The population of Santee in the South Carolina Lowcountry has grown by 30 percent in the last decade, but still doesn’t top 1,000 folks.
You won’t find a Ruth’s Chris Steak House or Grand Hyatt Hotel, or any swank resorts to rival those in well-known Palmetto State golfing destinations Charleston, Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach. And there are no high-end architects like Dye, Fazio, Nicklaus or Palmer dotting the scorecards of the area’s 17 courses.
Yet for the last 20 years, Santee has more than held its own in the golf industry by offering a good product at no-frills pricing. There are times of the year – the summer being one of them — where golfers can pay as little as $65 each for accommodations, a round of golf and a Southern breakfast.
“The price tends to work against us sometimes when we’re trying to get new people to come to the area,” said Todd Miller, the general manager of Santee Cooper Resort. “They look at the prices and say, ‘There is no way you can play a decent course for that price.’ We want to give people a good value and we would rather have more bodies here than raising the prices and losing golfers.”
After playing four of the local courses on a recent trip to the area I can attest that pricing has no correlation to scenery, strategy and some old-school golfing fun.
“I would say 99 percent of the golfers are surprised that they get treated as well as they do and that the courses are as good as they are,” Miller said when asked about first-time visitors.
Sure, there are no high-end steak houses where you can drop $75 on a dinner, but there is Clark’s Restaurant and Hotel, where the Southern fried chicken and cobbler are staples. It is joined by numerous other local establishments that add a bit of small-town character to the place.
Brothers Bill and Cholly Clark, whose parents founded Clark’s in the 1940s, helped spur the golf movement in the early 1990s after developing Santee National Golf Club at Chapel Creek Plantation.
The golf craze here has always been centered on “blue collar” value … and convenience.
Bill Clark jokes about teasing travelers from Canada who stopped in Washington, D.C., and asked him for directions to Santee. “I said to get on I-95 and turn left,” Clark chuckled. “It is kind of a straight shot.”
He’s correct. Once you cross the bridge heading south over Lake Marion on Interstate 95, the next exit spills you out to small-town Santee, and less than five minutes from Santee National, Lake Marion Golf Club and Santee Cooper Country Club. The rest of the 14 courses are within a 30-minute drive, including Wyboo Golf Club near Manning, S.C., which is designed by probably the most well-known architect of the bunch – Tom Jackson.
The drive to Santee from the Triangle is right at 3 hours.
And with I-26 just 12 miles away, golfers can set up home base in Santee and make a short day trip to Charleston and play The Links at Stono Ferry, one of our recommended stops for scenery, Lowcountry lore and a stiff challenge.
Lake Marion will remind those of us born above the Mason-Dixon Line of an old-style Northern course, lined with pines and oaks, along with elevation changes and doglegs that makes golfers pay attention to detail more than bombing tee shots.
This layout features a massive oak tree to the left of the 5th green.
“We’re had multiple experts look at it and they gave us a number between 300 and 500 years old,” Miller said. “It’s actually about half of what it used to be because it is slowly dying and we’ve had to prune it back. That’s on our logo — that big oak. That’s one thing people always remember about that course.”
Meanwhile, Santee Cooper Country Club starts with a sweeping right-to-left 361-yard par-4 with water guarding the entire left side of the hole, and finishes with putts on an 18th green that overlooks Lake Marion.
Wyboo is more “new school,” with wider fairways, four reachable par-5s and bulkhead beauty surrounding its lakes.
Miller says golf in Santee didn’t take as large a hit when the economy began to struggle in late 2008.
“When times were good everybody got greedy,” Miller said. “Everybody was rock ‘n rolling and people were trying to get what they could, kind of like the real estate business. Now people have cut back and you have to change the way you do things. Courses like us are going to survive and eventually thrive because we’ve been able to maintain our price point and we don’t have to go dropping our price like other people have been doing. We’ve been able to maintain and improve our product under our current price structure, so we’re in great shape in the market place.
“Our biggest challenge now is that our groups have been coming for so long they are starting to dwindle in size, whether it be their budgets or their age,” he added. “So our challenge is to say, ‘Hey, this is our price point, this has always been our price point’ and try to convince new people to give us a try.”
Miller’s packaging group has responded to recent feedback and added new, more spacious villas as an option for those looking for a more upscale experience.
“We consider ourselves blue collar golf. We’re not Hilton Head or Kiawah Island. “When you golf here you’ll be able to get anyway from everything, play and not have to drive far, and not have to fight crowds. The names and faces have changed some but it really is pretty much the same as it has been for years.”
“Golfers are just more appreciated here because we’re such a small operation,” added Clark. “People who come here are well treated and it’s not very expensive … so they tend to come back year-after-year.”
Santee golf is living proof there’s still a place for simplicity in our complicated world.
For more information on golfing in Santee log on to www.SanteeCooperGolf.com or call toll free (800) 344-6534.