Golf tripping through Hilton Head Island
Excerpts from a late autumn golf gorge through the island that Fraser built
HILTON HEAD, S.C. - It's hard to imagine this island as it once was. Devoid of humans. Devoid of housing. Devoid of the multi-million dollar industry that is golf. Hilton Head Island - named for English Captain William Hilton - didn't have electricity until 1951; air conditioning until 1960; its second golf course until 1967. The local population once consisted of freed slaves and critters. Yet today, the island is home to 37,000 year-round residents, and attracts millions of visitors every year to its lush green golf courses and sun-baked tennis courts.
These were deep thoughts to have while wolfing down a Grouper melt at Captain Woody's Bar and Grill. But a steady diet of 36 holes a day leaves a little time for reflection upon the "how and why" of Hilton Head Island in more proper setting.
Especially with a 1 p.m. tee time looming large.
Suffice it say, the grand old game didn't make its way here by attrition; rather, by design. The blueprint was laid by the late Charles Fraser, a developer extraordinaire who made it his life's mission to firmly cement this Lowcountry atoll into America's golf conscious.
Harbour Town Golf Links and Sea Pines Resort
In the '50s, Fraser and Fred Hack purchased 19,000 of the island's 25,000 acres. In the late 1960s, Fraser lured an obscure golf course architect from Indiana and the PGA Tour's marquee golfer to Hilton Head in hopes of starting a golf revolution. The duo, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, designed what would become one of the seminal courses in American golf course architectural history - Harbour Town Golf Links.
Today, Harbour Town and surrounding Sea Pines Resort are integral parts of an island considered by many to be one of the top golf destinations in the world. The course's diminutive greens and haunting, tree-lined fairways have been the site of the "Heritage of Golf" - arguably the PGA Tour's most popular stop - since 1969. Dye returned in the winter of 2001 to remodel the course's tee boxes, bunkers and greens. From a design standpoint, Harbour Town has never been stronger.
The course plays just under 7,000 yards from the "Heritage" tees, but average golfers will find the layout particularly manageable from the 6,040 yards white tees. One thing you can also bank on with most Dye designs: Pete's wife Alice, a heck of an amateur golfer and designer in her own right, makes sure her husband's tracks are challenging and fair from the women's tees. Harbour Town (just over 5,200 yards from the forward green tees) is no exception.
The course's 18th hole plays along the Calibogue Sound and ends just short the island's trademark lighthouse. Those who survive this famous par-4 will find the remainder of the island is brimming with quality resort courses.
Golf at Palmetto Dunes Resort
After a quick lunch of pulled pork BBQ and a cold can of beer, I made my way back towards the island's leeward side and the golf and tennis stronghold of Palmetto Dunes Resort. The property is home to three highly regarded courses designed by Arthur Hills, George Fazio, and Robert Trent Jones.
Palmetto Dunes' Jones Course is not without history: the venerable layout is the second oldest circuit on the island and recently underwent a $3.2 million renovation by Jones' former protege, Roger Rulewich. The project included remodeling all 18 greens, enlarging a series of lagoons on the back nine, and elevating the tee box on the famous oceanfront par-5 10th hole.
The facelift brought the Jones Course back up to snuff with Palmetto Dunes' Hills Course - a gem of a track draped over the property's original sand dunes and snuggled amid thick strands of palmettos and palm trees. As for the Fazio Course at Palmetto Dunes, the arduous track is quite comfortable in its spoiler role. Stocked with water hazards and penal bunkers, many locals consider it to be the most challenging of the three. I opted for 18 holes on the picturesque Hills Course.
Golf at Palmetto Hall Plantation
Five hours later, I was mulling over the day's missed opportunities while enjoying a dozen hot wings and frothy ale at the Hilton Head Brewing Company. Known as the "Brew Pub" to locals, the Hilton Head Brewing Company was South Carolina's first brewery and restaurant following prohibition (or so the story goes).
