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Must-play golf courses in Charleston, South Carolina

Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort
Courtesy of Kiawah Island Resort
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort should be on every golfer's bucket list.

If Rhett Butler were ever to patch things up with Scarlett, he would definitely take her to Charleston for at least a long weekend -- with clubs in tow.

This part of South Carolina is that rare destination that combines authentic Southern charm, a double dose of American history -- both Revolutionary War and Civil War battles were waged here -- and must-play trophy courses in one handsome package.

Charleston is that rare bird in that it's equally compelling as a golf destination for families and couples as it is for buddy trips. It may be called the Lowcountry due to its geographic proximity to sea level, but

Must-Play Courses
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (kiawahresort.com, 800-576-1570, $247-$353, $232-$321 for Kiawah Island Resort guests)
Its reputation as the nastiest resort course in the U.S. for sheer difficulty has been tough to shake, but the reality is that Pete Dye has softened the Ocean Course to where it's unquestionably great, not just hard.

Ranked No. 5 in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play, the Ocean Course burst onto the scene as a four-month-old infant, hosting the 1991 "War by the Shore" Ryder Cup, blowing away players and spectators alike with its lethal, wind-addled blend of tidal marshland carries, grass- and scrub-covered coastal dunes and wildly undulating greens.

Today, the 7,356-yard layout plays much fairer, if still relentlessly tough (it can stretch to 7,800 yards), yet it reels you in with its tranquil Lowcountry environment, a gorgeous clubhouse and a finishing stretch of holes along the Atlantic that offers a second-to-none mix of beauty and brawn.

After proving a worthy test for the 2007 Senior PGA Championship, the Ocean Course hosted the 2012 PGA Championship, where Rory McIlroy fired a closing-round 66 to win the title by a record eight shots.

Wild Dunes, Links Course (wilddunes.com, 843-886-2164, $145-$155)
The hole and course that put Charleston on the golf map was the 18th at Wild Dunes Resort, on the Isle of Palms north of the city. The year was 1980, and Tom Fazio's first major solo design set tongues wagging, thanks to a rolling landscape draped with marshes, ancient oaks and scrub-covered dunes that Fazio called "an architect's dream."

Its par-5 18th hole, the Atlantic hard by the left edge, quickly became one of the most-photographed in golf. Encroaching real estate, a hurricane and conditioning issues knocked Wild Dunes down a few pegs, but the dogleg right 18th (on a course renamed the Links, following the opening of its sibling, the Harbor, a few years later) always shined -- until 2007, when an unwelcome visitor in the form of massive waves crashed the party.

Natural beach erosion hammered the 18th fairway for 20 months, eating away at the hole until the resort had no choice but to close it. The hole re-opened in 2008 as a par 3. After a comprehensive beach restoration project and assistance from Tom Fazio and his long-time associate Andy Banfield, Wild Dunes' 18th was restored to a 501-yard par 5 a year later.

Turtle Point (kiawahresort.com, 800-576-1570, $130-$221)
At most resorts this layout would take center stage. Here on Kiawah Island, it's just a terrific test that's understandably overshadowed by its very big brother, the Ocean.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1981 and refurbished a couple of years back, Turtle Point is a low-profile treat with surprisingly tight fairways for a Nicklaus course. The greens are fairly shallow, often set on the diagonal and usually fronted by trouble (think typical early '80s Nicklaus), but once you're aboard, the flattish putting surfaces will allow for plenty of opportunities to hole putts.

Holes zigzag through lush vegetation and meander along marshes and out to the ocean. The cake frosting here are the par-3 14th, par-4 15th and par-3 16th holes that are actually closer to the Atlantic than any on the Ocean Course. You can hit a sunbather if you yank a shot. Some will argue that homes crowd too many of the holes, including those on the water, but all told, this Turtle will likely have you racing back for more.

Osprey Point (kiawahresort.com, 800-576-1570, $130-$221)
This 1988 Tom Fazio creation makes a compelling case for a No. 2 ranking at Kiawah Island Resort -- and a strong one at that. It starts with its own terrific clubhouse, then tosses into the mix four large natural lakes, inlets of saltwater marsh and maritime forests of old live oaks, pines, palmettos and magnolias. Short, strategic par 4s, water on 15 holes and a network of wooden bridges that link one hole to the next distinguish Osprey Point.

