The Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation: A championship golf course among resorts

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

Hiding in plain sight on Hilton Head Island is a pair of championship golf courses that sometimes don't get the attention they deserve.

Robert Cupp course at Palmetto Hall Plantation - hole 18
No. 18 on the Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation is a great finishing hole, with a pond that juts out from the right before the green paired with a monstrous bunker on the left.
Robert Cupp course at Palmetto Hall Plantation - hole 18Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation - hole 13

Either course at Palmetto Hall Plantation - the Robert Cupp Course, or Arthur Hills Course - is a sure thing for some outstanding, serious golf.

The Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall opened in 1993. At the time, it had the highest slope rating in the state for its back tees, which are gold. Since, it's been eclipsed by Pete Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which has the highest U.S. slope rating, period, at the maximum 155.

But the Cupp has nothing to be ashamed of. Its 152 slope rating exceeds Harbour Town Golf Links by six. Not too shabby. It recently earned its own professional tournament; the eGolf Professional Tour's 2010 season opens here Feb. 17-20.

Those are just numbers, though. In the three-dimensional world, the Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation offers nearly a different challenge on every hole, with a common theme of thin fairways and obstacles on one end of them or the other, either real or merely optical.

The use of mounds is pervasive, both along the fairways and jumbled up near the greens. The greens themselves vary in size, but not in challenge, from postage-stamp-sized greens with mean slopes across them, spitting out any ball without spin, to huge greens with drop leafs that pull balls into collection areas.

For example, the green on the par 3 eighth hole comes with memorable topography that starts on the right with tall mounds, down to the green, still sharply sloped, to the bunkers on the left. The fifth green is 30 yards deep with a nearly perpendicular drop leaf on the far right corner.

A few greens have false fronts, others odd shapes that trick the eye. Nearly all are undulating, making a single putt rare unless your approach nestles up to the pin.

Palmetto Hall's Cupp Course: Championship qualities

"Most people who play this course say it's tough, but fair," said Claude Thorn, general manager and director of golf. "The Cupp Course is all about playing the right tees."

The staff jokingly considered putting up a sign at the gold tees that one must be an expert to play them, similar to the sign at Bethpage Black.

Not to belabor the tips, but it does them justice to call them double-black diamond tees. It's not just that they are long, more than 7,000 yards, it's what stands between them and solid ground. On the third hole, it's 240 yards, minimum, before your ball will find dry earth. There are more than a handful more just like it. Stop and look over the tournament tees on No. 9 before you cross the bridge to the tees meant for the rest of us. Admire them, but don't try to play them if your game hasn't been televised.

No matter which of the four tees you play, you'll enjoy the course.

"It's a risk-reward course," Thorn said. "Both courses were designed to be championship courses."

Cupp designed the course for longer hitters. There are several forced carries, but at the green, not off the tee. For example, on the second hole, the fairway is halted with water 240 yards from the middle of the green. But that's not the only worry on the hole. Trees block out the green if approached from the right, so distance isn't your only concern. At the green, trees crowd right up against the right side and a landmine of mounds surround the non-tree sides.

You won't forget the 14th green. It truly is a work of art. A collection of bunkers that escort you up to the left of the green is accessorized by more bunkers behind the hole. The attention to detail in the grand scheme of that hole is breathtaking.

Alas, all good things come to an end, but not until after the 18th hole which doesn't slack off on finesse. It's a great finishing hole, with a pond that juts out from the right before the green paired with a monstrous bunker on the left with a backstop on the far side of it. The green is offset, so gauging the slope of the green from the fairway is a necessity if you want your ball to trickle in the right direction.

Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation: The verdict

It's hard not to gush about this golf course because one wants to describe each unusual challenge the course presents. You have to take notes to remember them all. The optical obstacle of a mound that hides a safe landing spot going into the third green, or the many offset greens which demand accuracy in location and distance.

You'll want to tell people about the modified church pew bunkers on No. 5 that guard the left approach, which are paired with mounds on the right. Or the 10th green that is intimidatingly tiered, with a "secret passage" up the middle that one doesn't see until on the green. Then there is the 11th green is kidney-shaped green that wraps around a large bunker that adds a third dimension with its towering backdrop.

The Cupp is a golf course you won't stop thinking about and if your audience is gracious, talking about.

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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