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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, Pawley's Island, SC

369 Caledonia Drive
Pawley’s Island, SC

Architect: Mike Strantz
Par 70
Excitement Level – 9/12
Difficulty – 6/12
Conditioning – Four and ½ stars
Design – Four and ½ stars
Cost - $120 peak, $80 reduced, packages available
Yearly Memberships – Yes, and dirt cheap!
Value – Five stars
Overall – Four and ½ stars

Tees Yards Rating Slope

Pintail 6526 70.9 132
Mallard 6121 68.8 122
Wood Duck 5710 66.7 114
Redhead 4957 68.2 113

Let’s be honest. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is the golf world’s equivalent of a Grateful Dead concert. It’s loud, colorful, raffish, and full of hawkers, lights, attractions and billboards commanding travelers’ attention and money. The “East Village” of golf destinations, this honky-tonk oceanside carnivale for budget seekers has all the charm and subtlety of a Moroccan bazaar, but all the vibrance and diversion as well. Amusement parks, buffets, sun-drenched beaches with oceanside hotels, cantinas, and golf, golf, golf all converge in a place where vacationing players can take Lionel Richie’s advice and “party, carrano, fiesta, forever” - or at least straight through until next morning’s tee time.

For decades, Grand Strand’s reputation relied heavily on its party atmosphere and bargain-basement prices. Word was the golf was wonderfully cheap, if mundane at times. That changed radically as the 90’s dawned. While the town still maintained its midway-filled, neon-lit pedestrian idiom, the golf began a steady ascent from “really good bargains” to “world class.” Courses of all shapes and sizes began to spring up from a broad spectrum of designers. Links courses, “tribute” courses (pastiches), parkland courses, low country plantation courses and any other genre the mind can imagine form a broad palette of options to compete for vacationers’ patronage. There are now over 120 courses to choose from showcasing every style of architecture by every celebrity architect. In an area supersaturated with solid golf and bargain priced packages, a course must be supremely well designed and have a distinctive, accessible and superlative personality to compete.

Enter Mike Strantz in 1994. Strantz had left his apprenticeship with Tom Fazio three years earlier and had spent that time honing his skills as a visual artist. Strantz, a devoted family man, had promised his wife and daughters he would stay close to home while they were growing up. He was also biding his time until opportunity would present him with a prime setting on which to craft a masterpiece.

Strantz was also riding a hot streak after successfully collaborating on the excellent Parkland Course at the nearby Legends complex the previous year. When people learned that Strantz had accepted his first solo job at a site in the Myrtle Beach area they may have expected an excellent layout, but no one was prepared for the monumental achievement he would deliver. Well, nobody except Team Strantz.

Strantz shocked the golfing world, making the grandest of entrances on the most competitive of stages. Caledonia Golf and Fish Club was from its inception and still is to this day nothing short of the grandest course on the Grand Strand, universally loved by players and critics alike. For twelve years it has held the top spot against all comers, including a star-studded cadre of seasoned, celebrated designers. Perennially ranked in the country’s top 30 courses in both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, Caledonia has year in and year out been the most requested course by visitors to Myrtle Beach and the most decorated course by pundits, an enormous success by any standards.

Caledonia is the Latin word for Scotland, but it should be the Latin word for gorgeous. Built on a stately old colonial-era rice plantation along the Waccamaw River in the more sedate township of Pawley’s Island just south of Myrtle Beach, the site is steeped in tradition, refinement and southern charm. The complete antithesis of Myrtle Beach’s pulsating reputation, the course is soothingly ambrosial in a bacchinalian city. Sublimely integrated with the landscape, the course is a sensuous yet subtle delight. Serene meandering streams, gnarled moss covered oaks, and fragrant flower beds all frame a chain of fairways as elegant as a string of pearls.

Never one to stop at the level of mere eye candy, Strantz created a course rich in risk reward options with holes that are never repetitive. At times, the course showcases the “sand and waste” design when that school of architecture was just beginning to blossom. At others times it features carries over lowland marshes in the classic “low country” style. At still others, it is simply a parkland gem.

No detail is overlooked and the customer is pampered right from the drive up to the clubhouse. Stately oak trees covered in Spanish Moss line both sides of the road, signaling this round will be a cut above the rest of Myrtle Beach. The epitome of southern charm and grace, the clubhouse is a classic antebellum design. Accentuating the native fauna, the course uses carved wooden figures for birds instead of colored tee markers – “Pintail,” “Mallard,” “Wood Duck” and “Redhead” represent the tips, regulation, senior, and forward tees, respectively. On Thursdays the course hosts a collegial public fish fry on the grounds for players to relax, eat and mingle, sharing glowing reviews of their day. The course even revived the South Carolina tradition of serving a complimentary cup of fish chowder to players as they make the turn.