Cougar Point (kiawahresort.com, 800-576-1570, $130-$221)
Charleston's most underrated track is Cougar Point, a 1996 Gary Player redesign of an earlier executive job his company did years before. The extended layout runs 6,875 yards, with a handful of holes routed along the Kiawah River.

Being that it's a Kiawah Island Resort course, it's not cheap to play, but resort packages help -- and the graceful shaping, along with beautiful woods and marsh backdrops make for a very entertaining round.

Wild Dunes, Harbor Course (wilddunes.com, 843-886-2164, $80-$110)
The second Tom Fazio design at Wild Dunes measures up pretty well with its bolder, more memorable brother. Nearly every hole encounters lakes, salt marshes or the Intracoastal Waterway -- and it's significantly cheaper to play than the Links.

Oak Point Golf Club (kiawahresort.com, 800-576-1570, $85-$147)
Kiawah Island Resort's least-acclaimed track is located just off-island, outside the Kiawah entrance gates.

A 1991 Clyde Johnston design, the course was substantially reworked after Kiawah Island Resort acquired it in 1997, with Johnston consulting. Hazards on nearly every hole might prove too much for some ball flight-challenged players, but alligator sightings, an interesting new par-3 ninth and a slightly goofy, but undeniably beautiful par-4 closer that skirts Haulover Creek, will linger long in memory.

Charleston National (charlestonnationalgolf.com, 843-884-4653, $62-$81)
This was intended to be an exclusive private club, but right before its opening 20 years ago, Hurricane Hugo altered that plan. Plenty of forced carries over marsh characterize this Rees Jones design in Mt. Pleasant, just north of Charleston, but handsome Lowcountry vistas of Hamlin Sound, Bulls Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway will make the sting of losing a few balls somewhat more palatable.

Dunes West (duneswestgolfclub.com, 843-856-9000, $52-$96)
Long a favorite of local residents Hootie and the Blowfish, Dunes West hits plenty of right notes in its 6,859-yard journey. Arthur Hills carved out this course in 1991 from land that was once part of the historic Lexington Plantation. The experience starts out so strong at the antebellum clubhouse that you may not want to venture onto the course, but ancient live oaks, tidal marshlands and Bermuda-topped dunes are all part of the challenge and beauty that serve as powerful enticements.

The unusual closing hole is a 456-yard par 4 that tiptoes by the marsh. It has a second green nearly encircled by sand that's used on occasion to shorten the hole by 80 yards.

Patriots Point Links (patriotspointlinks.com, 843-881-0042, $50-$85)
In terms of course architecture, this is a pretty plain William Byrd design that debuted in 1980. But it's the surrounding scenery that makes it worth a visit. Located on the banks of Charleston Harbor, you get views of downtown Charleston, Fort Sumter and the neighboring sea islands. The closing four holes, especially the 150-yard, island-green 17th, form an especially stirring and often wind-blown stretch.

Best Bargain
The Links at Stono Ferry (stonoferrygolf.com, 843-763-1817, $55-$88)
This Ron Garl design is sprinkled with relics from the Revolutionary War. An appealing, if unmemorable, front nine twists through the forests, but things heat up on the back nine, owing to a handful of scenic holes along the Intracoastal Waterway. The all-carry, 159-yard par-3 14th and the 343-yard, par-4 18th, with an island green, are standouts.

Worth the Money
Since its "Hello, World" moment at the 1991 Ryder Cup, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort has been a staple on every golfer's bucket list. While toned down from that nearly unplayable version, it is still the beast of the east, with a closing stretch of holes that remains as beautiful and brutal as you could want.

Walking this superior test, with a caddie, will take you through Rory-like highs and Langer-like lows, but it will all be unforgettable. Not to be missed is the Ryder Cup Bar at its outstanding, five-year-old clubhouse. Filled with a treasure trove of Cup memorabilia, it has already become one of golf's greatest 19th holes.

Whether you're a history buff, a course connoisseur, or even a non-swinging somebody craving a killer view of the Atlantic, you will find few better venues at which to hoist a glass and toast to the agonies and ecstasies of golf.

Best Resort
Kiawah Island Golf Resort (kiawahresort.com, 800-654-2924): There are only 10 Golf Magazine Premier Resort Platinum properties in the U.S. and this is one of them. While offering rental villas and homes, the centerpiece for many visitors is The Sanctuary, a 255-room hotel that opened in 2004. With an oceanfront location, a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and superb dining at both The Ocean Room and Jasmine Porch, this is simply one of the best accommodation options at a golf resort anywhere.

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