Half a century ago, Hilton Head Island had three hundred residents. Most were native Gullah islanders, descendants of slaves, who lived off the land. Today, Hilton Head has 34,000 full-time residents and twenty-three golf courses—plus another twenty-two in neighboring Bluffton—which together draw two million visitors a year. Some Gullah are still here, but Hilton Head is now, uniquely, the island that golf built.
Golf, that is, and a developer named Charles Fraser. Fraser, who died two years ago at the age of seventy-three, was the key figure in Hilton Head's environmentally sensitive growth. As owner of the Hilton Head Company, he was instrumental in bringing the first solid bridge to the mainland, and he contracted for Hilton Head's first layout, the Ocean Course at Sea Pines. In 1969, Fraser hired Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus to build Harbour Town Golf Links, and the rest is history.
Yes, Hilton Head mostly missed out on the late-'90s course-building boom, but spend a week on its tranquil shores and you'll find an island that still exudes the essence of golf. Amble around the shops by the harbor, bicycle beneath a canopy of Spanish moss, ride the ferry across glistening Calibogue Sound, and the grace and languor and beauty of it all inspires you to get out early again the next day. That feeling is seldom found in this country, and it's one worth traveling for—and worth treasuring.
Hilton Head has long been synonymous with Harbour Town, the course that's hosted a PGA Tour event every year since its debut and has in the process become one of America's best-loved layouts. So central is Harbour Town to the island's identity that when the tournament's sponsorship was threatened by the collapse of WorldCom, the town council passed an ultimately unnecessary tax increase to keep the event alive.
But there is more to Hilton Head than Harbour Town, especially if you get out on the island's private courses. Dye's Long Cove battles his Harbour Town to a draw; throw in Chechessee Creek, Colleton River and the like, and it's a collection of private clubs that kowtows to no place. Long story short: Start cross-referencing your Rolodex with club membership guides.
As for the accessible courses, after a period of growth in the late 1980s, course construction on these forty-two square miles has waned a tad. Still, the public tracks are trying harder—several have recently been renovated or restored. Nor can their variety be faulted: From classic Low Country (Melrose) to quasi-links (Old South) to postmodern zany (Palmetto Hall's Robert Cupp), if you choose smartly from round to round, you might almost forget about a place called Harbour Town.
HARBOUR TOWN GOLF LINKS
11 Lighthouse Lane, Hilton Head Island; 800-955-8337, seapines.com. Yardage: 6,973. Par: 71. Slope: 146. Architect: Pete Dye with Jack Nicklaus, 1969. Greens Fees: $179-$250. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
Playing Harbour Town is like downing eighteen straight espressos: Each tastes equally good and yet you become ever jumpier. The agony and the ecstasy of this masterwork is that there's absolutely no letdown, not a single "let it fly" shot. It's as exacting as a New Yorker copy editor. The par threes are justifiably renowned as one of golf's best collections, all as precise (like the "split the oak uprights to the faux island green" seventh) as the famous waterfront seventeenth is gorgeous. It's the two- and three-shot holes, however, that are for us the heart of the course: Placement, trajectory and curvature must always be controlled for any chance of finding and holding the wee greens in regulation. One minor caveat: The conditioning on our last visit was fine, but not quite worthy of the big ticket—a longstanding issue here.
DAUFUSKIE ISLAND RESORT & SPA, MELROSE
Avenue of the Oaks, Daufuskie Island; 888-909-4653, daufuskieresort.com. Yardage: 7,081. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 1987. Greens Fees: $76-$130 (nonresort); $70-$115 (resort). T+L GOLF Rating: ****
From the greenside bunkers deep and small as test tubes to bantam greens to bulkheads on the par threes, this early period Nicklaus design shows a lot of Pete Dye influence. Yes, play often favors Jack's patented high left-to-right shots, but there are some smart, refined par fours where the shorter route has an obscured view and requires a more delicate approach. Melrose's finishing threesome is unique to the area, all along the Atlantic and building to a crescendo at the last, an unforgettable split-fairway hole divided by a treacherous fairway bunker, with a green that necks out into the ocean. Indeed, it seems to be sticking its chin out at Harbour Town's lighthouse—visible from here—as if to say, "I can hold my own with your closer."
OLD SOUTH GOLF LINKS
50 Buckingham Plantation Drive, Bluffton; 800-257-8997, oldsouthgolf.com. Yardage: 6,772. Par: 72. Slope: 141. Architect: Clyde Johnston, 1991. Greens Fees: $69-$92. T+L GOLF Rating: ***1/2
The best-conditioned public track in the area and plenty of fun, Old South actually seems more New South for its polyglot nature. Its spine is a pasture-like rolling links, but sprinkled throughout the layout are holes that run through oak forests and traverse tidal marshes. The big greens have mostly unencumbered entrances but are well contoured, and thus like a celebrity prove less welcoming the closer you get to them. Number seven, a 370-yard dogleg-right par four, has a terrifying, awkward tee shot to a peninsula landing area, then an approach to a narrow, diagonal-set green with bunkers front and back. One of the prettiest holes on the trip, whether you think it's fair may depend on your score.
PALMETTO DUNES, ROBERT TRENT JONES OCEANFRONT
7 Trent Jones Lane, Hilton Head Island; 800-827-3006, palmettodunesresort.com. Yardage: 7,005. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Architect: Robert Trent Jones, 1969. Greens Fees: $85-$140. T+L GOLF Rating: ***1/2
The name is both awkward and misleading: The only thing "oceanfront" here is the back of the tenth green. But the hyperbole is unnecessary. After Roger Rulewich's $3.1 million overhaul in 2002, this strong resort layout is not just better conditioned but also fairer. Holes four through eight rather unfortunately parallel the busy William Hilton Parkway, marring a good, tough, tree-lined run of holes; more enjoyable is the blustery, links-like, water-laden stretch from eleven through fifteen.