Member for a day: Attention to detail and 12-minute tee times give course private personality


At the par 4 first hole on the West nine, you get the first of many tastes of sand and water at The Thistle.


Golf Course Review:  The Thistle Golf Club

    Contributors to golf discussion forums tend to be uniformly positive about The Thistle Golf Club in Sunset Beach, NC.  That is not surprising, as The Thistle has much to recommend it, including a unique tee-time arrangement, impeccable service, a rustic new clubhouse, and a golf course with about the best greens on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach.  Indeed, The Thistle is likely to charm the knickers off any but those who consider drama the defining criteria for a round of golf.
    The Thistle layout runs along the lines of a resort course, which is to say it is designed for pleasurable and fast play, despite its profusion of sand and water.  But whereas most resort courses in the Myrtle Beach area have maximum rounds in mind, The Thistle's schedule of play is designed for maximum pleasure.  Tee times are spread by 12 minutes to ensure that no groups endure annoying waits to play their shots.  Although we saw other players on the practice green before our round, we never saw them out on the course because none of the holes run parallel to others.  Not to sound anti-social, but there is something to be said for play without distraction of any kind (even the waterfowl were absent on our 70 degree and sunny day).  Maybe with an ongoing reduction in rounds played in Myrtle Beach, other courses will recognize the benefits to 12-minute tee times.

Golfing memorabilia
    That kind of care for the "experience" of its visitors begins at The Thistle community's guardhouse, wherethistle3westgreen.jpg you are reminded to stop at the bag drop and encouraged to have a great day.  Service inside and outside the clubhouse continues the pattern of friendliness and quality.  Every employee treats visitors as if they were members and, indeed, The Thistle's owners would like them to consider it.  Someday, the plan is to go fully private (current initiation fee is $45,000).
     The Thistle tries hard to project a Scottish ambience, and even if it comes off as a bit faux  -- the clubhouse is a cross between ski lodge and castle, and the course does not resemble any links courses I played in Scotland -- the collection of golfing memorabilia in the clubhouse lobby is a pleasant and educational diversion for the golfer who enjoys communing with golf history.  Owner/developer Rusty Mackey has many more items in his collection, and it will be a treat to returning players to see them on view in the lobby as time goes on.

Space oddity
    A word or two more about the clubhouse, which opened last June to much fanfare.  With heavy antique wooden doors and a bar imported from overseas, as well as a sweeping view out over the golf course, the public dining room is a pleasant place to have a pre-round bite or post-round beverage.  Given the extraordinary vaulted ceilings and large windows, the dining area, however, seems a bit cavernous; even the heavy wooden tables and chairs seem dwarfed by the space.  The pro shop is capacious as well, the ratio of empty space to product space about five to one, unusual for a public course pro shop in a tourist area where hawking logo merchandise helps generate additional income.  Other Grand Strand pro shops tend to cram product into their smaller spaces, making you almost walk sideways to get to the desk.  The Thistle's pro shop is a refreshing, if odd, departure.
    After our round, I visited The Thistle real estate office, which occupies part of the "members" half of thethistle7westapproach.jpg clubhouse.  Trish, who greeted me at the front desk, was kind to take me on a short tour of the locker, dining and meeting rooms that are not be accessible to the public.  I had made a similar inspection early in 2008 with Gene Weldon, the director of golf at The Thistle, and I was a little surprised that only modest construction progress has been made since then.  However, given the current economic environment, developer Mackey is making the prudent choice to focus most of his investments out on the course, as well as in the adjacent residential community.  For example, during our round we noted a large trench being dug for a waterway that will run just beyond the backyards of a new set of cottages.  And, according to the real estate office, construction will start soon on the community's amenities center, adding a pool, fitness facility, full kitchen and library for The Thistle's maximum 145 homeowners.
    Lot prices begin in the $200s, with water view lots starting at $300,000.  Eighteen golf cottages with views of the course are under construction and priced in the $500s.  One unique aspect of The Thistle is that almost every home has an unobstructed view, meaning that lots have been positioned so that no home looks out at another.  Privacy is a strong selling point at The Thistle.

