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.”