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.