Smoothest rolls on the Strand    

    The Thistle's 27 holes are also the beneficiary of forethought and care.  Good grooming is important at The Thistle, and even though the weather has been fairly mild in the south this winter, and rain has kept over-seeded fairways especially green, you don't expect bunkers to be so well clipped this time of year, or fringe areas tight enough to permit putting.  But the most memorable aspect of The Thistle is its putting surfaces.  Golfers from the northern states will find The Thistle's bent grass greens familiar.  It is unusual to find such greens this far south because they don't typically do well in the extreme heat of the summer and in the salt air (Thistle is just a few miles from the ocean).  But the greens were as good as any on the Grand Strand.
     The fairways, which were wet from recent rains, kept us on the cart path the entire round, but neverthelessmemorabilia_case.jpg were quite nice, and although we decided to roll the balls over in the fairway, we could have played them up (save for a little mud that clung to the ball a few times).  Tee boxes were in nice shape as well, and the Bermuda rough was matted enough to provide lies almost the equal of those in the fairway.  Offline shots at The Thistle are not penalized unless, of course, you find one of the many huge bunkers or lakes that are incessant parts of the design.  Of course, the contrast of brown rough with bright green fairways was eye candy, especially for a Connecticut boy whose brownish-green lawn has been buried under snow for a month.

Sand and water everywhere
    The Thistle's three nines help to keep players moving along.  The Tim Cate layout on the West/South combination we played was solid, but with few memorable holes (although a few memorable shots over water).  The 4th hole on the South nine fit the memorable criteria, a severe dogleg right par 5 bordered along the right side by a lake from tee to green that forces a tee shot on a line away from the green.  Long hitters can probably chew off an extra 100 yards of fairway, but for the rest of us, there was little chance of having a second shot from much inside 260 on the 515-yard hole (from the blue tees; 543 from the back tee).   
    The 18 holes we played seemed less difficult than the slope rating of 133 from the blue tees.  The Thistle's degree of difficulty is in the long carries off a few of the tees and the subtle breaks on the smooth greens.  Water came into play on 13 of the holes we played, and sand was something of a factor on every hole, yet the hazards seemed more for framing than ball gobbling.  Only the highest handicappers should go through a sleeve or two of balls; The Thistle is designed for a pleasurable yet expeditious round.  For all the hazards, we played in four hours flat, but would have been under 3 ½ if not for the cart-paths-only restriction and the long walks back and forth across the wide fairways.

Condition critical

     After the round, Tim and I debated the course's virtues.  At 20, and a frequent contributor to Golf Club Atlas, a web site for professional golf architects and course critics, Tim has more orthodox notions of golf course design than I do.  For example, he prefers unkempt grasses growing from around bunkers to The Thistle's9south.jpg closely cropped edges.  He prefers his greens with stronger contours than the subtle surfaces at The Thistle, where architect Cate's design seems conscious of the need to get average players on and off greens without too much fuss.  Although he admitted the course was in nice shape, Tim disagreed with me about the weighting condition should be given in the assessment of a course.  I figure that half the strokes in a round are on or around the putting greens, and I thought The Thistle's greens were as good as any I have played in the Myrtle Beach area, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club included.  Any course that provides such smooth rolls on big and interesting greens should receive proper recognition.
    The Thistle golf course will challenge most clubs in the bag, especially the putter, and what the layout lacks in drama the club more than makes up for in condition, atmosphere and service aimed at treating its visitors like members.  For value and quality, The Thistle golf community is one of the best buys on the Carolinas coast.

Note:  The Thistle is just one of an outstanding selection of golf communities between Myrtle Beach, SC, and Wilmington, NC.  Others to consider include St. James Plantation and Ocean Ridge Plantation, which between them feature eight excellent golf courses; and River's Edge, Crow Creek and Brunswick Plantations.  If you are interested in visiting any or all of these, please let me know and I will be happy to make arrangements for you with each of the communities.   There is never a charge or obligation for this service.


A big lake separates the par 3 3rd green from the 4th green on the South course.  The 4th hole is a roundhouse par 5 that forces a long tee shot over the water.

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