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.
But as Jack’s celebrated playing career wound to a close, his perceptions as an architect have evolved and softened. The May River course stands as living proof of his new design maturity.
“This golf course is really a walk through nature. What you’ll find here is all wild and no gimmicks,” confirmed my caddie, Tommy Masaoay, as we hoofed along a sandy path between the first green and second tee late on Saturday afternoon. “Nicklaus moved so little earth here because he wanted the course to feel as if it blended into—or maybe came from—the surrounding forest and marshes. He wanted it to feel isolated and wild,” he added, explaining that Jack and his design team of Jim Lipe and Kurt Bowman devoted lavish amounts of time on the site and submitted no fewer than a dozen different routing plans, each of which made nature the dominant theme.
“For that reason,” spoke up my wife’s caddie, Rich Dobbing, “please use care where you walk. The copperheads are pretty active right now, and we’ll probably see an alligator or two.”
I was most happy to receive this warning, for in one hand was my pitching wedge and in the other was the comprehensive wildlife guide the Inn provides in every guest room. Before our scheduled tee time, Wendy and I had spent the early part of the day poking our heads into everything from Palmetto Bluff’s recently opened Canoe Club (a spectacular, family-friendly pool house) and stables to checking on the wedding preparations at the Inn’s inspiring Southern Gothic chapel. With time at a premium, we’d passed up renting a kayak in favor of pedaling our bikes along the same pathways wildlife researchers use when they’re tracking rattlesnakes and studying the secret life of the Lowcountry armadillo. The armchair botanist in me was thrilled to see wild verbena and mistflower growing in profusion along the trails. At one point, we pedaled through a squadron of iridescent blue dragonflies and trailed a pair of courting hummingbirds.
The avian display continued on the golf course. Over May River’s opening holes, as nature reawakened for its late-afternoon feed, we spotted a Cooper’s hawk circling above the longleaf pines, a black-crowned night heron and a pair of snowy egrets wading in the shallows of a lagoon by the third tee, where Rich Dobbing pointed out a pair of young alligators enjoying the sunshine only yards from the birds. Eden on full display.
To this point, the golf course really did seem to emerge naturally from the surrounding maritime forest and marshlands. Four sets of tees and generous landing areas were necklaced by sculpted bunkers and waste areas crowned by clumps of native sweet grasses, tableaus that granted a walker a welcome sense of distance from the wilder elements, which also include wild pig, fox and coyote. As we hiked along in the light of a gently expiring Lowcountry afternoon, with shadows throwing the bones of the course into stark relief, it didn’t surprise me in the least to learn that May River’s membership typically prefers caddies over carts when they play, a choice that results in a relatively easy nature hike of approximately seven miles through a landscape that is constantly shifting in perspective.
The designer’s decision to let nature take the defining hand comes most splendidly into context on the daunting par-five fourth, a double dogleg highlighted by expansive bunkers infiltrated by grasses on the interior turns—inviting all but the most skilled to lay up—and a slightly crowned putting surface that is only fifteen paces deep at its widest. Behind the green lies another wild eruption of sand and grass that frames the hole’s beauty like a postcard from the Almighty. From the beginning, one learns, the objective was to create a course that appears to be centuries older than it is, a goal that meant threading the course through an unspoiled landscape with specimen trees as old as the U.S. Constitution and around wetlands where, arguably, no human foot has ever trod.
This effectively means you are changing direction as you play, forced to calculate distances over gorgeous wetlands with or against tidal breezes that are over your shoulder one instant and against your cheek the next. With just one hundred home sites permitted on the periphery of the course, most of which are generously removed from view, the sense of splendid isolation can even be a bit disorienting at times.
“Just keep following the short grass and it will lead you where you need to go,” quipped Dobbing, a son of New Jersey who wandered down to visit his parents in Hilton Head more than a decade ago and never left. “Most people who play here for the first time,” he expanded, nodding at the lush carpet of paspalum grass underfoot, “can’t believe this course is just four years old.” In his next breath, Dobbing explained the club’s enlightened policy of encouraging its caddies to play the course any time they’re not working on it, before or after members’ hours. “That helps us really know this golf course. I like to come out and get in nine every morning at dawn,” he added, striking an unexpectedly poetic note. “It’s like watching the curtain rise on time.”
