As we emerged suddenly from a darkening forest of bearded live oaks into the tidy gaslit lanes of Wilson Village at Palmetto Bluff, my wife, Wendy, blinked with astonishment and said, “Oh, look. A Southern Brigadoon.”
Even if the soulful South Carolina Lowcountry between the Colleton and Savannah Rivers weren’t one of the earth’s most magical landscapes, made famous by everything from the sketches of John James Audubon to the stories of Pat Conroy, it did seem as if we’d stumbled upon an enchanted place whose beauty might be surpassed only by its impermanence. For as in the Scottish tale of a mythic village that appears for only one night every hundred years, there is ample evidence to remind a visitor that time and tide keep the upper hand on man’s ambitions in this remote corner of the Lowcountry.
Five years ago, after all, Wilson Landing, the Inn at Palmetto Bluff and nearby May River Golf Club existed only in the fertile imaginations of a development company called Crescent Resources and the crafty brain of one Jack Nicklaus. Prior to that, reaching back to Colonial times, this remote twenty-thousand-acre coastal preserve (technically residing within the town limits of nearby Bluffton, a fishing hamlet located roughly halfway between Savannah and Hilton Head Island) served as home to a succession of yeoman rice and turpentine plantations, eventually yielding to a private estate with a seventy-two-room Gilded Age mansion hailed by an envious Charleston matron as the “most glorious thing on the Carolina Coast.” The mansion burned, only to be replaced by a timber company’s rustic sporting lodge that attracted anglers and shooting enthusiasts from all over the world. But in time even that disappeared.
Today only a trio of pillars and tabby foundation stones from the original mansion survive. They’re romantically incorporated into Wilson Landing’s tidy village green, which leads visitors through a grid of charming residential homes to the front steps of the reception center for the spectacular Inn at Palmetto Bluff, Auberge Resorts’ only East Coast property. Since opening four years ago, the Inn, with its fifty luxurious but decidedly low-key residential cottages scattered along the banks of several freshwater feeder streams and the majestic May River, has garnered virtually every major industry award for excellence.
As we arrived for a two-day golf retreat over Ryder Cup weekend, eager to briefly shake the cares of a wider world and judge for ourselves the merits of the May River Golf Club, which has been quietly scaling Palmetto State course rankings, a wedding party from Baltimore was gathering for a post-rehearsal fête at the Inn’s River House. Circular brick bonfire pits were being lit on the lawn, where Adirondack chairs were cozily arranged. After throwing open the wide plantation porch doors of our elegant Lowcountry cottage to catch the evening sea breeze and take in the twinkling lights of distant Bluffton, we set off to find the golf club on our bikes, pedaling through a lovely autumn night spiced by salt air and wood smoke. As we glided past the wedding revelers, a chap in a blazer spotted our golf caps and lifted his beer in the firelight, perhaps sensing kindred spirits.
“Who are you rooting for in the Ryder Cup?” he called, with the friendly intimacy one immediately feels at Palmetto Bluff.
“Haven’t decided yet,” I said.
“I hear the golf course here is awe-some,” he drawled. “Y’all played it yet?”
“Nope. We’re just going to find it by moonlight,” I replied.
“Wish I could go with y’all,” he gently admitted, provoking a swift punch in the arm from his female partner.
“Must be a friend of the bride,” I joked to my wife as we wheeled off into darkness.
“Or the bride herself,” she mused. “Future golf widow.”
When the prestigious May River club opened for membership in late 2004, the scuttlebutt was that Jack Nicklaus, whose design portfolio is stuffed with three hundred courses in more than thirty countries, had in this pristine coastal nature preserve achieved some of his most thoughtful work, strikingly evidenced by what he didn’t do—or, more accurately, what he chose to leave alone.
For better or worse, a common view of Nicklaus’s early designs, reflective of his own quest for technical brilliance, was that he invariably moved heaven and earth to fashion the ultimate test of a good player’s skills while exacting a penalty for even a modest error in judgment or execution. As a result, many of his early authorships—done at a time when his tournament play was still his focus—are typically more feared than beloved.