Hills courses at Palmetto Dunes and Palmetto Hall still two of Hilton Head's best

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

HILTON HEAD, S.C. - It seems fitting that golf course architect Arthur Hills quietly has his name staked to two of the best courses on the island at the Palmetto Hall and Palmetto Dunes resorts. The Toledo, Ohio native has quietly gone about the business of designing great golf courses while his peers have soaked up much of the national accolades.

The Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes, with apologies to the late Robert Trent Jones, has become the"must play" track of the resort's triumvirate. A recent $3 million renovation to Palmetto Dunes' Jones Course may return it to the top of the pecking order, but don't count on the Hills Course laying down and playing dead. The design of the course is timeless, with one hole flowing into the next at a languid, Low Country pace. Hills draped the course over the original rolling dunes lines of the property, and gently snuggled all 18 holes into thick strands of palmettos and palm trees.

"Players just love that golf course, from its design to the conditioning," says Brett Borton, director of marketing for the Greenwood Development Corporation, the resort's parent company."You can put it up against any course out here, and it will do just fine."

The Hills Course at Palmetto Hall

Ironically, the one course that has the chutzpah to stand up to the Hills' work at Palmetto Dunes is the Hills Course at Palmetto Hall. The claim to superiority begins with the 14,000 square foot antebellum clubhouse that serves as the anchor for both the Hills and Cupp courses at the neighboring resort, and continues on into the layout, which most national and regional golf publications rank a half a notch higher than its cousin at Palmetto Dunes. Truth is, the Hills Course at Palmetto Hall has all kinds of reasons to strut in front of its neighbor: it is newer, having opened in 1991; it is longer, 6,918 yards to 6,651 yards; and it is dripping with history, having been built on the site of an old Civil War garrison.

The rivalry, however, is by all means a friendly one.

"The two courses, even the two properties feed off each other's reputations and success," Borton says."Play them both and you'll find the difference in quality is nominal."

Both courses, in true resort fashion, are unapologetically playable for the average golfer. The Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes, however, insists on aerial approach shots on a number of holes, as coastal lagoons are in play on number of holes. The 373-yard par 4 2nd hole and the scenic par 3 3rd are great examples, with water guarding the greens on both holes. At Palmetto Hall, you're just as likely to find water along the fairways as you are around the greens. The par 5 5th and the massive, 434-yard par 4 18th both feature lagoons that run the entire length of the hole (albeit on opposite sides).

Both golf courses adhere to similar themes of grip-it-and-rip-it off the tee and pinpoint accurate approach shots to greens. The later becomes difficult to execute on holes like the par-4 first and the par-5 18th at Palmetto Dunes, where the greens are actually fronted by shoulder-high mounds. At Palmetto Hall, golfers have to deal with another element when they miss their mark - the rough. The cabbage is grown thick in the summer months, consisting of a deadly blend of Bermuda around the greens and Bahia along the fairways.

Not a long course, the Palmetto Dunes course makes it's living on its par 4s, which range from interesting to awe-inspiring. For starters, there are holes No. 4 and No. 5 on the front nine, which bend around the old Port Royal Lighthouse and feature some of the most beautiful hardwood backdrops on the island. The lighthouse was operable as far back as the Civil War, but its heaviest utilization was between 1881-1930 when it was used to guide ships into the island's Port Royal channel.

"We have some people, lighthouse hunters, who ask if they can just walk and see the light house," says head professional Clarke Sinclair.

Perhaps the lighthouse should be stationed on the back nine, where a beacon of hope is truly needed. Beginning with the par 4, 399-yard 12th hole, the course tightens the screws with a demanding stretch of holes that culminates with the signature hole, the par 4 17th. The No. 4 handicap hole in your yardage book, but the No. 1 handicap in your mind, No. 17 doglegs left around one of the course's trademark lagoons to a green perched just on the other side of the drink. Legend has it that Tiger Woods attempted to drive the green from the 380-yard blue tees during the Rolex Amateurs, only to have his tee shot roll off the front of the green and into the water.

"Not many players forget that hole," Borton says.

And not many players will forget the name Arthur Hills after a visit to Palmetto Dunes or Palmetto Hall.

Hilton Head dining

Known as the "Brew Pub" to locals, the Hilton Head Brewing Company (843-785-BREW) was South Carolina's first brewery and restaurant post prohibition. It also happens to be home to the island's best wings and an assortment of pub fare that includes wood fired pizzas, burgers, and salads. Interesting twists include a weekend brunch that includes Brew Pub French Toast, omelets, and breakfast wraps; seasonal brews that will quench your thirst in the thick of summer or chill of winter; and a jukebox that is second to none for folk rock loving Gen-Xers.

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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