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Hilton Head has history, Dye, Nicklaus, RTJ and more

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

When Captain William Hilton of England, spoiling for a fight, explored the South Carolina coast in a region that included the island now known as Hilton Head in the 1600s, he encountered more than a few Indians.

Some were welcoming, crying out "bonny, bonny" from the shore, but some weren't so accommodating. In one episode, after trading with a group of natives and disembarking by ship, one Indian followed on shore and peevishly fired an arrow at the departing English that narrowly missing a deck hand and was left vibrating in a wood plank. A few days afterward, Hilton and his crew found the Indian's camp.

"We went to his Hut and pulled it down," Hilton wrote in his log. "We broke his pots, platters and spoons, tore his Deer-skins and mats in pieces and took away a basket of Akorns."

Hilton also heard wolves and saw great flocks of parakeets. There are no more wolves, parakeets or Indians at Hilton Head and only a few English tourists, but the Akorns have survived. And the violent games the Indians played have been replaced by a genteel sport borne of Scotland, played here mostly by Americans.

The barrier island of Hilton Head is almost always named as one of the top golf destinations when various publications print such lists. It got a late start, since the island didn't have electricity until 1951 and the second golf course didn't appear until 1967.

Developers Charles Fraser and Fred Hack bought 19,000 acres of the islands' 25,000 acres and made a prophetic move when they invited a relatively unknown architect and his famous pro golfer apprentice to design a golf course.

Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus came up with Harbour Town, hurtling Dye into the most-wanted list of top architects and sealing Nicklaus' fledgling reputation as a designer.

Beware, Hilton Head is not for the weak of wallet, unlike its northern neighbor, Myrtle Beach, which has courses that run the gamut of green fees. Hilton Head is not really the place for kamikazee golf trips by college frat brothers aching for golf, fried fish and girlie shows. Green fees of $100 and more are commonplace at Hilton Head, topped by Harbour Town's hefty rates at $250.

Still, there is affordable play during the off-seasons, especially at off-island courses like Rose Hill, Island West and Eagles Point. A little higher on the scale are Old South Golf Links, Old Carolina Golf Club and Crescent Pointe.

Today, there are 18 courses on the island, most at multi-course resorts, with a burgeoning of choices along the U.S. 278 corridor that approaches the island.

"The island's only 11 miles long and it's becoming more developed than it used to be," said Kip Bowers of Hilton Head Golf Travel, a golf packaging company. "So now we have all these great courses that are popping up on the in-road, just as nice and a little less expensive. This is a very vibrant time - business is booming, it's becoming more or a popular spot, because I think there's more golf courses to choose from and it's not as expensive a place to visit as the perception people have."

That said, no visit to Hilton Head would be complete without visits to Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes.

Sea Pines reigns

Sea Pines features three courses, Harbour Town, Sea Marsh and the Ocean course. Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the MCI Heritage tournament, has hosted a PGA Tour event every year since 1969 and even most of the pros who compete there can't solve its mystery. Only players like five-time winner Davis Love, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Hale Irwin have games to match it.

It isn't overly long at 6,973 yards, but it requires precise tee shots to set up tricky approaches. Dye re-designed the course in 2000, but left it pretty much alone, only re-building his dilapidated railroad ties, tees and greens.

Harbour Town is also known for the excellence of its par-3s and its short-but-difficult par-4s, Nos. 9 and 13. The wind swirling off Calibogue makes the 185-yard 17th longer and dangerous and the closing 18th par-4 is one of toughest holes anywhere.

Sea Marsh is a 6,515-yard layout by George Cobb with a 1990 re-design by Clyde Johnston, a Hilton Head resident. Considered too short by many, it has a "mini-marsh" set of tees for juniors and is marketed as a family-fun course.

The Ocean course is the oldest on the island, opening in 1962. Despite its name, there is only one hole that plays along the ocean, as opposed to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which has expansive ocean views. Mark McCumber re-designed it in 1995, emphasizing the lagoons and tidal marshes.

Palmetto Dunes features RTJ

Palmetto Dunes and Palmetto Hall have three hotels and five golf courses. They feature big-name architects like Robert Trent Jones, Arthur Hills and George Fazio, with the Hills and RTJ course particular standouts.

Palmetto Dunes won a silver award from Golf Magazine's list of the country's finest golf resorts. In 2003, it was named by readers of Travel & Leisure Family as the highest ranked family resort in the world.

The RTJ course is one of the best bets in the southeast with well protected greens, generous landing areas and a layout that includes lagoons winding through 11 of the 18 holes. The par-5 No. 10 has terrific views of the Atlantic.

The Fazio course has a slope rating of 138 from the back tees, mainly because of a series of long par 4-s beset with bunkers and water hazards.

The Hills course is only 6,651 yards, but is built on a series of rolling dunes that inevitably give awkward lies. The other Hills course, called the star of the Palmetto Hall, was ranked in 1991 by Golf Magazine as one of America's top-10 new courses. It's heavily wooded with lakes and well-guarded greens, and has a slope rating of 136.

Home on the plantation

Hilton Head Plantation sits a towering (for the Low Country) 28 feet above sea level, with Port Royal Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway as a backdrop. There are four courses on the plantation: Bear Creek and Dolphin Head are private, but the Hilton Head Country Club and Oyster Reef are semi private and open to the public.

The country club course, designed by Rees Jones, sits in a pine forest alongside the waterway. It features marsh and lagoons - all the par-3s have carries over water.

Oyster Reef is one of only a few affordable daily fee courses on the island. The back nine has forced carries over water and brushes along a forest preserve.

National first to cross bridge

Hilton Head National, opened in 1989, was the first public course to venture off-island and its success led others to follow. It's a 27-hole facility, just across the bridge on the mainland side, with the original 18 designed by Gary Player and the other nine by Bobby Weed.

All three nines are around 3,350 yards and play fast and firm when dry. This is one of the more player-friendly courses in the area, with big greens only mildly undulating. Watch for the huge, shared green on Nos. 9 and 18. As a bonus, there are no homes or condos along the course, a rarity in the area.

The course routinely gets kudos from area golfers for its consistently good conditioning and is a favorite with the ladies. Its forward tees take away many of the forced carries.

Taste of the Old South

Old South Golf Links is another course just over the bridge from Hilton Head. It's slightly less than 6,800 yards from the back tees and water or wetlands come into play on most holes.

Old Carolina Golf Club was built on a former, privately-owned horse farm. Built on high meadows with gently rolling fairways surrounded by steep hills, the course has numerous hazards. It was designed by Johnston as a links-style course and has mounding that accentuates sharply-defined fairways. It isn't easy - the course has a slope rating of 145 from the tips.

No visit to the area would be complete without a ferry ride to the Daufuskie Island Golf and Country Club and its two courses, Melrose and Bloody Point. This is the island writer Pat Conroy immortalized in his book, "The Water is Wide."

Other good options are Crescent Pointe, an upscale, daily-fee course on the island and Hidden Cypress, one of those courses that has sprouted up in the US 278 corridor that approaches the island.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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