BRUNSWICK COUNTY, North Carolina — The view from the the wraparound porch at Rivers Edge Golf Club in Shallotte, North Carolina, is a Lee Wybranski painting come to life.
Down below, golfers struggle to finish the front nine on “Arnie’s Revenge,” a ruthless par 5 with a peninsula green jutting into the marshy expanse of the Shallotte River. Egrets float by on the coastal breeze. The blissful silence is broken only by the occasional anguished cry of a golfer on his way to a double-bogey.
One could sit here for hours post-round, ice tea in hand — or a stronger beverage, per- haps, dictated by the day’s score — and take it all in.
This is the height of golf in the Low Country, or more specifically the Brunswick Islands, just a few miles north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but a world away from the traffic, the noise and the kitsch associated with the Grand Strand.
Nothing against Myrtle — I’ve played there several times — but the golf in less-populated Brunswick County, the southernmost county in North Carolina, is just as good. Plus, the pace is less frenetic and the scenery is unparalleled (and unobstructed by beachfront condo towers).
“My opinion will certainly be subjective as the bulk of my professional career and residency has been in Brunswick County, with the first five years’ experience in Myrtle Beach,” said Jason Monahan, the director of operations at Rivers Edge. “We can all rank and rate golf courses with so many spectacular facilities in both markets, but for me it’s the lifestyle and tranquility of the Brunswick County area that defines the location.”
I spent five glorious days with seven like-minded golfers in Brunswick County in Oc- tober. The weather was seasonal, with one or two cold mornings but temperatures climb- ing into the 70s by midday. Our group stayed at the Sea Trail Resort Villas in Sunset Beach and played five courses, each one better than the one before it.
Rivers Edge is a stunning Arnold Palmer Signature Course. Palmer was a prolific architect and designed more than 300 courses; Rivers Edge, we agreed, is among his very best.
According to its website, Rivers Edge is one of the most scenic courses along the eastern coast of the United States. If there’s a more visually arresting course near the ocean in Florida or the Carolinas, I have yet to play it. “The vision Mr. Palmer had when he discovered this beautiful piece of land along the Shallotte River is awe-inspiring,” Monahan said. “With six of our 18 holes running along the marshy river, any direction you turn is picturesque.”
At par 72, the layout stretches from just under 5,000 yards to almost 7,000 yards, de- pending on which of the five tee boxes are used. The greens are Sunday Ultradwarf Bermuda, a hardy strain that produces smooth, quick and uniform surfaces.
There are so many good holes, it’s hard to pick one out as a favorite, but I was partial to the par-3 fifth. The hole measures just 134 yards from the back tee but it’s all carry over the marsh to a wide green shored up in front by an impressive wooden bulwark.
I made a scorecard-wrecking triple-bogey on “Arnie’s Revenge,” but from the porch post-round I was smugly satisfied to see others self-destruct. Misery loves company. And besides, five one-putt greens saved my round.
Earlier in the day, we played semiprivate Carolina National Golf Club in Bolivia (the town, not the country). All three nines at the 27-hole facility were designed by the team of Fred Couples and Gene Bates. I would have taken laid-back Freddie for a lightweight as a course architect … and I would have been wrong.
Carolina National, built on the Winding River Plantation, is outstanding. Among its many magazine honors, it was ranked as the top coastal course in 1998 by Carolina Magazine. With five sets of tees, plus a 3,000- yard “Short Course,” the design is creative and versatile enough to accommodate all skill levels.
The course winds through rich Low Country terrain and features 100 acres of wetlands and dramatic views of the Lockwood Folly River. We all whipped out our cellphones to take photos on No. 5 on the Heron nine, a 203-yard par 3 that played into a two-club wind. The hole was as difficult as it was beautiful, with a shorn-off dead tree rising above the marsh like a ghostly sentinel.
It was a bonus to be centrally located at the Sea Trail Resort Villas. We stayed in comfort- able, quiet two-bedroom villas, each with a kitchen and shared living area. None of the courses we played was more than a 30-minute drive away.
Though our itinerary was golf-intensive, we broke it up with a deep-sea fishing excursion, which was a blast. From three miles off-shore in our Calabash Fishing Fleet boat, we could see the string of Myrtle Beach condo towers to the south. Everyone on our boat caught at least one fish, mostly mackerel, though we did tag-team a four-foot spinner shark that fought like a tiger (shark).
We brought our catch directly to the Waterfront Seafood Shack and sat at picnic tables while the mackerel were prepared for lunch. Maybe it was because we’d caught them, but this was the best meal of the trip. That’s some boast, because we enjoyed excellent dinners at Smoke’d in Shallotte, The Boat Landing in Sunset Beach and Sharky’s in Ocean Isle Beach.
More golf. We tackled the Rees Jones Course, one of three 18-hole tracks at Sea Trail Golf Club (the others were designed by Willard Byrd and Dan Maples).
Water comes into play on 11 holes on the Jones Course, which features back-to-back par 5s to end the front nine. This was a thoroughly enjoyable layout, with bent grass greens and wide fairways bordered by towering trees. It’s also where I shot my best score of the trip, though 84 is nothing to brag about. I mention it only to underscore the fact that the Jones Course is eminently playable, even for a 13-handicapper.
We also played nine holes at The Pearl Golf Links and Crow Creek, both located in the quaint fishing village of Calabash.
The Pearl is tucked on the banks of the Brunswick coastal marshland and opened in 1987. It was designed by Maples, whose name is synonymous with the Grand Strand. We played the front nine, which opened and closed with long par 5s and featured three par 3s within the first five holes (Nos. 2, 3 and 5).
On our last morning, we squeezed in nines holes at Crow Creek before the one-hour drive to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for afternoon flights home. A frost delay prevented us from playing all 18 holes, which was a shame. The air warmed quickly after the sun rose above the tree line, and we were disappointed to have to load up the van.
With tifsport Bermuda fariways and V8 bentgrass greens, Crow’s Creek, designed by Rick Robbins, has a reputation for being among the best-maintained along the Carolinas’ coast. Water comes into play on three of the four par-3 holes and, like many courses in the Low Country, is a theme throughout.
All told, we played 72 holes at five courses, went deep-sea fishing, ate at several excel- lent restaurants and spent one evening walk- ing the beach. That’s a lot to pack in five days, but we never felt rushed because of the concentration of courses and the ease of getting around.
Mention “destination golf” or “buddies trip” to most golfers and they’ll rattle off Bandon Dunes, Scottsdale, Pinehurst and, of course, Myrtle Beach. All are excellent, to be sure. But golf in the Brunswick Islands — a little less heralded and a little more off the beaten path — is hard to beat.
This is where you come to get Southern charmed.
For booking golf packages in the area, visit seatrailvillas.com. For course information and rates, visit playriversedgegolf.com; thepearlgolf.com; carolinanationalgolfclub.com; seatrail.com/golf/courses; crowcreekgolf.com.