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South Carolina golf is so much more than the famed 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links. (Photo: Getty Images)
South Carolina golf is so much more than the famed 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links. (Photo: Getty Images)

Golf in South Carolina: Coaches, Fords, communities

Home to one of the game's most accomplished golf families, two of the land's leading college coaches and renowned tourism draws, South Carolina's golf reputation is second to none. In the Palmetto State, golf and history go hand in hand.

By Bob Kinney, Special to PGA.com

In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, golf and history often are spoken in the same sentence. The history part you might already know about -- Francis Marion, the sly Swamp Fox himself, befuddling the British at every turn during the American Revolution; the Civil War began 80-some years later and just a few miles away, at Fort Sumter. But how many know that golf, the very game responsible for this week's prestigious Senior PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, has its American roots just a few miles away?

True enough, there is significant evidence to suggest that Harleston Green in Charleston was the birthplace of American golf. Harleston Green was a park and a golf course, and it has been documented that a shipment of clubs and balls was delivered there in the 1640s, a couple of centuries after the game's founding in Scotland but long before anyone had even thought about a Revolutionary War.

And there's more. The Country Club of Charleston traces its roots to the South Carolina Golf Club, which was formed in 1786 and lays claim to being the oldest golf club in America. So from a history or golf perspective, the area certainly can hold its own.

The great Henry Picard called Charleston home for many years during a storied playing and teaching career that saw him win the 1938 Masters and the 1939 PGA Championship. He's a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, as is Charleston native Beth Daniel, a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion who still, at age 50, can hold her own on the LPGA Tour against players half her age.

Indeed, it is all these people and places, to say nothing of many other families, communities, coaches and programs, that put the Palmetto State in the discussion of the best golf destinations in the country.

THE COACHES

Larry Penley at Clemson University and Puggy Blackmon at the University of South Carolina are now at a state in their programs where success is not a surprise but a given, where winning a conference title is a stepping stone on a path toward loftier national aspirations. Consider that each has been inducted into the Golf Coaches Association's Hall of Fame, that each has coached more All-America players than space here can accommodate, that each has sent several players to the PGA Tour, and that each credits a large amount of his success to the very fact that they coach in South Carolina.

Penley is completing his 24th season at Clemson, and if two words can define a career, for Penley they would be "consistent excellence." All he did in his first 23 years is lead the Tigers into the NCAA Championship field every year, with a national title in 2003 the crowning achievement. Penley, a Clemson graduate, is a six-time coach of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, was the national coach of the year in '03, and six of his former players were on the PGA Tour last year, with Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd and D.J. Trahan probably the best known.

But how did he get to where he is now?

"Getting good kids from good families," he says. He has a national program, but he, like Blackmon, recruits primarily on a regional basis with his focus beginning and sometimes ending at the South Carolina state line. To wit: Of the nine players on the 2006-07 roster, six are from the Palmetto State.

And once he attracts a player to Clemson, he likes it when parents stay involved, encouraging attendance at tournaments and fostering a true family atmosphere. Penley, 48, admits to doing less hands-on coaching now than he used to, saying he doesn't need to do as much of it because "all the kids now have such good coaching back home, when they were growing up, that their games are in very good shape when they get here."

And that's not by accident. Penley heaps credit on the South Carolina Junior Golf Association (SCJGA) for the development of hundreds of quality players over the years. "Pug and I have benefited greatly from this organization, as have all programs in the state," says Penley, who is quick to include the Furman University women's program, the College of Charleston and South Carolina-Aiken among them.

Penley says the SCJGA "is way ahead of its time in offering tournaments throughout the summers, in fundraising, in getting kids started younger." And the proof of the organization is in the results: Every member of Penley's 2003 national championship team came through the South Carolina Junior Golf Association.

Penley professes to have an excellent relationship with, and a great deal of respect, for Blackmon, his in-state rival who came to South Carolina from Georgia Tech 12 years ago. Blackmon also has a master's degree in economics from Clemson, and Penley likes to joke, "I tell him he's educated beyond his means."

His educational pedigree aside, Blackmon echoes Penley's feelings.

"I didn't fully appreciate the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry until I got here," he says. "It's such a different game, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the (Clemson) program."

Blackmon's own program takes a back seat to few. He is completing his 12th season at South Carolina, and the success he enjoyed at Georgia Tech followed him to Columbia.

Under Blackmon, the Gamecocks have advanced to at least the NCAA Regionals every year, and last season's team was Blackmon's seventh to qualify for the NCAA Championship. While he has yet to match the success he had at Georgia Tech, where he claimed five ACC titles and If golf is the currency of South Carolina, then Myrtle Beach is the mint.

a national runner-up finish, Blackmon continues to build on an impressive team and individual résumé.

And like Penley, he is doing it largely with state-grown talent; eight of the 12 players on this year's roster are from South Carolina.

After jokingly crediting "luck" with his career success, he says hard work and working in a state with so many good young players also has had a lot to do with it. "There aren't many states that have so much talent year in and year out," Blackmon says. "That makes my job a whole lot easier."

Blackmon has coached 30 all-conference players, the best known being 1993 national player of the year David Duval, who in 1999 became the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world and won the 2001 British Open. Blackmon is proud of a continued relationship with Duval -- "I spent 40 days with him last summer, working to get his game back," Blackmon said -- and also counts current PGA Tour standout and U.S. Ryder Cup member Stewart Cink as another of his former players.

Still, his roots remain in South Carolina, where he was born (Beaufort) and raised (Ridgeland), and he'll continue to sing the praises of his home state.

"When people think of South Carolina," says Blackmon, "they think of golf."

