When most golfers think of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, they hone in on the red-and-white striped lighthouse that backdrops the 18th green at Harbour Town, a familiar site during the annual PGA Tour event.
Yet regulars know that green, not red or white, is the dominant color here. Thanks to acres of pines, moss-draped live oaks, sturdy cabbage palmettos and dense shrubbery, not to mention more than 400 golf holes scattered across the breeze-fueled island, you have one pretty picture. Late March and early April are the perfect weeks to tee it up in Hilton Head, when temperatures are ideal and the azaleas are bursting with activity. Understandably, that's when courses are most crowded -- and most expensive.
October/November doesn't offer much fall foliage, but it ushers a return to pleasant daytime highs, as well as the onset of shrimp and oyster season. Don't miss an opportunity to shuck and slurp some tasty May River oysters. Summer golf is doable, but high heat and humidity, late afternoon thunderstorms and a plethora of bugs can be problematic. Course access is no problem, but getting into restaurants and onto prime beach spots is more challenging, as summer is family vacation time.
Hilton Head is playable in winter, too, but pack a sweater and windshirt. The good news is that green fees plummet and tee times are plentiful. Many of the region's top tracks are actually off-island, in Bluffton, but the Cross-Island Expressway, the speedier alternative to Highway 278, will have you on the first tee of any area course within 30 minutes. Hilton Head Island is shaped like a foot and its major resort developments are comprised of plantations. Sea Pines Plantation, for instance, home of Harbour Town, is located at the "toe" of the island, while Palmetto Dunes Plantation with its Robert Trent Jones, George Fazio and Arthur Hills courses, is located in the "heel."
At first glance, you wouldn't even know that Hilton Head has beaches, because they're nearly totally obscured by the trees. They're worth finding, however. So are the golf courses.
Harbour Town Golf Links (seapines.com, 800-732-7463, $209-$264)
Hilton Head Island has beckoned vacationers since 1960 or so, but it wasn't until 1969 that it gained an exalted place among golf destinations. It was all due to Harbour Town Golf Links.
Jack Nicklaus' first foray into big-time architecture came here, while serving as a co-designer with Pete Dye. The PGA Tour staged a November event in 1969 and both tournament and course were judged roaring successes. It didn't hurt that another future designer, Arnold Palmer, won that first event, breaking out of a minor slump, and that his winning score was a hard-fought one-under par.
Harbour Town, ranked No. 12 in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play, has beguiled the pros -- and the tourist trade -- ever since. Dye and Nicklaus hatched a short, tight, poker table-flat layout that ribbons through foliage and forest. Lagoons, waste bunkers and oddly shaped greens add further dimensions to the challenge.
The 18th, is one of the "must-play" holes in golf, a 460-yard par 4. To the left of the entire hole is the Calibogue Sound. To the right lies trees, condos and out-of-bounds. In the distance looms Harbour Town's most enduring symbol, a candy cane-striped lighthouse, along with a marina filled with boats owned by the kind of people who can afford to play this course every day.
May River at Palmetto Bluff (palmettobluffresort.com, 866-706-6565, $175-$260)
This Jack Nicklaus design has managed to keep a low profile since its 2004 inception, but it deserves to be better known.
Ranked No. 51 in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play, the course limits play to guests of the swank, yet subtle, Inn at Palmetto Bluff, and it's worth the splurge. Unusually soft contouring (for a Nicklaus design), mandatory caddies and level terrain keep the pace of play brisk. Freshwater wetlands, dense live oak stands, sand splashes that melt into their surroundings and a handful of holes edging the river keep things interesting.
Heron Point (seapines.com, 800-732-7463, $99-$144)
This Pete Dye effort, a sibling layout to Harbour Town, is a 2007 extreme makeover of the island's second-oldest track, a 1966 George Cobb effort called Sea Marsh. Dye retained most of the corridors and most of the trees, but he transformed everything else, turning marshmallow into monster, but one that's fun to play, provided you've got some game.
Modestly sized greens are now dished out in sections, putting an emphasis on precise approaches, but the real trouble starts long before you reach the putting surfaces, thanks to Dye's reliance on a multitude of water and sand hazards, many bulkheaded by wide-wood planks and grass walls.
You might lose a sphere or two -- or more -- but you won't encounter a dull hole from start to finish.
Best of the Rest
Palmetto Dunes Resort, Robert Trent Jones Course (palmettodunesgolf.com, 843-785-1136, $95-$159)
Some knowledgeable golfers rate the Robert Trent Jones course at Palmetto Dunes Resort as the third best of three. To be sure, the over-bunkered George Fazio course, with its abundance of tough par 4s and the short but drama-filled Arthur Hills course with its abundance of daunting wetlands carries are the tougher tracks.
Nonetheless, the Jones is the choice here. It's the most flexible of the three and its par-5 10th green offers a magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean, one of only two Hilton Head holes that afford that opportunity (the par-3 15th on Sea Pines' Ocean course is the other).
Five consecutive holes that run alongside busy Highway 278 make for a monotonous front nine, but the back nine is filled with watery fun. Junior tees (2,625 yards) make this an ideal spot to take the kids and special junior rates make the whole experience appealing. The resort also now has a free mobile app (available for the iPhone and Android) for all three courses, including GPS yardage, playing tips, and live leaderboards.
Hilton Head National (golfhiltonheadnational.com, 843-842-5900, $55-$99)
For years, a top value pick in the region was Hilton Head National in Bluffton, an engaging 27-holer that successfully merged mounds and marshland.
