Island West Golf Club in Bluffton: Service, conditioning and a thinker's challenge

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

BLUFFTON, S.C. - One of the first things you'll notice about Island West Golf Club is that they have institutionalized service. When you drive up to drop off your bags, someone will follow you in a full-color GPS-equipped cart so you don't have to walk from the parking lot to the club house. After your round, a cart caddie jumps on the back of the cart for the ride to your car, quickly wipes off your clubs and loads them into the car. Every time.

Island West Golf Club - Bluffton
Island West Golf Club in Bluffton starts easy - then the challenge begins.
Island West Golf Club - BlufftonIsland West Golf Club - hole 10Island West Golf Club - hole 12

It's a heightened level of service one doesn't expect from what even General Manager S. Scott Sickich classifies as a "middle of the road" golf course in the sea of courses that is the Hilton Head area.

"It's tough to be middle of the road. We want to be like Hampton Inn in the hotel business. You know what you're going to get," Sickich said

At Island West, Sickich hopes that means challenging golf, good service, a friendly staff and the best course possible under certain budget constraints.

"We depend on local play," he said. And not memberships: daily rate payers. "With so many courses to choose from, people don't want to tie themselves down."

But the golf course offers a variety of packages and plans to lower costs for the regulars. Sickich says the course's attribute is value.

Course conditions at Island West Golf Club

The course is in great shape. "We pay close attention to soil conditions," Sickich said.

To keep the course in shape year-round, they overseed the fairways, tees and greens. The best month? September. The warm-season grass is in top form and fall routines have kicked in. "No one's here."

Sickich has worked at 18 golf courses over the years and landed at Island West three years ago.

"Nothing has been the same since 9-11," he said. Courses haven't charged rack rates since then. Atop that, "courses were built at an alarming rate," he said. In time, some will close and become housing developments. Others will be fields of grass.

Despite Island West's reasonable green fees, don't lower your expectations once on the course.

"It starts easy," said Matt Cassidy, a 15-handicap golfer who made Island West his home course in January. "The first two holes are easy, then the challenge begins. Location is everything, otherwise it makes you pay a big price."

It is on the first hole that you first notice bulldozers had their way with the terrain, leaving behind a mine field of humps mid-fairway. Harmless, one thinks, until their well-struck drive hits one and careens hard left or right.

It is the first volley in a roller coaster of benign-appearing holes with wicked undersides. For example, the No. 1 handicap hole for both men and women, the par-5 fourth. Of its 442 to 498 yards (white vs. red), only a minuscule portion of the hole matters on your second shot. It must land in tiny area. Too far left in the fairway and you're playing tree pinball. Too far right, and your ball will bound directly into the water.

The par-3 eighth leaves little room for error. A large live oak risks havoc on the right side while a desert's worth of sand on the left can leave making par only a dream.

On the back, the terrain is more varied, evening out the lesser tree count.

Approach the 10th hole carefully. Your driver is not your friend. The phrase "thinker or stinker" came to mind. It is a right dogleg with a large marsh just out of sight of the tees. If you try to cut the corner or boom a long one, kiss that ball goodbye and take the drop green-side.

The 14th is the epitome of a risk-reward hole. It's another par-5 that elevates the second shot to critical status. See the enormous trees on the right? Do not try to go over them. Sure, a well-struck shot will clear them, but out of sight is a lesser stand of trees offering a second defense. It that's not enough, there is a marsh area downhill from all of the above. Play it safe. Boring is good on this hole.

Island West Golf Club in Bluffton: The verdict

Island West Golf Club pays attention to all its holes. Even the par 3s, often a course's afterthoughts, are carefully crafted to engage your intellect. Island West is a sound, well maintained golf course that offers all of the mental challenges of prestigious courses, with a similar level of service at a fraction of the cost.

Island West offers a full practice facility, from greens, driving range to sand bunkers and a chipping area. Lessons are available from a PGA Professional.

Lisa AllenLisa Allen, Contributor

Lisa Allen is a golf, travel and business writer based in Beaufort, S.C. She has edited newspapers, magazines and books in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @LAllenSC.

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