He and Penley are two reasons why.

THE FAMILY

In Massachusetts, a political state, it was the Kennedys. In Texas, an oil state, it was the Ewings. And in South Carolina, a golf state, it was, and remains, the Fords.

It is difficult to imagine one state being so dominated in any venture like the Fords have dominated golf in South Carolina. The Charleston clan is a multi-generational juggernaut that has been synonymous with championship golf on the amateur level for decades. At any time over the last halfcentury, any and every player of note has vied for titles with a member of the Ford family -- sometimes more than one.

A brief history and lineage:

• Family patriarch Frank Ford Sr., who died three years ago at age 100, won the South Carolina Amateur seven times and the prestigious Azalea Amateur four times.

• Frank Sr. had three sons: Frank Jr., killed in a plane crash in 1974; Billy, a strong junior player who died in 2005; and Tommy, who came to the game relatively late but now is enjoying great success as a senior player.

• The next generation is headed by Frank III, who topped his grandfather by winning six Azalea Amateur titles and is a 12-time qualifier for the U.S. Amateur. He also won the South Carolina Amateur, giving the family eight titles in the tournament's 75 years, a mark no other family can approach.

• Next in line is Cordes Ford, the son of Frank III, who has won two Charleston Amateur titles.

The number of club championships the Fords have won most likely number more than 50. And while the winning started with Frank Sr., the teaching came from two women in the family. Senior learned the game from his mother, Annie (Sissy) Ford; Frank III and his cousin, Tommy, learned many of the basics from their grandmother, Betsy.

All the trophies, titles and adulation aside, Frank III will tell you that his family's legacy will be that "we competed successfully, and we were consistent across the generations." And another thing: "We played to win, and we weren't afraid to win."

The words are not spoken arrogantly, not defiantly, just matter-of-factly. As if to say, this is who we are, and we're proud of it.

No less an authority than Happ Lathrop, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association, says, "I can't think of any other family name that has done so well in our championships. I think the Fords are the dominant name in South Carolina golf history."

Of Frank III, Lathrop says, "I don't know of a more competitive player. He hates to lose. But he always has done so in a very dignified fashion. Frank has respect for the game and its traditions."

Frank III will be the first to tell you there's a reason for that; it's how he was taught.

THE COMMUNITIES

If golf is the currency of South Carolina, then Myrtle Beach is the mint.

From modest beginnings 40 years ago, and through the vision of a few smart men, Myrtle Beach has become one of the best known and most popular golf resorts in the country. Much like Pebble Beach in California or Pinehurst in North Carolina, golf and Myrtle Beach go hand in hand.

With some addition by subtraction over the past few years, Myrtle Beach has solidified itself as a golf destination with few peers. Kiawah Island and Hilton Head are in the mix statewide, but Myrtle Beach is the godfather, both historically and in the number of rounds played per year. When people fly to South Florida, they're certain to pack plenty of bathing suits and sunscreen; in Vail, it's ski equipment; and there may not be another airport in the country that handles more golf bags than Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach is the linchpin of an Atlantic coastline that depends mightily on golf as a key component of the state's economy. According to Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday and the area's unofficial historian, 4 million rounds of golf were played on Myrtle Beach-area courses in 2006, with the number of rounds per course up 15 percent over the previous year. McCamish said the area became a little overbuilt, but since 1999, 23 courses have closed -- the area's "adjustment period," he calls it -- which has solidified the play at the remaining venues, of which there will be 104 by this fall.

A different clientele is drawn further to the south, to Kiawah Island and Hilton Head. These posh getaways both have earned world-class reputations for superb residential and recreational facilities.

Until the mid-1960s, Myrtle Beach was just like any one of countless beach communities that thrived only during the summer.

"It was Cecil Brandon, Clay Britton, people like that, who in 1967 pulled together $43,000 with the goal of making Myrtle Beach a year-round destination," McCamish says. "With the ocean, we always had lots of people in the summer, but literally after Labor Day the stop lights turned to blinking yellow and stayed that way until Memorial Day."

Brandon, Britton and others, who were the hotel, restaurant and shop owners/managers of the area, hit upon golf as the way to change that. Needless to say, their investment has paid off.

"In the spirit of being unselfish and working together," says McCamish, "those gentlemen made Myrtle Beach what it is today, the golf capital of the world." While that title might be debatable, Myrtle Beach certainly is in the discussion. The area boasts courses designed by every top-name golf course architect in the industry.

At Kiawah Island, The Ocean Course is the best-known golf attraction, thanks in large part to the worldwide coverage provided by the 1991 Ryder Cup, but the other four stand out in their own right.

Cougar Point is a Gary Player design that demands great thought all the way around; Osprey Point is a Tom Fazio course that is highly respected by knowledgeable people in the industry; Jack Nicklaus provided a tight layout and a tough finish at Turtle Point, and Oak Point is the shortest of the five but maybe provides the most enjoyment for the average golfer. Not satisfied yet? Travel another 60 miles south to Hilton Head Island, home to the famed Harbour Town Golf Links and its iconic lighthouse. Harbour Town is the host of an annual PGA Tour event, but it is far from the only renowned course at Hilton Head. There are two dozen others, and with 12 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline and a scenic Intercoastal Waterway, it's little wonder the area attracts some 2 million visitors annually.

Each of the three destinations that extend from one end of South Carolina's shoreline to the other has its unique drawing card. It's been that way for many years, and the people of South Carolina have every reason to believe it'll be that way for many years still to come.

Bob Kinney is a freelance writer who currently lives in Goose Creek, S.C. This story published with permission from the official journanal of the 68th Senior PGA Championship.

 

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