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May River and Old Tabby: Two hidden gems of Hilton Head golf

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,
Old Tabby Links golf course - hole 15
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The par-4 15th hole at Old Tabby Links is an island green buttressed by the old tabby material that gives the course its name. (Courtesy of Rob Brown)

Some years ago, a major golf publication called Hilton Head Island in South Carolina the 10th finest golf destination on the planet. If only they could have peeked a bit further behind the moss curtain.

Sure, Harbour Town Golf Links, Palmetto Dunes, and Daufuskie Island give the region its tourist-golfer imprimatur. But there are some secret stashes when it comes to Lowcountry golf, the type of green-grass wonderlands that the average golf vacationer has never even heard of, let alone visited.

Here are two Hilton Head golf courses that amount to hidden gems.

May River Golf Club

The May River Golf Club is a sublime Jack Nicklaus design that has sprung to life deep within the forested confines of Palmetto Bluff. It's technically a resort course, but is the rarest of resort golf experiences in that it has the look, feel, playing pressure and most importantly, conditioning, of a fine private golf club.

Resort guests must stay at the nearby Inn at Palmetto Bluff if they want access to this serene and lovely golf paradise. On course, they'll enjoy subtle touches like crisp apples and chilled towels, or the daily tee sheet that offers exact yardages to the pin, so a golfer can use the fairway mileage markers and know the first hole is "+12 yards," the second is "-7," etc.

The single defining feature of May River is its complex greens. They are practically "negative edge" greens, meaning they morph so seamlessly from putting surface proper to the surrounding swales and collection areas, it's ridiculously easy to chip or even putt the golf ball too boldly and have it run entirely off the green. The bunkering is plentiful, and the waste areas and sand hazards abounding are of different sizes, shapes, depths, colors and consistency. For these reasons and many others, the May River Golf Club, with its art gallery-caliber par-3s, confounding greens and serene setting, has immediately taken a position as one of the premiere golf courses in the Carolina Lowcountry.

Old Tabby Links

In a region full-to-brimming with exceptional golf experiences, a much-coveted, hard-to-come-by invite to Spring Island, is at or near the top of the list. Arnold Palmer's Old Tabby Links is the golf centerpiece of low-profile, high-dollar Spring Island, perhaps 30 minutes northwest of the Hilton Head bridge.

Old Tabby Links is little more than a tablecloth on a football field in the scheme of things. Because the whole of Spring Island is 3,000+ acres of live oaks and Spanish moss, tall marshland grasses, surrounding tidal creeks and rivers, freshwater and saltwater ponds.

Spring Island has just 410 home sites. In addition, 1,200 acres have been set aside into a nature preserve, and residents often describe the neighborhood as a park with a community in it, as opposed to a community with a park in it. The developer's commitment and ultimate realization of its original plan has earned Spring Island the Urban Land Institute's Sensitive Development Award.

Besides fishing in both freshwater and saltwater, ocean-access within a 30 minute boat ride, hiking and horses, whacking the white ball through this marvelous meadow is one of Spring Island's primary appeals. Holes like the No. 9, a par-5 with the namesake old tabby remnants of a plantation house adjacent to the green, and the all-world No. 17th, a beautiful and treacherous waterside par-3, provide the playing thrills for members and their fortunate guests.

It is places like May River and Old Tabby that truly make Hilton Head a world-class golf destination. Add in several others, cut from the same high-end fabric (Secession Golf Club, Chechessee Creek, Haig Point, to name but three) and a golf connoisseur can truly understand why the region offers such broad-based appeal - golf, and otherwise.

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Old Tabby Links golf course - hole 17

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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