Choice may be your greatest enemy on Hilton Head Island. This golfer's mecca boasts seventeen courses on the island and many more nearby. But we're going to make it easy with a short seminar on the best this semitropical isle has to offer. All you need to do is get your PalmPilot and schedule it in. One caveat, however: All this great golf is not a well-kept secret, so be sure to reserve tee times and book accommodations well in advance.
By Car: Hilton Head Island is most easily reached via I-95. Take the exit for U.S. Route 278 and it's a straight, four-lane, 30- to 45-minute shot in.
By Air: If you don't mind a little (usually, but not always) higher ticket price, fly directly to the island (HXD) from Charlotte on US Airways. There are plenty of rental car companies—you'll probably want a car. The airport is located mid-island and convenient to wherever you're staying. Savannah International Airport (SAV) has more flights, but it's an hour away by airport shuttle ($49 round-trip, Low Country Adventures, 800-845-5582).
Using a five-star system, virtually every island course, and most of the ones off the island, weigh in with at least four stars. (Note: The island's most famous course—and its only public five-star layout—Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the PGA's MCI Classic, would have made this list, but it's closed for renovation until January 2001.) We've picked three "can't-go-wrong," eminently playable courses, each with its own personality. And note that most courses have seasonal rates, as well as morning and afternoon rates.)
Course: The Ocean Course, 843-842-8484
Location: Sea Pines Resort, south end
Length: 6,493 yards from the blue tees
Cost: $100 for cart and green fees in season (Sea Pines guests pay $87)
Characteristics: Mark McCumber did a sensational redesign in 1995. If water is a problem, play from the white tees.
Pros: Every hole is fair.
Cons: None, unless you forget your five dollar reimbursement on the way out.
T&L GOLF RATING: ****
Course: Arthur Hills at Palmetto Hall, 843-689-4100
Location: Palmetto Hall Plantation, mid-island
Length: 6,592 yards from the blues
Cost: $95, but plenty of packages available
Characteristics: Gentle contouring, plenty of trees and water. The finishing hole (yes, that's the green across the lake) is one of the island's most memorable.
Pros: It's challenging yet playable, and you can walk it
Cons: Just be sure to ask for directions.
T&L GOLF RATING: ****
Course: Golden Bear Golf Club, 843-689-2200
Location: Indigo Run Plantation, north end
Length: 6,643 yards from the blues
Cost: $95, but included in many golf packages
Characteristics: All that water and those bunkers and trees require more thought than muscle—a local fave.
Pros: The course has a cumulative effect, like a story—a rare find anywhere.
T&L GOLF RATING: ****1/2
If you have time, of course, there are many more excellent tracks to choose from. A short list would include Shipyard Plantation (27 holes, 843-689-4653), Palmetto Dunes Resort (54 holes, 843-785-1130), Port Royal Plantation (54 holes, 843-689-4653), all south end or mid-island; and Hilton Head Plantation (36 holes, 843-681-4653) on the north end. And while "off-island" may sound distant, just minutes away are eight more great layouts. Try Old South Golf Links (843-785-5353, $89), a good course that's always in great shape.
Think strategy. As you may have surmised by now, the island is divided into three parts: There's the south end, mid-island and the north end. The island measures only twelve miles by three miles, so outside the ten private, gated communities, traffic is pretty ferocious. Where you stay can have a lot with where you choose to play.
If you select south end or mid-island courses, stay in those areas. If you play on the north end or off-island, stay mid-island or in the north end. If you've got a mix, call the pro shop of the various courses and ask how long it will take to get there.
You'll also have to figure out if you would like a hotel, a condo or private home. Luxury hotels like the Westin (mid-island, 832-681-4000), Hyatt Regency (mid-island, 843-785-1234), Hilton Oceanfront Resort (mid-island, 843-842-8000) and Crowne Plaza (south end, 843-842-2400) are all on the ocean and offer excellent golf packages. If you prefer something a bit different, the new Inn at Harbour Town (888-807-6873) is awesome. While you can't play the famous course until it reopens, you can have a butler on your floor to tend to your every need. And you'll be minutes from the Ocean Course.
Hilton Head's private-home and condominium vacation rentals offer everything from individual suites (with kitchens) to oceanfront homes with private pools. Call Hilton Head Golf Vacations (800-364-9683) or The Vacation Company (800-545-3303).
It's that choice problem again. The eating is as superb as the golf. Here are some local favorites: On the north end, Charlie's Crab (843-342-9066) and The Old Fort Pub (843-681-2386) both offer great seafood and great water views. Mid-island, try the Old Oyster Factory (843-681-6040) on the water. It's more open, louder and lots of fun. On the south end, CQ's (843-671-2779) in Harbour Town has general fare; there's not a bad dish on the menu. Don't miss one of the two Reilley's pubs. Family-owned local favorites, one is just off Sea Pines Circle (843-842-4414) in the south end; the other is at Port Royal Plaza (843-681-4153) in mid-island.
When you arrive, you'll note there are very few easily visible signs—and very few traffic lights. The island has tried hard to keep nature and man in balance. This little quirk, combined with the traffic, makes driving quite interesting. Be sure you and your companion(s) bring cell phones. You will get lost. But don't panic. Islanders are a rather helpful lot, so always ask for directions. It may not seem "manly," but you'll make your tee time.
Now, to traffic circles. The two busiest are in the south end. Just think of them as the faces of clocks. You enter at six o'clock. Your exits will be at three, twelve and nine. Like your golf swing, circles take a bit of practice. And then there's the Cross Island Parkway. You'll see the signs for it as you come onto the island (north end). If you're going to the south end, take it. It costs you a buck, but time- and nerve-wise, it's worth it. Head for the booth with the green light. That's where you pay.
When you get ready to leave, your golfer's soul will cry, Just one more round! So heed your desire at Rose Hill Country Club (843-842-3740, $55). It's a challenging twenty-seven holes with wide fairways—and it's just six miles off the island on U.S. Route 278 (on the way to the Savannah airport).