The year was 1948 and postwar America was rediscovering its love for outdoor recreation. Robert Trent Jones was newly embarked on a career that would one day establish him as the “father of modern golf design.” And Myrtle Beach, though many years from anointing itself the “golf capital of the world,” was a sleepy coastal town at least beginning to think big. Two trajectories were crossing, and Jones’ bold work on a new course that year would serve to jump-start the reputations of both the man and the locale.
Though not Myrtle Beach’s oldest golf facility—Pine Lakes International, opened in 1927, holds that distinction—the Dunes Golf and Beach Club is the undisputed centerpiece of the Grand Strand, the 60-mile swath of shoreline that occupies South Carolina’s northeast corner. This 7,165-yard beauty is one of Jones’ finest works, and its renown contributed to a building boom that makes the Strand home to more than 120 courses today.
“When you consider all its beauty, its history, its mystique, the Dunes Club is really the cornerstone of Myrtle Beach as a golf destination,” says Bill Golden, vice president and director of marketing for the travel association Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
The seed for the Dunes Club was planted by Myrtle Beach News owner William A. Kimbel, who penned a series of editorials calling for recreational facilities to attract off-season vacationers. Kimbel’s vision resonated with local attorney George W. “Buster” Bryan, who mobilized a group of fellow citizens in late 1947-early 1948 to form a new golf club. The land would be provided by Myrtle Beach Farms, a development company headed by Bryan’s brother, James; and the architect would be Trent Jones, fresh off his collaboration with Bobby Jones on Atlanta’s Peachtree.
Jones was enamored with the job site, his first in a coastal environment. “A lovely piece of land studded with live oaks,” he described it, with a marshy area known as the Singleton Swash emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The finished product was vintage RTJ: long, runway-style teeing areas, wide fairways, gaping bunkers and huge, often elevated putting surfaces that employed his concept of “greens within a green.”
Another mover and shaker in the club’s rise to prominence was Jimmy D’Angelo, the Dunes’ first head pro. Five years after opening, the club still owed Jones some money and needed publicity to drum up business. At the suggestion of New York World-Telegram writer Larry Robinson, D’Angelo threw a springtime party and invited some of the country’s best-known golf writers to stop by on their way south to cover the Masters.
The inaugural Golf Writers Association of America tournament was played on April 4, 1954 and included the esteemed Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker and the Pittsburgh Press’ Bob Drum, who won the event. The writers so enjoyed themselves they agreed to reconvene the following year.
“These fellows … wrote about the wonderful golf course at the Dunes, and the great hospitality they received there,” D’Angelo said in a club history published in 1992. “With all this national publicity, golfers came in droves from all over the country.”
The GWAA still plays its annual event in Myrtle Beach, with the Dunes hosting the final round. Besides all those GWAA clambakes, the club has hosted everything from a U.S. Women’s Open (1962, won by Murle Lindstrom) to a PGA Tour Qualifying School final (1973) to the Energizer Senior Tour Championship (1994-99).
The 50-and-over set gave the Dunes a near-unanimous thumbs-up, and Jay Sigel in particular was smitten, calling it “my favorite to play on tour.” Of course, Sigel may have been biased: In 1994 he double-eagled the par-5 15th hole in the final round; two years later, a third-round ace on the par-3 fifth propelled him on to a two-stroke win over Kermit Zarley.
Much of the Dunes’ routing leads the golfer along well-defined avenues lined with pines and mossy live oaks, while the sublime watery stretch from Nos. 11 to 13 lends an exquisite contrast to those clusters of grand old trees. The par-4 11th and par-3 12th play alongside and across the Singleton Swash. Then comes the renowned 13th, “Waterloo,” a 590-yard par-5 that doglegs so severely around a lake (more than 90 degrees) it seems to double back on itself. It’s a case study of Trent Jones’ oft-stated philosophy, “hard par, easy bogey,” although in this particular case, “easy bogey” can quickly become “queasy double-bogey.” Says Golden: “You make the turn and start dreading Waterloo. You just know there’s no easy way to get through it.”
On an April 1949 tour of the property with sportswriter Furman Bisher, D’Angelo pointed to No. 13 and said, “This is the hole that is gonna make the Dunes famous. Isn’t that a dilly?” His prediction was spot-on: Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins named the hole one of America’s best 18, and numerous other publications have followed suit.
As with so many holes here, No. 13 has a tricky putting surface, this one with a tier that runs from front left to back right and hides certain hole locations from a fairway view. “Dad liked to use green contours as a form of hazard,” says Jones’ son Rees. “He was working on Peachtree and Augusta National [remodeling the 11th and 16th holes] about that same time, and you can really see how his work there influenced what he did at the Dunes Club.”
The younger Jones, who spent many a day tagging along with his father during construction of the Dunes, returned last year to install A-1 bentgrass and restore those greens to their original shape. “I don’t think anyone else could have made the changes I could,” Jones says. “I know Dad’s style and what he was trying to do there.”
As a result, members and guests today enjoy an immaculately conditioned layout that honors the legendary architect, who passed away in 2000. Those guests are also welcome in the lowslung clubhouse, which sports a cozy locker room with picture windows that take in the Atlantic and an ocean-view patio that begs for a post-round wind-down session. Says Dunes Club head pro Brian Vest: “We strive to give the commercial golfer the feel of playing their own private club while on vacation in Myrtle Beach.” Seems fitting, this being the shrine that helped make “Myrtle Beach golf vacation” the phenomenon it is today.