Love old school design? Tee off on these Hilton Head Island golf courses for traditionalists

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- To start, let's define "traditional" golf.

Oyster Reef Golf Club - hole 6
The signature sixth hole at Oyster Reef Golf Club, a fierce par 3 with bunkers surrounding the green, features a sharp drop on the right side.
Oyster Reef Golf Club - hole 6Sea Pines Resort - Ocean CourseShipyard Golf Club - Galleon course - hole 1Port Royal Golf Club - Planter's Row course - hole 5

In this instance, go with two criteria: First, a traditional golf course rewards smart, accurate play and doesn't randomly punish good shots. And specifically in reference to Hilton Head Island, I'll add a course that makes the best use of the island's unique geography.

Three Hilton Head Island golf courses leap to mind as traditional under the first criteria, including one designed by Rees Jones, Oyster Reef Golf Club; another by Willard Byrd, Planter's Row at Port Royal Golf Club; and one by George Cobb, Shipyard Golf Club's Clipper/Galleon 18. These are tight, straightforward golf courses on which one can see from each tee what lies ahead.

Spectacular scenery stars on the fourth pick, the Ocean Course at Sea Pines Resort.

Here then is a look at four Hilton Head Island golf courses well suited to those who enjoy traditional course designs ...

Oyster Reef Golf Club

With Oyster Reef Golf Club, Jones plotted a golf course through the trees, near the lagoons and up to the marshes.

He opted to place specific bunkers right where one might drift instead of using lateral hazards. Sometimes, they're strewn across the fairway; other times around the green. And, on occasion, both.

Oyster Reef Golf Club's signature sixth hole, a beautiful-but-wicked par 3, backs up to Port Royal Sound. The distance is very difficult to gauge, and that's before you factor in the wind. Plus, you must land your ball on the elevated green to avoid bunkers in front and to the left. On the right, there's a drop-off. It's helpful here to take into account the pin placement before firing for the green.

Oyster Reef G.C.'s memorable, par-5 12th hole includes a mess of bunkers that golfers must carry, not to mention a set of four bunkers near the green, again requiring an entry by air. It's a tough hole.

More natural distractions on the 14th and 15th arrive in the form of a bird sanctuary along the entire right side. To make life more interesting, the fairway on No. 14 slopes long and right, bringing you up close and personal to the avian habitat. You're more likely to see birdies than to make one.

Shipyard Golf Club

Shipyard Golf Club is an eclectic assortment of 27 holes with 18 designed about 40 years ago by Cobb, another nine by Willard Byrd about 12 years later.

Let's dispense with Shipyard's Brigantine course from the start. It's a vibrant nine designed by Byrd - but it doesn't cry out "traditional." On the other hand, the two nines by Cobb, the Clipper and the Galleon do. Here's why: These nines rely on trees, bunkers and doglegs to challenge you, but the key element that makes them traditional is the front-center approach to the green. Invariably, there is a sweet little alleyway right up the center of the green so you can roll that ball right up there on every hole. Rarely are there bunkers behind the greens. But placing the approaching shots to end up in front of the green is the true test of the golf course.

Galleon starts with a par 4 that has a daunting bunker complex on the right, followed by water. You'll notice a trend that many of the holes punish slicers. Lefties will eat up this course.

However, a challenge awaits at every par 3. They aren't cakewalks. Galleon's fifth hole has trees right next to the forward tees, so a high approach to the green might clip a branch and change your plans. The fourth hole on Clipper has a water carry and a lot of bunkers short. Go long. On Clipper, the par-4 third hole is ranked about mid-difficulty, but I disagree. Chances are, your approach is going to be over water from the right that have nasty tentacles that swallow your ball and a big alligator to keep you from looking for it. It's pretty intimidating, especially since this a hole with a rare bunker in back. In short, the 18 holes of George Cobb-designed golf at Shipyard Golf Club require subtly and shot making, not distance. It's a traditional golf course for the strategy-seeking golfer.

The Planter's Row course at Port Royal Golf Club

Designed in 1984, the Planter's Row golf course at Port Royal Golf Club easily ranks as the tightest Hilton Head Island golf course. It also provides a park-like setting, with no houses on the golf course. You feel like you're playing a privileged, private club with decades of history.

Byrd didn't use a lot of sand at Planter's Row, but there's plenty of water, and it's pretty obnoxious. Several water carries onto the greens add difficulty -- and not just on the par 3s.

Planter's Row is not a long golf course, which is good. After all, you've already got to thread the driver down thin strips of fairway and avoid many water hazards near the tees, fairway and greens.

It's a thinking-man's course. No. 8, for example, features a sharp dogleg right with sand at the far corner and a 26-yard-wide, amoeba-shaped green amid three large bunkers. Shot placement is everything.

On the second-hardest handicap, No. 12, a rough par 4, Byrd went with lots of water on approach to the green. Chances are, you'll lay up to launch your shot over an interrupted fairway, making a one-putt necessary for par.

Overall, the golf course feels classy and traditional with the tight trees, plus sand and water hazards placed judiciously, not haphazardly.

Sea Pines Resort's Ocean Course

One of the oldest golf courses in Hilton Head, Sea Pines Resort's Ocean Course captures the essence of golf on the island. Designed by George Cobb in 1962, it received a 1996 renovation by PGA Tour player Mark McCumber.

The Ocean Course reeks of tropical characteristics, with palm trees as backdrops at the greens, lots of lagoons and one peak at the ocean itself (on No. 15). You can almost hear the luau music.

And scenery rules the day here, providing a forgiving, open golf course with enough bunkers, water and interrupted fairways to remind you that, oh yeah, you're playing golf. Crews worked hard to preserve the birds, earning the certification as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for the Ocean Course. As a result, expect pleasing distractions from the many water birds to alligators sunning on the banks of the lagoons.

Water is everywhere. But it remains mostly in the background -– often requiring an easy carry from the tees or to the side of a green. The greens are large, and they slope rather than undulate, so the risk of putting trouble is dampened. And in Cobb fashion, every green includes a thin, roll-up alley right in the middle to deposit less-than-perfect shots on the putting surface.

As a group, these are golf courses for those who expect to find certain elements. Be it a 100-year-old ambiance and tight, tree-lined fairways or a tropical flavor at an oceanfront setting, these Hilton Head traditions have you covered.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • henry

    Catherine A Bailey wrote on: Aug 3, 2010

    I have to disagree with you here. I live in the area and have played nearly every course in the Hilton Head area and I find it a fair assessment. I'm sorry you feel that way, but I have to agree with the reviewer.


  • Old School Golf

    Sandy wrote on: Jun 2, 2010

    I doubt this article is a paid advertisement, as Henry states. Heritage Golf Group does not own Sea Pines and has other courses on the island that they manage which are not mentioned in the article.
    I've played Port Royal and Shipyard and agree with this article that these courses are a true test of golf skill.


  • Omission to Old School Golf

    Henry wrote on: Jun 1, 2010

    Guess we can't rely on for unbiased stories about golf at Hilton Head.
    This is NOT NEWS but a paid article by Heritage Golf Group for their courses and omits other courses that are better. If it weren't an "advertorial" it would mention at least two other courses.