Where To Golf Next

Island vibe sets Hilton Head apart

Hilton Head Island, an easy-going South Carolina Low Country golf destination, offers plenty of playing options

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Hilton Head Island bills itself as “The Golf Island,” and — given all the great golf that can be played there — arguing that point is hard. There are some areas for concern, however.

Barry Fleming, executive director of the South Carolina Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association, believes Hilton Head still has one troublesome issue.

“One of the biggest misperceptions is where it is, because so many people haven’t been there,” Fleming said. “It’s at the bottom tip of South Carolina, two hours from the Florida line. t’s much warmer than Myrtle Beach and Pinehurst.”

Three well-known golf meccas — Myrtle Beach and Kiawah Island, located up the South Carolina coastline, and Pinehurst, in the North Carolina sandhills — are several hours to the north of Hilton Head. The winter weather in those destinations is notably colder than at Hilton Head.

The Hilton Head area is just a much different place. Though it has some beautiful beaches, it’s more than an island. There are no neon signs and no street lights, and there’s an abundance of upscale restaurants. That’s just the island aspect of Hilton Head.

Fleming’s organization encompasses not only the island, but also the towns of Bluffton and Beaufort. There’s almost as much golf played there as there is on the island. The South Carolina Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association has 15 member courses on the island and 14 off the island, but it’s only a 45-minute drive from end to end.

Harbour Town Golf Links Lighthouse
The 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C., site of this week’s RBC Heritage event on the PGA Tour

That can create some difficult decisions for Hilton Head’s golfing visitors. If money’s not a concern, then the must-stay location is the island’s Sea Pines Resort, home to Harbour Town Golf Links — the site of the PGA Tour’s annual RBC Heritage Classic — and a couple of other high-end layouts in Atlantic Dunes and Heron Point.

Not taking anything away from those courses, Fleming admits “it can’t always be Sea Pines.”

He is correct. Based on recent developments, the must-play course in the Hilton Head area should be the Robert Trent Jones-designed Oceanfront Course at the Palmetto Dunes Resort. The course was deemed South Carolina’s Course of the Year by a vote of its peers in 2018 and the Course-of-the-Year for 2019.

Those are lofty accolades, given all the quality courses in South Carolina.

The Course opened in 1969, seven years after golf made its debut on Hilton Head. The first 18-holer on the island was called the Ocean Course and now — after a full-scale renovation — is called Atlantic Dunes. The Ocean Course started the golf boom in the Hilton Head area.

Palmetto Dunes’ first layout also has the ocean reference and has always been among the most popular at Hilton Head, despite the fact that its name is a bit misleading. The ocean aspect is a factor on only one hole, the signature par-5 10th.

The course, though, is a true out-and-back links layout with wide fairways. It's noted for having back-to-back par-5s — Nos. 9 and 10 — that touch the island’s 12 miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches. An 11-mile lagoon also provides water views on the back nine.

Like Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes has three courses and Oceanfront isn’t the resort’s most difficult. That distinction goes to the George Fazio Golf Course, the island’s only par-70 layout, which has the area’s most testing four-hole finishing stretch.

By no means, though, should the golf focus be limited to the two big resorts — Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes. The Heritage Golf Collection has a gem in Oyster Reef Golf Club, which was designed by Rees Jones, son of the original designer of Palmetto Dunes’ Oceanfront layout. Open in 1982, the course has got some breathtaking views, too. The par-3 sixth hole is one of the best of its kind in the area.

Off island, in Bluffton, Hilton Head National and Old South Golf Links rank among the best.