Hilton Head a catharsis for all levels of golfer

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

HILTON HEAD, S.C. - Golf course architect Clyde Johnston has designed courses all over the Carolinas. But when it came time to throw up his sign and hang his hat, Hilton Head Island was the clear choice for this High Point, N.C. native. Johnston lives and works on the island, and says that five of his favorite golf tracks in the world are located right here on the southern edge of the Low Country.

Marty Ekster, president of Seaside Vacations in Myrtle Beach, lives and breathes Grand Strand golf. He gushes about some courses, he rails on others. In praise or scorn, he is passionate about the Myrtle Beach golf scene. Passionate, but not head over heels in love. Ekster says there's no place on the east coast that stacks up to Hilton Head for quality golf and out and out relaxation.

"Let's face it, Myrtle Beach is the Honda of golf," Ekster says. "It is affordable, reliable, and everyone loves to drive it. But Hilton Head is the Boxster convertible. It is stylish, not always that affordable, but always a great time."

Flip on the Golf Channel this week, and you'll hear player after player gushing about this week's PGA Tour stop in Hilton Head, the WorldCom Classic. The venerable tournament is nothing short of a collective sigh of relief after a gut-wrenching week at Augusta National. All the big names show up to play one of the world's most revered courses, Harbour Town Golf Links, and let their families run wild on Hilton Head's powdery beaches.

Professional golfers, golf course architects, travel industry professionals, and recreational golfers are as different as the day is long, but they all garner the same benefit out of a visit to Hilton Head: a complete catharsis of the soul.

"This island exists for the sole purpose of golf and relaxation," Johnston says. "There is literally nothing else to do here but have a good time. It is also appealing because of the way it is designed. There's lots of beautiful scenery on the coast, but the storefronts, bike paths and village feel here are like no other place in this region."

Hilton Head golf: Quality is the buzzword

The concentration of quality golf courses in Hilton Head is also unparalleled. Myrtle Beach may have 120 golf courses strewn over a 60-miles stretch of coastline, but Hilton Head houses 44 layouts on a remote sliver of land that when staring at the state map, appears to provide just enough space to park an R.V. In addition to the courses on the main island, there are also world-class golf facilities on Fripp and Daufuskie Islands, and the stately facilities of historic Beaufort.

Of course, the most famous track of them all is the one that takes center stage this week, with the playing of the WorldCom Classic. Pete Dye crafted Harbour Town in 1969 with input from then fledgling course designer Jack Nicklaus. A number of golf historians credit the course, with its railroad track wide fairways, diminutive greens, and penal bunkering, with ushering in the modern age of course design.

The most famous hole on the course is the 450-yard par four 18th, which plays to a wide-open, wind swept fairway with the famous Lighthouse looming in the background. Ironically, what thousands of television viewers may not realize from the comfort of their couches is that the 18th is unlike any other hole at Harbour Town.

"It is one the great finishing holes in all of golf, but it is also one of the most misleading," Johnston says. "So many golfers who have never been here figure that Harbour Town plays around the water like a links style course, when it reality it is 17 holes of a total swamp dodging."

On the other 359 days when the course isn't hosting the WorldCom Classic, Harbour Town is open for limited public play for those with a seemingly unlimited budget. Sea Pines Resort guests can typically get out for $190, and the course commands a $240 rack rate during the peak spring season.

Harbour Town plays to just over 6,900 yards from the championship tees, and the slope rating of 146 ensures that it is a solid test of golf for the pros. But it can also play like a resort course from the 6040-yard "member" tees, giving mid to high handicappers a legitimate shot at a reasonable number. The course closed a year and a half ago for a major remodeling of the putting surfaces. But for the most part, you'll find the same tiny saucers with little or no undulation punctuating the end of each hole.

Hilton Head golf courses: Best of the rest

If the thought of Dye and Nicklaus together on one golf course is enough to bring you to tears, Sea Pines also offers the George Cobb-designed Ocean Course and the Sea Marsh Course, the former being the first 18-hole course on the island, built back in 1962.

Hilton Head is stocked with resort and high end, semiprivate facilities, and two of the island's most popular multi-course offerings are Palmetto Hall and Palmetto Dunes. Palmetto Hall is home to two 18-hole layouts, the Arthur Hills Course and Robert Cupp Course, and Palmetto Dunes features the Hills Course, George Fazio Course, and Robert Trent Jones Sr. Course.

If you'd prefer to strike out on your own, Hilton Head has a bevy of excellent, stand-alone golf courses to facilitate a maverick golf binge. The Links at Stono Ferry, Hilton Head National, Oyster Reef Golf Course, and the Country Club of Hilton Head just to name a few, are ideal for a la carte consumption.

"Hilton Head is one of the ten best golf destinations in the world in my opinion," Johnston says. "Myrtle Beach has more for the family to do, but in terms of pure golf and relaxation with an incredible setting, this is tops in the Carolinas.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Atlantic Dunes

    Perry Baker wrote on: Jul 9, 2019

    The Ocean Course at Sea Pines is no more. It has undergone a redesign by Davis Love III's company and is rebranded Atlantic Dunes.