Travelin' Joe's Guide to Charleston Golf Courses

Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to Charleston Golf Courses

No. 9 at Kiawah Island Resort's Turtle Point.
Kiawah Island Resort

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. Charleston, 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.

What's New in Town
It's mostly quiet on the Eastern front, with one wildly popular exception: The magic is back at Wild Dunes. The hole and course that put Charleston on the map was Wild Dunes Resort's 18th, on the Isle of Palms north of the city. The year was 1980, and Tom Fazio's first major solo design set tongues wagging and tee sheets ablaze, 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 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 crashed the party: massive waves. 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 — then re-open it in 2008 as a par-3. Finally, after a comprehensive beach restoration project and assistance from Tom Fazio and his long-time associate Andy Banfield, Wild Dunes' 18th is back in action as a par-5. Once again, Wild Dunes' Links course is a must-play.

The Trophy Collection
With Wild Dunes' Links course intact again, it's certainly one of Charleston's stars, but make no mistake, there's only one giant in town: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort. Its reputation as the nastiest resort course in the U.S. for sheer difficulty has been tough to shake, but the reality is that twice over the past 16 years, Pete Dye has softened The Ocean Course to where it's unquestionably great, not just hard. Ranked No. 28 in our Top 100 Courses in the U.S., 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 (they can stretch it to 7,800 yards), yet it reels you in with its tranquil Lowcountry environment, a gorgeous new clubhouse and a finishing stretch of holes along the Atlantic that offers a second-to-none mix of beauty and brawn. To complete the big-time feel, it's walking-only, with caddies until noon. After proving a worthy test for the 2007 Senior PGA Championship, The Ocean Course hosts the flat-bellies for the PGA Championship in 2012.

At most resorts, Turtle Point would take center stage. Here, 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 14, 15 and 16, 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.

It may lack any ocean holes, but Kiawah Island Resort's Osprey Point makes a compelling case for No. 2 at the resort — and a strong one at that. This 1988 Tom Fazio creation 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 links one hole to the next distinguish Osprey Point.

Best of the Rest
Charleston's most underrated track is Cougar Point at Kiawah Island Resort, 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 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' sibling to the Links, the Harbor, is another Tom Fazio design that 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.

The Charleston area's best golf bargain is the Links at Stono Ferry, a Ron Garl design that's 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 its new island green, are standouts.

The Oak Point Golf Club at Kiawah Island Resort is Kiawah Island's least-acclaimed track — and it's actually located just off-island, outside the Kiawah guard gates. A 1991 Clyde Johnston design, the course was substantially reworked five years back, 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 9th and a slightly goofy, but undeniably beautiful par-4 closer that skirts Haulover Creek will linger long in memory.

Charleston National 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, but handsome Lowcountry vistas of Hamlin Sound, Bulls Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway will make the sting of losing a few spheres more palatable.

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, but there's a second green that's used on occasion that shortens the hole by 80 yards, but which is nearly encircled by sand.

In October 2006, Annika Sorenstam signed on to redesign Patriots Point Links, but zero progress has been made on that front. For now fans have to be content with a pretty plain design, yet one with stunning backdrops, on the banks of Charleston Harbor, with views of downtown Charleston, Fort Sumter and the neighboring sea islands. The closing four holes form an especially stirring stretch.