Finally, one of the best and most original finishes north of Sawgrass greets players at 18. The kidney shaped green sits directly below the clubhouse veranda and is filled with rocking chairs waiting for lemonade sipping spectators who cheer heroic approaches over the 120 yards of water to the green, and who likewise deride failed attempts or lay-ups.

A warm, inviting, comforting design in a hectic location; harmonious with the rice fields, wetlands, river and forest and the flowering showpiece of Myrtle Beach golf, Caledonia is the flagship spearheading the region’s economic reinvention as a destination for connoisseurs and players, not just bargain seekers. Happily, the value is still world class.


Caveat Caledonia because it is sneaky how difficult this course is. At first blush, Caledonia may appear short and comforting. “It’s only 6500 yards…6100 from the regulation tees” think the careless and the egotistic. “How hard can it be?” But Strantz cleverly concealed the length. First, par is 70, not 72. Therefore, the course plays about 400 to 450 yards longer. Suddenly that sporty and sedate looking 6100 course seems more threatening at 6500. Suddenly those approach shots that looked to be short irons are fairway metals instead. For experts, the 6500 yard tees play 6900 or more. Even though the course only takes up a mere 125 acres, Caledonia has plenty of length to defend par admirably.

In an even more clever and subtle design feature, Strantz concealed the length in tough places. Strantz “saved” some yardage by keeping the five par-3s short. Number 3 is the longest by far at 187 yards from the tips, 175 from the regulation tees. The rest all average merely 155 from the tips and 140 from the regulation tees. Don’t get the wrong idea, all except 11 are surrounded by a deep sea of sand and these bunkers, coupled with large greens, defend par admirably. (The sixth green alone is 55 yards deep.) Moreover, 11 features a tough carry over a creek which cuts obliquely from the back-left to right-front of the green. Strantz loves this “modified-redan” style, (but rarely does the green ever run from front to back like the original at North Berwick) creating similar par-3s at Royal New Kent (Nos. 3 and 7) and True Blue (No. 3).

Short par-3s means can Strantz make up yardage elsewhere. The bulk of the length appears at Caledonia’s par-4s, particularly on the back nine. Five long and trouble laden par fours in a row appear from 12-16 and compromise the fangs of the golf course. Four of these five are over 415 yards and one just touches 400 on the nose (from the tips). Three of the five over 400 at the regulation tees. The shortest of this stretch, the 400/380 yard par-4 13th features the toughest approach of all as the green is a tiny island completely encircled by a sea of sand. The toughest of the run? The brutal 462 yard par-4 dog-leg left15th. A deep bunker guards the corner. Play close to the bunker for a shorter approach and a better chance at birdie.

There is so much to love about Caledonia. The mix and match of yardages and hole shapes at Caledonia is brilliant. Shorter par-4s stress accuracy, longer par-4s have more room, but are guarded by menacing waste bunkers. The golfer is constantly off balance. The approaches are well guarded and demand accuracy. The difficulty is subtle, perhaps even unnoticed until you add up the score and say “how the hell did I shoot that?!” But that may be a draw…Caledonia is a place where everybody wants to shoot 79 and thinks they have a reasonable chance looking solely at the card.


At Caledonia, Mike Strantz injected a spark of magic, integrity and legacy to an area once thought to be devoid of charm. Caledonia is a snifter of fine cognac in a margarita town. More amazingly, Strantz accomplished such a triumph on his first time out in an area drowning in golf courses. It is hard to decide which is the more incredible feat.

Strantz is indeed the master of counterpoint, dichotomy and vibrant dramatic contrast. In perhaps the tackiest city on the eastern seaboard he built a pillar of charm, old-world refinement, and relaxation. Then in Pinehurst, known for its refinement and charm, he built his legendary heathen firebreather, Tobacco Road. Both differ from their surroundings in the extreme, yet each is what makes Strantz courses unique gifts to our great game and Strantz himself, along with Pete Dye, on of the more visionary course designers of his generation.

Everyone loves Caledonia – experts, novices, women, kids, locals and travelers – everyone. Why not? Caledonia has everything – character, challenge, beauty, conditioning, service and warmth. It feels like and in fact is the best value in the Myrtle Beach region. It is also the most popular and most requested course on the Grand Strand, seeing over 50,000 rounds per year. Depending on where players stay, there may be surcharges of $70-120 to play Caledonia, but the course and the entire experience are worth so much more. If there is a drawback to the course, the facility only has a 125 yard practice facility, but True Blue is right across the street for a pre-round bucket. Completely different from Caledonia, True Blue is more bold and artistic, but with even more strategic options. It is hard to believe the two courses are on the same property and by the same designer. Do not leave the Beach without playing 36 here. If you have the good fortune to play on a Thursday, make time to attend the reknowned Thursday PM fish fry. Unlike the Dunes, which requires that players stay a night in a short list or resorts, Caledonia patrons can stay anywhere they like.


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