Oyster Reef Golf Club in Hilton Head once again on the comeback trail

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HILTON HEAD, S.C. - Oyster Reef Golf Club is like a journeyman fighter who was once an exciting young boxer with a knockout punch and unblemished record. He started out strong, got a little complacent and was introduced to a little humility. Now, he's ready for a comeback, strong and fit as ever.

Oyster Reef Golf Club - hole 6
Oyster Reef Golf Club's par-3 sixth hole has a view of Port Royal Sound in the background.
Oyster Reef Golf Club - hole 6Oyster Reef Golf ClubOyster Reef golf course

The golf course opened in 1982 to accolades from all the right magazines, saying all the right things about the layout and its renowned architect, Rees Jones. The club let its guard drop when it replaced its Bermuda greens with bentgrass and was KO'ed. They shut down in May of 2000 to replace the bentgrass with TifEagle to get back on the right road.

But, under the new ownership of American Golf, the course once again hit the canvas with deteriorating conditions. Like a boxer changing managers, ownership has changed again, this time with Heritage Golf Group the new owner. Heritage bought the course early last year, along with Port Royal Golf Club and Shipyard Golf Club, more than doubling the size of the company's portfolio.

Heritage has already put money into renovations, like re-doing the bunkers, and plans to tear down the clubhouse and build a new one in May.

"We've put a lot of money into the course, and we plan to do a lot more," Heritage's Lisa Dahlstrom said.

The golf course was in excellent condition in March, with lush fairways and well kept greens, and some well-tended flower beds around tee boxes, though some of the tees boxes themselves needed work.

It's a pretty golf course, nicely wooded with brawny stands of live oak and Carolina pines lining the fairways and blooming azaleas. The wetlands along the 14th and 15th fairways are part of a 137-acre whooping crane conservancy, where you can hear them whooping it back in there during breeding season. There is water, of course, this being an island; Jones filled in the low-lying areas with lagoons.

The golf course itself is very playable, even from the back tees at 7,027 yards, with its slope rating of 131. The layout features numerous doglegs with strategically placed bunkers - meaning you have to carry them or hit close to negotiate the turn - and the aforementioned trees that often dare you to hit over or around them.

"I like it because it doesn't beat you up with its length," said Chuck Carey, playing the course with friends. "You can score if you're playing halfway decent. The greens are in great shape - a little slow, but true. And they make sure water comes into play on the par 3s. It's a sporty little course."

Like No. 6, a beautiful par 3 with a small lagoon and Port Royal Sound in the background, the green framed by palm trees.

There are some fun holes, like the 514-yard second hole, with a bunker at the corner of the dogleg left. As you approach the green, it looks like there is nothing but bunkers starting about 100 yards out, including a high-lipped trap dead center; if you want to reach in two, you'll need to come in from on high.

Semi-private Oyster Reef Golf Club is located in the Hilton Head Plantation. Green fees have gone up since Heritage took over, now in the $68-$130 range, depending on the season. Most vacationers to the area can afford green fees at the top end of that range, and will enjoy this course.

Stay and play

The Marriott Residence Inn is a good place to stay, especially long-term, if you're going to spend some time playing golf on the island. It's centrally located, right off Highway 278, and all suites have full kitchens; there are several grocery stores nearby.

It's the only all-suites hotel with full kitchens. Their free breakfast isn't bad either - you can get real meat to go with the usual continental breakfast foods.

The place has 156 studio and bi-level suites, and the studios are much larger than normal hotel rooms. They also have a "social hour" weekdays, with food and cocktails, and there is an outdoor pool and whirlpool.

They also have tennis courts, a fitness center and a small, putting green. Meeting space for up to 300 people is available. And believe it or not, they take pets, for a non-refundable fee.

The Beachwalk Hotel and Condominiums, formerly the Holiday Inn Express, is on the north side of the island, two blocks from the beach, and close to shops and restaurants, including Coligny Plaza. There is a bicycle rental shop across the street.

The hotel doesn't include a restaurant, though there is a free, continental breakfast that offers most breakfast food you would expect. The staff is particularly friendly here.

The 91-room, three-story building is surrounded by landscaping and a lagoon, with an outdoor pool, sun deck and gazebo. Free wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel.

Hilton Head dining

Hilton Head has scads of good restaurants. For seafood, Alexander's is excellent, as is Kingfisher, Red Fish and Eugene's Waterfront Oyster Bar. Fiesta Fresh and The Studio are also recommended.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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