Unfortunately a new road development in 2010 eliminated nine of the 18 holes here designed by Gary Player, but the remaining holes are still worthy of a visit. Now the front side -- nine holes designed by Bobby Weed in 1999, with plenty of shotmaking options -- and the back nine -- formerly known as the National nine, by Player -- make up the 18-hole course. The reconfigured facility is celebrating its 25th season this year.
Old South Golf Links (oldsouthgolf.com, 843-785-5353, $55-$95)
For a true Lowcountry test at a good bargain, set your compass to Old South Golf Links. This 1991 Clyde Johnston design sports outstanding variety, with some holes that skirt the broad waters of the May River and others that play through live oak forests and saltwater lagoons. The unremitting target golf and multiple forced carries might frustrate some, but for most, the excitement and eye-candy factors outweigh the lost-ball factor by a margin of 2 to 1.
Eagle's Pointe Golf Club (eaglespointegolf.com, 843-757-5900, $59-$79) This 1998 Davis Love III product is tucked into a modest real estate development in Bluffton, yet features a set of attractive holes bordered by oaks and pines, plus a collection of sprawling greens guarded by surprisingly large, deep bunkers. It's a good test at a good price.
Palmetto Hall Plantation Club (palmettohallgolf.com, 843-342-2582, $68-$135)
The two courses here -- the Arthur Hills and the Robert Cupp -- are open for public play on an alternating, every-other-day basis. Calibrate your calendar to get them both in.
The Hills opened in 1991 and sports elevated, multi-tiered greens and a solid collection of strong, wetlands-influenced par 4s.
The Cupp is unforgettable, for better or worse. This 1993 design was one of the earliest designed on a computer, with the results replicated in the field. Thus was born the first geometric course, with square and rectangular tees and greens, trapezoidal bunkers and grass pyramids on the sides of many fairways. It may be the only course where you need a protractor and compass to break par.
The Country Club of Hilton Head (clubcorp.com/Clubs/Country-Club-of-Hilton-Head, 843-681-4653, $89-$118)
Despite its formidable name, the Country Club of Hilton Head actually welcomes public play. This 1986 Rees Jones creation is awash in serious 80s-style mounding, but in truth, there's plenty of variety to be found.
Most memorable is the 575-yard, par-5 12th, where from the fairway landing area on this downhill, dogleg-left, you can drink in a view from atop the highest point in Hilton Head -- all 28 feet above sea level! What you'll see is a plethora of bunkers guarding both fairway and green, a marshy hazard blocking the left front of the green and stirring glimpses of the Intracoastal Waterway and Skull Creek behind the green.
A 2011 re-grassing of all greens has been very well received, and a renovation of all bunkers is planned for 2014.
Golden Bear Golf Club at Indigo Run (clubcorp.com/Clubs/Golden-Bear-Golf-Club-at-Indigo-Run, 843-689-2200, $39-$69)
Its name alone indicates it's the handiwork of Nicklaus Design -- and in fact it was crafted by Nicklaus associate Bruce Borland, who died in the same 1999 plane crash that took the life of PGA Tour star Payne Stewart. This 21-year-old layout sits next to a private Nicklaus design, but in truth, this parklander is every bit the test as its next-door neighbor.
Oyster Reef (oysterreefgolfclub.com, 843-681-7717, $68-$135) "The Reef," as locals call it, enjoys a gorgeous, secluded location deep in the heart of Hilton Head Plantation on the island's north end.
This early 1980s Rees Jones design is best known for its sixth hole, a 192-yard par 3. Overhanging oak limbs, a huge splash of sand fronting the green and an outstanding view of Port Royal Sound in the background combine to make this a great hole. Water, live oaks, Carolina pines and a strong closing stretch make the Reef a solid favorite.
Reflecting a changed economy, many top-tier courses in the region have reduced their prices significantly over the past three years. Even so, the value-winner in town remains a split decision between Hilton Head National (golfhiltonheadnational.com) and Old South (oldsouthgolf.com). Both are under $100 in prime time, significantly less after noon and in shoulder seasons, yet both are worthy plays even if the cost were higher.
Hilton Head National offers more traditional golf, with ground game options in a tranquil setting, while Old South is more Lowcountry modern, with its plethora of forced carries over protected marsh and wetlands. You'll lose more balls at Old South, but you'll also encounter more drama.
Worth The Money
There's a reason the pros consistently rank Harbour Town (seapines.com) one of the top three courses on the PGA Tour -- it's that good.
Certainly, as iconic landmarks go, few can compare with the red-and-white-striped lighthouse that backdrops the 18th green at Harbour Town. Just following in the footsteps of past champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Davis Love III is reason enough to make this a must-play, and with conditioning now a priority year-round, it's worth the freight to play here.
Who says a golf course needs to stretch to 7,600 yards to slap around the lads on Tour? When the breeze is up during the Heritage event every April, par seldom takes a battering. Thanks to some recent tweaks by original architect Pete Dye that included adding bunkers at the fifth and building new back tees at the 12th, 15th, 16th and 17th, Harbour Town's shot values appear intact for the next 40 years.
Sea Pines Resort (seapines.com, 866-561-8802) This Golf Magazine Premier Resort Gold Medalist offers home and villa vacation rentals, but the centerpiece is The Harbour Inn, adjacent to the first tee of Harbour Town Golf Links. Offering 60 rooms, this boutique accommodation option is adding a new pool complex this March for use by Inn guests only.