Golf for the non-traditionalist on Hilton Head Island

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - One might think being quirky in Hilton Head Island is a little risky, that convention and civility dominate on this resort island.

Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines
Sea Pines Resort's Harbour Town Golf Links is a course you would not forget even if it didn't appear on TV each April.
Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea PinesRobert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation - hole 13Heron Point GC at Sea Pines Resort - hole 16Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes Resort - hole 12

But when it comes to golf, innovative is the rule, not the exception.

It is here, in the land of golf, that designers were allowed to express themselves. A few took the subtle approach, letting the geography of trees and water dictate a course's flavor. For instance, although the first golf course didn't arise on the island until the 1960s, many of Rees Jones' courses in the area feel like they've been here 100 years, gently carving a tract through the trees and near the water.

Others, such as Pete Dye, Arthur Hills and Robert Cupp, imposed themselves on the properties, adding a huge dose of personality to their designs.

These are the courses for the non-traditionalists.

Harbour Town Golf Links - Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus

Easily, one can say Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus started the trend of non-conformity with Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort in 1969 with some outrageous holes, hazards and challenges. There are few holes anywhere like No. 13 with the Mickey-Mouse-ears trap that nearly surrounds the green, or the sliver of fairway one has to thread on No. 9 before dealing with its heart-shaped green.

Think Harbour Town and think railroad ties and an ingenious use of trees to block out shots in every dimension. It's a course most people hold dear, even on the PGA Tour.

Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes

Another designer left his mark in 1988. Ohio native Arthur Hills crafted a course unmistakably his at the Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.

He had a ball on his bulldozer, adding swales and mounds in the fairways, on the greens. Luckily, he restrained himself on the tee boxes. He gets his last laugh on 18, a green entirely hidden by mounds. You just have to trust it's there.

Water is a common theme on the course, and on holes where it is present, Hills makes you carry it. Water on this course isn't in the form of little retention ponds near the tee. You're going to have to contend with it, one way or another, either all along the hole, like No. 12, or hop and skip your way around it, like on 16 and 17. While playing, you'll be constantly trying to outwit Hills. It's a compelling component to the round.

Robert Cupp course at Palmetto Hall

Next came Robert Cupp with his computer in 1993. He let a computer have its way with the Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation, resulting in geometric bunkers, weird angles into the greens and laser straight lines on the course.

Each hole is different, so one has to reconfigure everything on each tee, from which end of the hole the trouble will lie to what size this green might be. Oh, and at which angle it sits, or is it narrow and deep or wide and shallow? And where is the water this time?

It's a bear of a golf course, with one of the highest slope ratings in the state from the back tees, a daunting 144. But the course can be gentle with a way around most hazards. The Cupp course is formidable and memorable. It's a course you'll want to play a second time, after the shock has worn off.

Heron Point at Sea Pines Resort - Pete Dye

The Heron Point course at Sea Pines Resort is Pete Dye's newest on the island, opening in 2007 and toned down in 2009.

As with any Dye course, the elements packed into each hole are overwhelming. First, one must play the entire hole in one's head before choosing which club to play from the tee. Chances are, there's one ideal way to play the hole, and any deviation will mean trouble, in one form or another, either a tree blocking out the green or a small bunker that adds risk to an approach.

Dye laid his course atop the old Sea Marsh course, but there are no similarities. It's Dye all the way, from wickedly undulating greens to riotous bunkers mid-fairway or at the green. A great thing about this course is you can dial in on exactly how much course you want to bite off, with six tees from which to choose. Tell the pro shop staff your handicap, and they'll recommend a set that will seem custom-made for you.

With dozens of golf courses on Hilton Head Island, variety is the appeal. If you're looking for something unusual, check out these courses. They are for golfers who love designers who build their personalities into the courses and let you come along for the ride, convention or topography be damned.

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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