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How the First President of the PGA Launched Myrtle Beach’s Golf Industry

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath

The Grandfather of Myrtle Beach Golf, Robert White, is considered one of the pioneers of the sport in this country.  He was the first golf professional in America to be an owner of a golf course, design and manufacture golf equipment, and named the first president of the PGA (Professional Golfers Association). 

His dedication to the Grand Strand initiated a golf legacy that led Myrtle Beach to be known as the Golf Capital of the World by the end of the twentieth century and contributed to South Carolina being considered today as one of the Top Five Golf Destinations in the World.  That was determined by the International Association of Golf Travel Operators (IAGTO).  The other four on the list, in alphabetical order, are Cyprus, Dubai, Los Cabos and Thailand.  According to IAGTO, who tallied the votes of more than 500 golf tour operators, South Carolina and the others delivered the best golf experiences to their customers in 2022. 

It is that golf legacy that played heavily in the PGA’s decision to bring a FedEx Cup tour event here.  The Myrtle Beach Classic with its $3.9 million purse will run from 2024 to 2027.  It will be held at our city’s second golf course, built in 1948 and designed by Robert Trent Jones, the Dunes Golf and Beach Club.  In the past, it has been the host to the PGA’s Senior Tour Championship and the US Women’s Open.

Its stunning view of the ocean from the course will provide a dramatic backdrop for when the television cameras return. And the PGA guaranteed in their announcement of the event that there will be “the best of the PGA Tour players…a lot of household names…[and] a lot of Cinderella stories.  It’s going to be a very intense competition.”

While this PGA event is going to rank as one of the highlights of Myrtle Beach’s golf history, it was the first president of the PGA who was here from that history’s beginning.  The PGA was formed on April 10, 1916, by a group of golf professionals, notable amateurs of that time, and a department store heir. 

Rodman Wanamaker was the son of the founder of the palatial Philadelphia department store, Wanamaker’s, now known as Macy’s, since they bought it in 2005.  It features a huge pipe organ that had been installed there after its time at the 1911 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  Daily organ concerts have continued to be performed in the store since it first arrived. 

The younger Wanamaker used his wealth and influence to form the Professional Golfers Association.  He also put up the funds for the winning purse and the stately Wanamaker Trophy, his namesake, for the PGA Championship.  He was both emotionally and financially invested in this fledgling organization and needed just the right person to take the helm as president.  It is doubtful that he could have made a better choice than Robert White.

Born, appropriately, in St. Andrews, Scotland, the birthplace of golf, he came to America in 1894, at the age of 18 with no money in his pocket but love in his heart.  He was engaged to the beautiful Mary Bonar back home, called the “Fair Maiden of Perth” by her friends, and he was determined to earn enough money to bring her over to the States for them to get married as soon as possible…before someone else caught her eye in his absence.  Time was of the essence.      

White had been a student golf teacher in Scotland and soon got a job teaching the game to the daughters of a man from Cape Cod.  Afterwards, he went to Boston and worked in a sporting goods store six days a week. On the seventh day he designed golf courses.  For $25 a course, we would survey what was usually a farm, imagine the course in his mind, sketch it out and then put survey sticks where the tees and greens should go. 

Within the year, he was able to send for Mary.  Her father escorted her across the Atlantic, just to make sure everything was on the up and up, and the young couple was married in February of 1895.   They started a family while moving around the country creating courses rather like a Johnny Appleseed of American Golf. 

He was the first who took a scientific approach to course maintenance by attending agricultural school classes, but in his case, his crop was golf course grass.  Meanwhile, he brought his parents and siblings over and put his dad in charge of his golf club manufacturing business.  His stellar resume got him the job of designing Myrtle Beach’s first course. 

It is now known as Pine Lakes International Country Club but was originally called the Ocean Forest Country Club when it opened in 1927.  Its purpose was to be the most high-profile amenity, aside from the beach, for the opulent Ocean Forest Hotel that would overlook the Atlantic two years later. 

The developers of those projects were John T. Woodside of Greenville, South Carolina, and three of his siblings, Robert, Edward, and David.  They are known collectively in Myrtle Beach history as The Woodside Brothers. 

There were a dozen children altogether in the Woodside family.  And, while not poor, there were no funds to send the fifth child, John, to college when he finished high school.  Instead, he worked in his uncle’s cotton mill for nine years learning the business and saving his money. 

Afterwards, he embarked on his first entrepreneurial venture, a grocery store.  Then, in 1902, he partnered with his brothers to form Woodside Cotton Mills and it was an instant success.  In just two years they grew to be America’s largest cotton mill under one roof. 

By 1920 they had added additional mills and other business interests.  In 1923, they opened the Woodside National Bank followed by their first luxury hotel, The Poinsett in 1925.  It still stands today in Greenville under the flag of Westin Hotels and Resorts.  Its notable guests over the years have included Amelia Earhart, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Liberace. 

By the mid-20s, they looked around Greenville and saw that they had developed all that they could there and then turned their eyes to the Grand Strand where they had heard that Myrtle Beach Farms was selling off just over 66,000 acres including 12 miles of oceanfront.  Myrtle Beach Farms was a joint venture between the local Burroughs Family and Milwaukee native and financier, Simeon B. Chapin. 

When a Burroughs relative married the cousin of the Woodside Brothers Bank Vice President, H.B. Springs, word traveled back and forth through this new familial line that coastal property was for sale and that the Woodsides were interested.  In 1926, they bought the tract for $950,000, mostly on credit, and set out to create another luxury hotel and accompanying country club.   

As a nod to their original hotel, the street that you would have taken from the Ocean Forest Hotel to the Ocean Forest Country Club is named Poinsett Road.   The gorgeous Ocean Forest Hotel was imploded on Friday the 13th, in September 1974.  Its opening gala had been held in the ballroom there on February 21st, 1930.

At the end of the prior October, the Stock Market had suffered its historic crash and the Great Depression ensued.  The Woodsides lost everything:  their bank, their mills, the large tract of land and both luxury hotels.  Remarkably, the Ocean Forest was only shuttered for one winter season throughout its existence.  It is said that one of a couple of the caretakers during those few months was Robert White. 

His daughter shared years later that her father worked like a dog to keep the golf course afloat during that time.  When conditions improved, he and two other investors bought it.  In 1944, the same year that his beloved wife, Mary, passed away, the business partners sold the course and that’s when its name changed to the Pine Lakes Country Club. 

In 1928, Robert and Mary had built their winter residence on Woodside Avenue overlooking the Ocean Forest course.  It became their retirement home in 1931.  However, in 1954, our local legend was briefly called out of retirement when The White House called the White’s house.  President Eisenhower, an avid golfer, wanted a putting green designed for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and tapped Robert White for the job. 

Kathryn Hedgepath

Myrtle Beach native, Kathryn Hedgepath, loves to share her hometown’s history with visitors and newcomers to the Grand Strand.  She is the creator and narrator of the Myrtle Beach History Trolley and Step-On Tours, and the author of the book, Myrtle Beach Movies, that tells the stories behind the motion pictures that were made or premiered in Myrtle Beach.  She has traveled in 40 countries on 6 continents and uses her experience to convey our local history through a world lens. Kathryn returned home from NYC in 2002 to marry her beloved husband, Jenks, after a career in television and publishing (and even worked in Space Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters in DC for a semester before starting grad school at Georgetown University).  Her first career job was as Personal Assistant to television icon and wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. Her dad, Myrtle Beach’s first veterinarian, arranged the job interview when Jim Fowler came to Myrtle Beach for a speaking appearance at a veterinary conference in 1991.