I found the sixth and seventh to be the showstoppers of the opening nine. The former is a par three of 175 yards that plays from an elevated tee over a sharp elbow of tidal wetland to a green that looks no bigger than the hood of Tiger Woods’s courtesy Buick. All tee shots here are hold-your-breath moments.
But to my mind, the enduring mark of a great designer is whether he can create a short par four with enough imagination and options to make you stand on the tee and scratch your head a bit before you play the hole. That’s brilliantly the case at May River’s par-four seventh, which for most players is a mere alligator’s snout over three hundred yards and requires you to throttle back to a low iron or rescue club off the tee, then sculpt a careful sand wedge to a sliver of green fronted by a pair of deep, punishing bunkers.
Given such abundant beauty, most designers would prefer to save their most dramatic landforms for a finale—and in this instance Jack Nicklaus is no exception. The back nine opens with an imposing par five that requires two stout shots to a pair of island fairways, precedes to a little bandbox of a par three in the lee of a sunlit lagoon, then sends you into six of the toughest—yet most beguiling—holes you’ll ever play.
As the tidal shores of the May River and some of the most fertile oyster beds in the world swing back into view, it’s tempting to become distracted by the scenery and lose track of your game. Gloriously backlit in the waning daylight, we found the difficult par-five fifteenth to be just about everything God and a Golden Bear could throw at a nature-loving golfer: wetlands, steep falloffs into nicely unkempt sandy waste areas, hissing grasslands where who knows what was lurking, fairway bunkers meant to be avoided at all cost, and finally, a false-fronted Redan-style green that made getting close to the flag all but impossible. I was greatly relieved to garner my gentlemanly bogey and hurry on with the encroaching darkness.
Suddenly I could fathom why Jack’s concluding hole lay so serenely and simply on the landscape. As you emerge back into sight of the handsome green-shingled clubhouse, recalling hunting lodges from the South’s time as a private playground for elite sportsmen, you play down a slight rise to a generous finishing green, negotiating the gentlest par five on the course. It’s almost as if Jack is congratulating you for braving a walk on the wilder side of his imagination.
That evening we dined at the River House on Chef Christopher Blobaum’s robust she-crab bisque and a seasoned Lowcountry grouper with bacon risotto. It almost felt like an illicit pleasure to drink a creamy white viognier and replay our day’s adventures to an older couple at an adjoining table, who had just arrived for a few days away from the seesawing stock markets and presidential debates.
After we’d filled them in on everything—from the most wildlife-friendly golf course we’d ever played, to the thrill of watching hundreds of snowy egrets and cormorants glide in on evening breezes and fill the wild fig trees by the lagoon near our cottage—the man told us an amusing story.
“I know a guy who was so eager to play May River he booked a night at the Inn just so he could have access to the course,” he said slyly. “He glanced in his cottage, collected his free bottle of wine, played the course and then went home. All told it cost him $700 for his round.” The man gave a broad smile.
“He was so impressed,” injected the woman, winking, “he came back with his wife and actually stayed at the Inn.”
“Smart man,” spoke up my golf bride, looking out to where the evening bonfires were being lit, fixing her gaze as if this magical place might vanish like Brigadoon in a Lowcountry instant.
The Inn at Palmetto Bluff
The Inn is located just a short drive from both Savannah and Hilton Head Island. Guests may play golf at the otherwise private May River course (see below). Other activities abound, including boating, hiking and fishing on the property’s twenty thousand acres, as well as relaxing at its top-rated spa. Dining at the Inn’s restaurants is uniformly exquisite.
476 Mount Pelia Road, Bluffton.
May River Golf Club
Truly a Nicklaus masterpiece, sculpted out of a nature garden. Walking encouraged.
Jack Nicklaus, 2004.
$175–$260 (includes caddie or cart with forecaddie).
Contact the Inn concierge.