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Saturday, June 15, 2024

How Thistle will remain a top-tier course with ongoing and upcoming renovations, improvements

All 27 greens will be replaced, wooden bridges will be rebuilt, and stacked sod bunker installation will continue

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Thistle Golf Club has been one of the upper-echelon courses in the Myrtle Beach market since it opened in 1999, and its owners and operators will keep it there with renovations and improvements that are ongoing or planned over the next couple years.

The greens on all 27 holes will be replaced over the next three summers, beginning with the Cameron nine holes this year, wooden bridges will be rebuilt, and the installation of stacked sod bunkers will continue for the next two or three years.

“It’s exciting times in golf for everyone and I’m proud Thistle is doing our part to try to be the best of the best and give our guests the best experience they can get,” Thistle general manager Kevan Moore said.

Thistle has been aggressive with course and property maintenance and improvements since Jack Davis and family of Florida purchased the course in Sunset Beach, N.C., in September 2013.

“They’re great to work with because they understand what it takes to run a golf course, and they’re willing to spend the money to keep it where it needs to be,” said John Pridgen, who has been Thistle’s superintendent since May 1998, well before it opened.

The clubhouse at Thistle Golf Club in May 2023 (Golf Tourism Solutions photo)

Upcoming renovations

Thistle will redo nine greens at a time over the next three summers.

The Cameron nine is closing June 3 and has a tentative reopening date of Sept. 9. The MacKay nine is scheduled to close next June-September and the Stewart nine is slated to close from June-Sept. 2026.

The greens will remain TifEagle ultradwarf Bermudagrass, which has been on them since 2014-15, when a changeover from the original bentgrass was done. “We’ve been very pleased with [TifEagle],” Pridgen said.

The Cameron and Mackay nines opened in ‘99 and the Stewart nine opened in 2000 at the Scottish links-style property. The Tim Cate design is at least 6,800 yards in all 18-hole combinations.

The golf course design and construction firm C R Lutzke Golf, which has offices in Leland, N.C., and Wisconsin, is assisting with the greens renovations.

Pridgen said a no-till method was used for the first transition a decade ago, and a more thorough and intrusive method is being used for this upcoming transition, in which 4 inches of turf is being removed and replaced.

“We feel like when we transitioned from bent to TifEagle we didn’t get all of the contamination out of the bent, what Bermuda we had in it,” Pridgen said. “We did the no-till, we didn’t dig them out, we just sprigged right on top of the existing greens. To have it to the extent we do, I feel like when we fumigated them back in 2014-15, we didn’t get everything out of them. That’s why this time we’re going to actually excavate them about 4 inches deep and remove everything.”

The greens are being enlarged back to their original size during the renovations, as well.

The collars of the greens will include a five-foot buffer of TifTuf Bermuda between the fairway and green that is designed to impede encroachment on the greens of a different variety of Bermuda in the fairway.

That encroachment led to the greens becoming smaller over the years, though the greens at Thistle still aren’t considered small. “They’re going to be quite a bit larger than they are now,” Pridgen said. “We’re going to do everything preventive that we can to keep the greens from getting encroachment from the grass outside.”

Moore said the greens are currently in very good condition. “These greens that we have are pristine, they’re beautiful, but [Pridgen] wants to stay ahead of things,” Moore said.

“I kind of want to do it before we start getting bad comments. I just want to be proactive about it,” Pridgen said.

Wooden bridges on the Cameron and Mackay nines will be rebuilt while the courses are shut down for work on the greens, while the Stewart nine has only one bridge made of concrete that does not need to be replaced.

The Cameron nine has bridges on holes 4, 5 and 7.

Stacked sod bunker walls on the fourth hole of the Stewart nine at Thistle Golf Club in December 2022. (Thistle GC photo)

Thistle is planning to build an At The Turn Bar near the driving range, with a name to be determined. It will be an open-air bar featuring televisions and speakers for music and entertainment, and it will be designed to be utilized as a quick stop at the turn or a place to congregate and be a headquarters for tournaments.

Moore hopes to have it ready for a spring opening.

“We’ve gotten more feedback on that, people saying it’s going to be pretty cool, so we may get more extensive with it,” Moore said. “I know it’ll be a neat feature when we’re finished with it. I want to make sure when we do it that we do it right.

“It’s something to give our guests another option and to speed things up. We’ll be able to have music and TVs. It’ll be a gathering space. It’s such a beautiful area we’re going to try to get as much out of it as we can.”

The stacked sod process

One multi-year project that is setting Thistle apart in the market – and really regionally and nationally – is a labor-intensive PermaEdge stacked sod bunker undertaking that began in 2020 and will continue each year in the cooler months until every bunker is completed.

About half of the course’s approximate 75 bunkers are done, including 15-20 this fall, winter and spring. “My guys have it down now. They’ve gotten good at it,” Pridgen said. “I couldn’t do anything without my crew or my staff. They are a blessing and the backbone to what gets done.”

All but six greenside bunkers are finished and work on fairway bunkers will begin once those are done this upcoming winter.

Workers install PermaEdge stacked sod bunker walls at Thistle Golf Club (Thistle GC photo)

Artificial turf from old soccer fields overseas is used as the sod, and it is cut by Pridgen’s staff in hand grinders at a work station powered by a generator to be installed in 18×4-inch and 18×8-inch pieces. As the sod walls are built, they are continuously reinforced with cement mixed with native soil behind the wall. After the cement and soil are dry-mixed in a cement mixer, the mix has to be carried in five-gallon buckets to the bunker walls.

The sod piece is heavily top-dressed with sand that has to be kept wet to keep it from falling out before it is installed.

“It’s just very labor-intensive and my crew’s average age is 60 to 65, so we subcontract out some labor with the Christian Recovery Center and they’re our muscle, because it’s a lot,” Pridgen said.

Pridgen’s staff now has the process down to 7-10 days per bunker with a heavy workforce dedicated to the construction.

“I like the process because we had some stacked sod bunkers here in the very beginning but we did them with live turf, and that would only last like five years, then it would deteriorate and we’d have to do it again,” Pridgen said. “So this stuff is permanent.”

Stacked sod bunker walls at Thistle Golf Club in November 2023. (Thistle GC photo)

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