tobacco Road in North Carolina is also one of the nine courses he designed.
Riding to the eighteenth green for the last time, around what is left of the former rice plantation at Caledonia, I was feeling dismayed at not having a breakthrough round on the trip. At that moment, a giant seabird spread its wings and took flight across our path, while a rabbit darted the opposite direction. While an alligator circling the green was leaving a quiet wake, a fish jumped three times in a row so close that I could see the spots on its side. Exiting the course for the last time, the starter appeared out of nowhere at our window and said, “You fellows make sure to come back and visit us again, ya hear.” In my last backward glance, I swear I thought I saw a bluebird on his shoulder.