Traditional Sea Pines Resort retains its charm

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Perhaps no other vacation property in the country is built on one single image than Sea Pines Resort.

The red-and-white stripped lighthouse at Harbour Town Golf Links permeates the consciousness of millions of viewers during the PGA Tour's annual stop here.

The giant candy cane look-a-like also serves as an aiming point for one of the world's most photographed and challenging holes, the 452-yard 18th at Harbour Town. But Sea Pines Resort is more than just the lighthouse and Harbour Town, the design that launched Pete Dye's career.

Its tradition is built on summer night family sing-a-longs with Gregg Russell. Its bond with nature only grows stronger as the rest of America suffers through a building boom. Its harbor scene, with its shops and eateries, creates visual memories that will last forever.

Although there's a good chance Sea Pines Resort could change ownership within the next six months, don't expect its charm to disappear. A sale to Virginia businessman William H. Goodwin's company, the Riverstone Group, could be pending.

Goodwin, a part-time Sea Pines resident who already owns 26.6 percent of Sea Pines' stock, is well versed on the resort's virtues. If the sale goes through, pending Securities and Exchange Commission and Sea Pines Associates' shareholders approval, Sea Pines would join Goodwin's growing golf stable, which includes Kiawah Island Golf Resort, also in South Carolina.

If the recent addition of Kiawah Island's $20 million, 255-room Sanctuary, a deluxe hotel and spa complex, is any indication, Goodwin could take Sea Pines to new heights. As one Sea Pines employee put it: "The move could make an already good resort great."

Harbour Town Golf Links

Since that first PGA Tour event at Harbour Town in 1969, few courses have stood the test of time as well as this 6,973-yard gem. The event's sponsor has changed over the years, but the tournament itself has not. It's one of the sternest tests of golf on tour today, despite its relatively lack of length.

Only shot-shapers and ball-control artists like five-time winner Davis Love III, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and three-time winner Hale Irwin have been able to solve Harbour Town's riddle of accuracy and angles. Stately trees and overhanging limbs demand precise tee shots to set up approach shots.

"Harbour Town, when I built it 20 years ago, was pretty low profile," Dye said earlier this year. "I really liked (Robert Trent) Jones. I copied him a lot. Jack (Nicklaus) was building Palmetto Dunes (also on Hilton Head Island), so I figured I better go in the opposite direction to get noticed."

Dye redesigned the course in 2000, but didn't change much, per the request of many of the PGA Tour players. The redesign replaced many of his trademark railroad ties that had begun to fall apart, and revived the course conditioning. All the tees and greens were completely rebuilt.

Although the par-3s are collectively considered one of the best sets in the entire country, the most intriguing holes are two nasty, short par-4s - the 332-yard ninth and the 373-yard 13th.

A tree on the left edge of the fairway guard the V-shaped green at the ninth, while three sand pits gobble up errant long shots. Dye won't take credit for the dangerous 13th. He blames the huge banked bunker around the island green on his wife, Alice. To add to the fun of it, moss-draped oaks provide only a 30-foot window of open space to the green.

The left waste bunker at the 395-yard 16th generated plenty of controversy during last season's MCI Heritage playoff when Stewart Cink was accused of puffing up his lie before hitting an improbable shot to win the tournament.

The winds off the Calibogue Sound make the tough 185-yard 17th play even harder. And the 18th might be the hardest par-4 from the blue tees on the planet. It's 444 yards of wind, water and worry for amateurs.

Sea Pines Resort's Sea Marsh Course

The 6,515-yard Sea Marsh course, designed by George Cobb in 1967, is one of the Sea Pines commodities that could use a facelift. The course received a redesign in 1990 by Clyde Johnson, but that was before the distance boom of the last five years.

Additional length, and some drainage and irrigation upgrades, could really help a solid course shine. Obviously the course is marketed as a more family friendly challenge, with its "Mini-Marsh" tees for the young players.

Dangerous second shots over cross hazards highlight the front nine par-5s at the 478-yard sixth and the 505-yard ninth.

Sea Pines Resort's Ocean Course

The granddaddy of Hilton Head golf, the Sea Pines Ocean Course is the oldest on the island, opening in 1962. Mark McCumber redesigned the 6,906-yard course in 1995, reviving its personality and conditioning.

The golf course barely touches the ocean - the 210-yard 15th hole and the 16th tee provide a peek of the Atlantic - but lagoons and marsh pools are prevalent everywhere else.

Golf at Sea Pines Resort: The verdict

With 18 courses on the island, Hilton Head Island ranks as one of the country's top 10 golf destinations, with Sea Pines as its undisputed king. Playing Harbour Town, and surviving its 18th hole, is a rite of passage for any player. With a pending sale to an owner truly committed to great golf resorts, Sea Pines appears ready to move up the pecking order of the country's top resorts. Upgrading its other two courses to the level of Harbour Town would elevate Sea Pines' status as a top 25 golf resort.

Where to stay

The 60-room Inn, just a short jaunt from the Harbour Town Golf Links and next to the Sea Pines Racquet Club, rivals any luxury resort accommodations in the southeast. The English Butler staff provides friendly service with a delicious accent.

Sea Pines Resort off course

If you don't like golf, don't worry.

The Sea Pines Racquet Club, a 24-clay court tennis center scheduled for a complete renovation within the next year, already ranks as one of the nation's best tennis training facilities, according to Tennis Magazine. Led by Stan Smith, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, the Sam Smith-Billy Stearns Tennis Academy runs a top junior and instruction program, even in the heat of summer.

As the first eco-tourist resort in the country, Sea Pines beckons outdoor lovers. More than 350 species of birds nest in the 605-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve. A discovery tour takes guest in search of loggerhead turtles.

Tourists can explore 20 miles of bike trails and nature paths by foot, bicycle or horseback. Cooling pools and five miles of oceanfront beach are obviously popular choices.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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