Island Oasis

Hilton Head has retained a graceful, informal atmosphere

Written by Rob Duca

Once you proceed through the gated entry, drive past the towering oak trees and arrive at your accommodations, you might never be compelled to leave the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

It’s all here within the 2,000-acre resort, whether your choice of activity is golfing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, tennis, parasailing or lounging at a beachside bar with a cold beverage.

Hilton Head is home to nearly 30 golf courses, including Harbor Town Golf Links, host of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage. Three outstanding layouts are located within the confines of Palmetto Dunes, including a Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-design that opened in 1969. Courses designed by Arthur Hills and George Fazio have since been added.

Palmetto Dunes is framed by three miles of Atlantic Ocean and a sheltered Intracoastal Waterway marina, with an expansive tennis center and an 11-mile inland salt-water lagoon system. And if you should decide to leave the reservation, the island’s many pleasures, from dockside dining and a thriving club scene to world-class shopping are within a 15-minute drive.

Walk the beach at Palmetto Dunes, lounge poolside at the oceanfront Omni Hilton Head Marriott or take an evening stroll along the docks and you’ll see that the island has retained a graceful, informal atmosphere even as it has become one of the prime spots for golf buddy trips and family escapes.

On a three-day trip last April I played the Jones and Hills courses, and also veered off the resort to visit Old South Golf Links. The weather was a pleasant 75 degrees, the golf courses were stimulating, if not overly spectacular, our two-bedroom townhouse was acceptable, although a bit 1970s, and the food was superb.

Changes for the better

10TH,Jones

The 10th hole at Arthur Hills features not only beauty but challenge.

The Jones course at Palmetto Dunes is one of the oldest on Hilton Head, but it has undergone multiple changes over the past decade, including a remodel in 2003. One of the most important changes was to raise the green on the signature 10th hole, providing a panoramic ocean view. The 550-yard hole winds toward the Atlantic and is a photographer’s delight. Bunkers dot both sides of the fairway and proceed all the way to an elevated green that sits close enough to the ocean to hear the waves crashing onto the shore.

The 410-yard seventh, rated the No. 1 handicap hole, is especially intriguing. Water lurks to the right off the tee, a series of bunkers on the left are stationed from 220 to 280 yards out and more water must be carried on the long second shot.

Water is a common theme at Jones, especially on the back nine when it comes into play on five of the first six holes.

Fortunately, the fairways are wide and driver is not essential, especially from the 6,440-yard member tees. Even better, the Jones course recently installed a GPS system on carts that is the best I’ve seen. Touch the screen at any point in a hole and it will provide exact yardage to that spot.

No sand, plenty of trouble           

16th, Hills

The 16th hole at Arthur Hills.

The Arthur Hills course, opened in 1986, is notable for the absence of fairway bunkers – truly, there are none – and a final seven holes of knee-knocking, gut-wrenching, water-filled carries.

“You’re just playing the golf course for the first 11 holes and then all of a sudden you get to 12 and that’s where the fun really begins,” says Samm Wolfe, Palmetto Dunes general manager and head professional at Hills. “The course kind of sucks you in.”

Depending on your point of view, the Hills is strategic golf, target golf or hold-your-breath-and-hit-it golf.

The 399-yard 12th snakes around a lake, with a fairway that narrows the closer you get to the green. On the par-5 13th you’ll face a carry over water off the tee, with more water running up the right side and jutting out in front of the green.

There is a break from the wet stuff on 14, although it’s a dogleg left 412-yardpar-4. But water returns in full glory on 16, running down the right side of the fairway and then front and left of the green.

Finally, there is 17. The lake meanders down the left side and cuts across the middle of the fairway, resulting in consecutive forced carries, the second shot played to a green that is surrounded by water in front, out-of-bounds to the left and woods to the back.

Old South Golf Club

The eighth hole at Old South.

We could have played our final round at the Dunes’ Fazio course, but decided instead to head to nearby Bluffton and Old South Golf Links. Designed by Clyde Johnston, the course meanders around marshes, past towering oaks and along rolling Scottish terrain. A massive lake winds around the perimeter of the course along with numerous creeks that cut through the middle. But water is only in play if you are notably wild off the tee.

Still, you’ll know what you’re getting into from the first hole, where the lake extends down the entire left side and bends around to the back of the green. It’s pretty much the same kind of deal at 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 12. The signature hole is the par-3 eighth, which features an island green and pristine views of the Lowcountry salt marshes.

Old South closes with a par-5 hole that combines every element. You must carry a marsh off the tee and avoid two oak trees lining each side of the fairway, then decide whether to lay up short of a creek or go for an elevated green that is protected by a massive waste bunker.

This is a course filled with character and challenge, featuring scenic, dramatic and demanding holes. It will keep your attention from the first tee shot to the final putt.

Initially, I was skeptical about making a trip to Hilton Head without including Harbor Town Golf Links on the agenda. But if you’re searching for a buddy trip or family vacation without breaking the bank (Harbor Town greens fees: $272), you’ll find it at Palmetto Dunes.

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