The Lowcountry oasis is unapologetic about the high quality — and quantity — of its golf, which makes Hilton Head Island an ideal destination for the discriminate golfer
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Hilton Head Island is what Myrtle Beach and Florida want to be when they grow up.
With about 30 courses on a marshy oasis that measures only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, and sits along the Intracoastal Waterway in South Carolina, Hilton Head exudes serenity and civility. Unapologetically, Hilton Head subtly advises Spring Breakers, all-you-can-eat buffet seekers and, for the most part, budget-minded golfers not to apply.
The 39,000 residents see almost three million visitors each year and they are well equipped to welcome them with 6,000 villas, 3,000 hotel/motel rooms, 1,000 timeshares and assorted other accommodations. Flights arrive on-island at the Hilton Head Airport or at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport about 45 miles away. It’s an easy drive for those in the northeast U.S. and Ontario and Quebec.
If your only familiarity with Hilton Head Island comes when the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage shows up on TV every April — well, not this year — you’re getting a tantalizing taste of what draws those three million tourists every year.
Most come for the golf, but they also enjoy the miles of beach, 250 restaurants, 300 tennis courts and a maze of bike paths, among other activities.
Yes, you can play Pete Dye’s iconic Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort, where the PGA Tour has been coming for half a century. But you can also enjoy the others, most of which are just like Harbour Town … if you squint a bit.
At Sea Pines, Harbour Town’s siblings are another Dye creation, Heron Point, and Atlantic Dunes. The latter, designed by Davis Love III, was named the national course of the year by the National Golf Course Owners Association for whatever criteria. Perhaps because Love is a five-time winner of the RBC Heritage?
For my money, Dye’s Heron Point is the preferred outing at Sea Pines. Seven sets of tees make it fun, yet challenging, for any golfer and the conditioning is superb. The first few holes are so welcoming you might wonder if this is really a Dye course. Then the tree-lined fairways and signature bunkering are a quick reminder that he didn’t mail this one in.
Just down the road — heck, everything is just down the road on the island, mainly because there is really only one road — is Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort with its three courses. The Arthur Hills course is the most upscale and features significant elevation changes — an anomaly on the island — and a great BBQ joint in the opulent Robert Trent Jones clubhouse.
The Robert Trent Jones layout at Palmetto Dunes has terrific par-3 holes and a breathtaking ocean vista on the par-5 10th hole, but the old-timey George Fazio course tells you right from the start that this is a course you want to play every day, starting with the sign on the first tee outlining their “Relaxed Rules of Golf for those who play golf just to have fun”:
1. Maximum score is double par
2. Penalties are all one stroke
3. Limit ball searches to two minutes
4. Improve unfortunate lies
5. Conceded putts allowed
6. No equipment restrictions
7. Use common sense
Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club offers courses designed by Dye, George Cobb and William Byrd. Part of the Heritage Golf Group that includes Oyster Reef Golf Club and Shipyard Golf Club, Port Royal has a slightly faded patina with a noticeably older clientele and, not coincidentally, a more leisurely pace of play, shall we say. If you’re looking for a couple of warm-up rounds before taking on some of the more challenging courses on the island, start here.
“We try to provide an opportunity for just about everyone to come play our courses with a variety of packages,” says Lisa Dahlstrom, Director of Revenue for Heritage. “The more you stay, the more you play, and we try to maximize the experience and the value by customizing the package.
“In the summer, Hilton Head Island is a family destination but in the spring and the fall, we’re all about golf. The weather is great and, especially in the fall, the course conditions are exceptional.”
There are plentiful golf options just over the bridge linking Hilton Head Island to the mainland. As you enter Bluffton, a historic village that is one of many tourist attractions in the region, you can play Old South Golf Links. A Clyde Johnston design, it was named by Golf Digest as one of the top 10 new public courses in 1992.
“Along with Old South, there’s a lot of really good courses around the Bluffton area, most designed by notable architects,” says Robbie Wooten of Impact Golf Marketing which represents many of the courses in the region. “The price point is generally lower than on the island but the experience is the same and they’re all within about a half-hour’s drive of where you’re staying on the island.”
The “HH” bumper stickers on cars obviously refer to “Hilton Head” but they could just as accurately refer to “Happy Hour.”
Many spots, perched right on the water, offer late-afternoon, après-golf food-and-drink specials. Two of the best are Skull Creek and, next door, Hudson’s where they serve the very oysters they farm and, if you are lucky enough to visit during soft-shell crab season, don’t hesitate.
You can pick up a copy of local guides such as Fork & Fun and Menu Guide, but from personal experience, it’s best to ask the locals where to enjoy just about every cuisine imaginable from fine dining to sports bars like CocoNutz and the Hickory Tavern. After all, there are 250 restaurants here.
Not to be missed is A Lowcountry Backyard with its down-home atmosphere and a superb menu. Amazing shrimp and grits. Next door is The Smokehouse where the “HH” is a must.
If you have cooking facilities where you stay, drop by Barnacle Bill’s, a permanent roadside stand offering all kinds of fresh seafood to take home and prepare to your preference. The shrimp are large and luscious. And the local Kroger’s has a vast array of seafood and produce.
Hilton Head may be unapologetic when it comes to its ambiance and clientele but it needs no apology for the quality of its hospitality and amenities. If you have grown-up tastes, that is.
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