When most golfers think of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, they home in on the red-and-white striped lighthouse that backdrops the 18th green at Harbour Town. 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 — and one pretty green — 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 — I've certainly done it — 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.
Newest in Town
For years, my top value pick in the region was Hilton Head National in Bluffton, an engaging 27-holer that successfully merged mounds and marshland. The 20-year-old National and Player nines, both designed by Gary Player, formed the original 18 and they were compelling — no homes, plenty of nature and a pair of memorable, all-or-nothing closing holes on the Player nine. In 1999, the Weed nine debuted, crafted by Bobby Weed and it was a dandy: different, and equally fun, with more run-up and shotmaking options.
Hilton Head-area visitors who warmed to the 35-minute ferry ride to Daufuskie Island Resort were greeted with glum news in March when the property laid off its remaining employees and shuttered its doors indefinitely. I was a huge fan of the closing holes at the Melrose course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, which featured unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean. The other 15 holes were a mixed bag of handsome Lowcountry scenery and quirky design, but the day trip was memorable and the resort a relaxing treat. The second course, Bloody Point, a Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish product, lacked the drama and ocean vistas that Melrose enjoyed, but was certainly an attractive, quality test. In late May, the resort took out a $1 million loan to help pay some debts and bills and perhaps to keep the golf courses going. Progress is day to day, so you'll have to call ahead if you're contemplating a visit.
The most recent high-profile opening is Heron Point by Pete Dye, a sibling layout to Harbour Town that debuted in the fall of 2007. Heron Point is an 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.
The Trophy Collection
Hilton Head Island has beckoned vacationers since 1960 or so, but it wasn't until 1969 that it took its exalted place among golf destinations. It was all due to Harbour Town Golf Links. Jack Nicklaus' first foray into big-time architecture was 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 1-under par. Harbour Town 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. Then it all concludes along the salt marshes of Calibogue Sound. At the 18th, we arrive at one of the "must-play" holes in golf, a 460-yard par-4. To the left of the entire hole is 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 Harbour Town every day. No matter what you pay, it's one of those courses that's worth the dough at least one time in your life.
Thanks to the real estate slump, May River at Palmetto Bluff has managed to keep a low profile since its 2004 inception, but it deserves to be better known. Ranked No. 52 in our 2008 Top 100 Courses You Can Play, this Jack Nicklaus design limits play to guests of the swank, if 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 oaks stands, sand splashes that melt into their surroundings and a handful of holes edging the river keep things interesting throughout.
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.
Best of the Rest
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.
For real savings, check out Eagle's Pointe Golf Club in Bluffton, a 1998 Davis Love III product that's tucked into a modest real estate development, but 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's two courses, 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 sports elevated, multi-tiered greens and a solid collection of strong, wetlands-influenced par-4s. The Cupp is unforgettable, for better or worse. This 1991 design was one of the earliest designed on computer, with the results replicated in the field. Thus was born the first geometric golf 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 in golf where you need a protractor and compass to break par.
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 — 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.
By its name alone, the Golden Bear Golf Club at Indigo Run indicates it's the handiwork of Nicklaus Design — and in fact was crafted by Nicklaus associate Bruce Borland, who died tragically in the same plane crash that took the life of PGA Tour star Payne Stewart in 1999. This 17-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 (or "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 80s Rees Jones design is best known for its 6th 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.