Oyster Reef Golf Club: A Jones gem on the rebound

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

HILTON HEAD, S.C. - There are no shortages of great golf courses in Hilton Head, but this exclusive golfing destination doesn't boil over with affordable daily-fee golf either. In the wake of an influx of wealthy retirees, Hilton Head sports nowhere near the number of courses open for public consumption that Myrtle Beach does.

But that is where Oyster Reef Golf Club comes into play. Make a hard left into Hilton Head Plantation, let the security guard know with pride that you are heading to Oyster Reef to tee it up, and then wind your way back into the Plantation until you find this Rees Jones gem that has had its share of good and bad times.

When Oyster Reef Golf Club opened in 1982, it was recognized by a number of national publications as one of the top new golf courses in the country, due in large part to its enviable location, well-known designer, and clever layout.

But as head professional Joe Bischoff honestly attests, there were times just two years back when the conditions took a turn for the worse.

"There are few courses on the island in better shape than this one today," says Bischoff. "But a couple of years ago that was not the case. We were a member owned club, but now we are under the ownership of American Golf, and things are looking great."

One of the setbacks brought on by member ownership was the desire for the course to sport the sought after rolls of bent grass greens. Going against the conventional wisdom that it is too warm at night in the summer to maintain this heat sensitive grass in Hilton Head, the greens were striped of Bermuda and reseeded with bent.

"There was one other course on the island that had bent, and it was working over there at the time, says Bischoff. "And it worked well here at first, but after a while they couldn't keep the grass growing with the high temperatures."

Lesson learned, and it could have been a blessing in disguise. Back in May of 2000, Oyster Reef shut down to rebuild its greens with Tiff Eagle Bermuda and the tee boxes were outfited with El Toro Zoysia, which grows better in shady areas.

Today, the conditions at Oyster Reef Golf Club are not quite what Bischoff and American Golf envision for the course, but steady improvement is pushing the venerable Rees Jones course back towards the top.

Fun is the key at Oyster Reef Golf Club

The layout, on the other hand, always has been and will continue to be top notch. True, the course winds it's way through a number of houses that sit right off the fairways and greens, but Jones' clever use of dog leg holes, elevated greens, and oyster shell-shaped bunkers makes the course one of the most fun on the island.

"I love this course because is long and there is a good mix of doglegs," says Bischoff. "It is well bunkered and we have a lot of bunkers fronting the greens. That is one of the things Rees Jones likes to do."

Instead of featuring one or two signature holes, Oyster Reef is a compilation of interesting holes that collectively add up to a golfing experience that you will no doubt crave again. The most memorable hole on the front nine has to be the 146-yard par 3, sixth hole, which features as a backdrop, a vast panorama of coastal marsh.

On the back nine, the 504-yard par 5 15th hole takes the honors as one of the most beautiful holes on the course, albeit it one of the least conquerable three-shoters with it's No. 2 handicap rating

Unlike many newer upscale daily-fee golf courses, Oyster Reef does allow walking, and provides a good workout with slight, but ever-present changes in elevation.

"Hilton Head Plantation has the highest overall elevation of anywhere on the island, and they also moved some dirt on the course to make it higher." adds Bischoff. There are lots of elevated greens out here. For the average golfer there is a lot of trouble to get into, but if you hit it straight and take the right club there are big fairways to hit."

American Golf is selling memberships at Oyster Reef in an attempt to raise more money for improvements, and to ultimately turn the Rees Jones layout into a private facility.

"We are looking to build membership here, with some limited public play available by way of golf packages through the Marriott," says Bischoff. "There is no time frame established as to when we will go private, so there is still plenty of time to play this course.

Hilton Head dining

Avoid the trendy spots and hunker down at the Main Street Bar and Grill, located across the street from the Mainstreet Inn. The Bar has a cozy, locals only feel to it, and the food is something out of the owner's own kitchen, rather than a box.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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