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Golfing Charleston, SC

Tara Donne Seabrook Island's Crooked Oaks course.

Photo: Tara Donne

And so I find myself strolling a torn-up course with Wilson and Brian Silva, the architect in charge of restoring the CC of Charleston. "Did you ever see anything like this?" asks Silva, as he shows off the new old sixteenth green, an amazing creation known as the Lion's Mouth because of its rising U-shaped putting surface protected by a massive bunker. A recognized Raynor expert, Silva began restoring cross bunkers, greens and hogback fairway ridges last spring to the way that Raynor originally designed them.But he also made some adjustments to them for the modern game—the club wants a living golf course, not an homage. "Because the land's so flat, Raynor couldn't just rely on topography here," says Silva. "He had to create interesting features to keep the course strategically interesting."

It is hard to believe that just two private oases—the Country Club of Charleston and the Yeamans Hall Club—plus a lone municipal track that opened four years after them, formed nearly the sum total of golf in the Charleston area until the 1970s, when a housing development with a private course sprouted in Mount Pleasant on land that once belonged to Charles Pinckney, another signer of the Constitution.

Then, all of a sudden, a golf backwater turned into a golf destination as the Low Country's mild winters began luring northerners to a passel of resort communities studded with courses designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Fazio and the Joneses. All, for the most part, reflect the city—slower, less crowded and more charming than the courses of Myrtle Beach, north up the South Carolina coast. It may have taken two centuries, but golf has been restored to its American nativity.

As of 2006, there's certainly no shortage of memorable golf to play in the area, and over the past several days, from the Isle of Palms down to Kiawah and Seabrook islands, I've sampled a variety. I expected to be awed by the Ocean course, and I was. Then came the surprises. I was stirred by playing through the landscape that gives Wild Dunes its name. And I managed to keep up with the Joneses: Both father (Robert Trent) and son (Rees) found remarkable ways to incorporate Low Country wetlands into their designs, respectively, of the Club at Seabrook Island's Crooked Oaks course and Charleston National.

The latter went through its own radical renovation even before it opened, courtesy of Hurricane Hugo, which tore through in September of 1989. The storm uprooted thousands of trees, forcing the course routing to be significantly changed. And what had been born a private club at the center of an upscale real estate development was coaxed back to life minus the lock on the gate.

What remained—what always remains in these parts through wars and through storms—was the marsh. Charleston National is still the challenge and visual treat that Rees Jones intended it to be, especially on the back nine where, beginning on the twelfth hole, suddenly, there are no houses in sight—just water and grasses and reeds and lovely wooden bridges linking greens and tees. I hold my breath on the 372-yard fifteenth as I urge my drive to carry the marsh and reach the fairway, two hundred–plus yards out, only to be faced with more marshland in play on the approach. But the real test arrives on eighteen, the rare finishing par three, 188 yards from stem to stern composed of just three components: tee box, wetlands and a tricky green complex fronted by a wooden bulkhead and rimmed with bunkers. So much can go wrong, my first inclination is to toss my ball into the soup and get it over with—but I give my mind a mulligan, make a sound swing and hit the green. Two putts later, I pocket my par.

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