Consider the palmetto, South Carolina's state tree. It sways like a partygoer stumbling home, its spiky look a casualty of nature's styling gel. Majestic?Elegant?No, that would be the live oak, drowsily draped in Spanish moss and even more emblematic of the South instantly conjured by a mention of Charleston.
There's much to recommend palmettos, though. Like their gallantry, endurance and resolve. They can stand up to hurricanes and outlast onslaughts man-made. Palmettos formed the walls of Charleston's Fort Moultrie, and for nine desperate hours on June 28, 1776, their pliancy saved the city by repelling the cannonade of the mighty British navy. That's more than enough, certainly, to plant the palmetto on the state flag; still, I'll add this endorsement: The palmetto is this golfer's friend, a lesson that was recently made manifest on two of the region's premier courses.
On my first day out, a lone palmetto standing proudly near the sandy waste to the right of the seventeenth green on the Links at Wild Dunes—an edge-of-the-Atlantic Tom Fazio layout—turned a nasty slice of mine into a nifty draw. Caroming off the bark, my approach fell back to earth just short of the putting surface. And today, a brilliant June morning, on the opening hole of the Ocean course at Kiawah Island, a palmetto has redirected my drive into perfect position in the fairway. Instead of cursing my doom, I'm free to enjoy an easy stroll to my ball with Ken Vedrinksi, the chef at Sienna, one of the area's most celebrated restaurants. His tee shot is even better positioned, and entirely of its own accord. I'd say we're cooking. No patriot dug in against George III ever appreciated a palmetto more.
Around Charleston, the capital of the Old South and a symbol of the New, the present day has interesting ways of bouncing off the past. On the golf course and in the restored heart of the city, history has a knack for reminding us that it is present. It's here in the colonial cobblestones; in the antebellum mansions built with fortunes made from indigo, rice and cotton; in the Ashley and the Cooper, the two tidal rivers that embrace the city and define its peninsula shape. History bleeds through the vibrant hues of residential Rainbow Row, inspiration for the novel that became Porgy and Bess; it's in the church steeples that mark this the Holy City and at the inn where I'm staying, the John Rutledge House, whose original owner was a signer of the Constitution and the second chief justice of the United States. Finally, it's in the shells still embedded in the walls of Fort Sumter from the fiery morning of April 12, 1861, when the Civil War broke out.
But the past is not just present; it's also prelude. Gallantry, endurance and resolve denote twenty-first-century Charleston, too. I can feel it: in the palpable ethos and energy that nod naturally to Rhett Butler (and the tourist dollars that history engenders) but refuse to be cast, like Colonial Williamsburg, in amber. I can see it: in the city's newest landmark, the year-old strikingly modern Ravenel Bridge, the longest cable-stayed span in North America, and in the golf courses of booming suburbs such as Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island and the Isle of Palms. And can I ever taste it: Charleston, longtime outpost of hominy and grits, has evolved into a food-lover's festival, courtesy of Vedrinksi and other cutting-edge chefs.
Yankee born and bred, I am no expert on the South (Old or New), though I do know that Charleston lies midway between the Ocean course, a modern Pete and Alice Dye marvel, and Seth Raynor's understated classic Yeamans Hall, a private enclave just north of town laid out in the mid-1920s so sporting swells had a place to stay and play along the wilderness that was then the train route between New York and Miami. Both courses have long idled atop my wish list.