It doesn't take long (or multiple ales at the Brew Pub) to figure out that multi-course resorts are the modus operandi in these parts. Palmetto Dunes' sister resort, Palmetto Hall Plantation, follows suit with two highly touted resort courses, one designed by the omnipresent Hills and the other by Robert Cupp. The Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation, if you've seen pictures, looks like something that fell from a spaceship. Cupp plotted the original design on computer, creating bunkers and fairway mounding with straight lines, sharp angles and geometric shapes.
Loyal to a fault, I stuck with Hills and found that his Palmetto Hall offering trumped his Palmetto Dunes course. The entire Hills Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation is lined with towering pines, moss-draped Live Oaks, and plays around a series of sparkling lakes. It is traditional as the Cupp course is modern. The rap on Hills has always been that there really isn't a rap on Hills. Some golf course architects are know for this, others for that. Hills is just known, which to me says a lot about his ego, or lack thereof.
In any event, the centerpiece of Palmetto Hall is a 14,000-square foot antebellum clubhouse that has to rank as one of the best places in the world to sip lemonade and do nothing. Two of my favorite pastimes afforded me the opportunity to contemplate the rapid development of this behemoth barrier island.
Crescent Golf Club and Eagle's Pointe
With its mercurial growth in the '70s and '80s, it was only a question time before Hilton Head out grew its borders. Mega-resorts like Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes and Palmetto Hall eventually became part of the golf fabric, and not the center of it. The off island town of Bluffton and U.S. 278 being case in point.
The options are seemingly limitless along this bustling golf corridor and there's even some value to be had. Crescent Pointe Golf Club and sister golf course Eagle's Pointe are two of the corridor's finer specimens. Crescent comes courtesy of Arnold Palmer, and is a first-class daily fee facility with exceptional conditioning and service. Eagle's Point, designed by PGA Tour player Davis Love III, isn't far behind in either category. Nor would any golfer be disappointed with Old Carolina Golf Club and Old South Golf Links - a couple kissing cousins designed by resident Hilton Head architect Clyde Johnston.
But land-lubbing, I figured, was something I could do anytime. Island hopping, though, is a novel concept that if nothing else, brings back childhood memories of T.C.'s rainbow colored helicopter on Magnum, P.I.
Golf on Daufuskie Island
So after browsing the golf wares of the 278 corridor, I set my sights on the Daufuskie Island Resort and Spa on nearby Daufuskie Island. Native son and best-selling author Pat Conroy immortalized the Island's colorful history in his novel, "The Water is Wide." Getting to and from the island, by the way, hasn't changed much since Conroy's days.
The Daufuskie Island Resort and Spa is accessible only by boat. Guests, residents and employees of the resort hop the ferry that embarks from the tip of Hilton Head and makes the 40-minute trip across the sound to an inconspicuous dock on the other side. A courtesy bus whisks you off to the Inn or one of the cottages and guest transportation is limited to club cars (golf carts) bicycles and horses (thus safely eliminating any risk of operating heavy machinery while intoxicate).
The resort counts among its wares two fine resort courses authored by Nicklaus and the vaunted team of Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. The Melrose Club golf course is the most popular play among guests, with the final three holes playing along the Atlantic Ocean. The par-5 18th, with the ocean actually in play on the right side of the fairway, is widely considered the most scenic finishing hole in the state.
Bloody Point G.C. was originally wrought as a private, walking course, but is available for guest play under the resort's new ownership. The 6,900-yard track takes golfers on a wild ride along the banks of the Mungen River and through the coastal marshes and dark water lagoons of the southern tip of the island. After sampling them both, I would summarily submit that these are two of the more underappreciated island resort courses on the East Coast.
Later that evening, a warm fire burning in the fireplace of the Melrose Mansion Inn's mahogany-laden lounge provided the perfect ambiance for relaxing with a pint of ale the color motor oil. A handsome couple shoots a game of pool while a few guests catch the evening news on the oversized television. Grabbing my glass, I saunter out to the Inn's spacious front lawn to conjure up more deep thoughts on the how and why of Hilton Head. Within a few paces, I am at the water's edge, the 18th green of the Melrose Course caught in the twilight to my right. The only thing I can think about is my next golf trip to Hilton Head.
September 27, 2003