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|The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island is easily the best island golf course in the South. (Courtesy www.kiawahresort.com)|
The South, when it comes to golf courses, is about more than just old plantations and moss-draped oaks.
With its southern latitudes and comparatively slow pace, the South's golf courses run the gamut from links-style to modern to traditional.
Of all the varied terrain in the South, islands are one of the most engaging venues in which to find yourself on a golf course. The South has plenty of them, both on the Atlantic side and bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Here, then, are our top-10 island courses in the South, in order, with emphasis on island ambience as much as course quality.
The Ocean course at Kiawah Island is golf architecture as art, hold the pretense: Pete Dye took a Carolina seascape already blessed by nature and used some of his subtlest strokes, which must have been difficult for an eccentric, over-the-top designer often loved and often equally hated for changing the way we look at golf courses.
No golf course in the world has ever improved on nature, but this one comes closer than most, and the way Dye did that was let the location's natural beauty remain in its simplest state. What is a seascape anyway, but dunes, water, wind and hardy growth lashed by salt spray? That's what this part of the Carolina coast was and what it still is; it's the way Dye guides you through it as you play a centuries-old game that qualifies as artistry.
Of all the marsh golf courses we've played, from Florida north through Myrtle Beach and the Carolinas, the Hampton Club may be the best, in terms of the views.
That's because, at the Hampton Club, the views are from the marsh. Yes, you are literally in the marsh surrounding St. Simons Island, out there with the ospreys, bald eagles, woodpeckers and other marsh critters.
Situated on the relatively isolated northernmost reaches of the barrier island, the Hampton Club pulses with the kind of raw beauty usually found on these islands of the southeastern coast, with ancient oaks framing the fairways. It's simply one terrific, camera-ready view after another.
You know you're in for something special when you take the lonesome drive just to get the entrance of the islands that take you to Old Tabby. When you eventually pull in, you're met with a subtle wood and brick clubhouse overlooking marsh and, beyond that, Port Royal Sound, where the biggest Naval engagement of the Civil War took place.
Arnold Palmer and associate Ed Seay designed an excellent, challenging course, but perhaps the smartest thing they did was let that setting take center stage. You never lose that feeling of being on a relatively isolated, coastal island, with nesting egrets, alligators and other island wildlife. It's so quiet, the birdsong seems louder and you can hear the rustlings of critters in the woods.
Crandon Park is the kind of upscale municipal course that hosts the public from the Governor on down to the truck driver.
It's a pristine island environment, with seven saltwater lakes and views of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. The course is dotted with palms and mangrove, and other exotic, tropical growth, and has an assortment of exotic wildlife, like iguanas scuttling around the grounds and climbing trees and - get this - crocodiles.
You don't just stumble onto Bald Head Island as you cruise down the Grand Strand. You have to want to get there. It's a half-hour ferry ride from the mainland to North Carolina's southernmost cape island.
There don't seem to be many complaints from golfers who make the trek, and dole out the money for the ferry. The resort on the island, which rests at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean, boasts a George Cobb-designed course, 6,855 yards from the back tees, that plays through thick stands of live oaks, dense patches of coastal vegetation, marshes and lagoons.
Sea Island Golf Club offers and experience like stepping back in time, but with a whirlpool and fancy fixtures.
Sea Island Golf Club has three courses, including the excellent Seaside course. Originally designed by Harry S. Colt and Charles Alison in 1929, Seaside was given a thorough modernization by Tom Fazio in 1999.
Seaside is advertised as an ocean-side links course, and certain sections of the course do indeed have a wild, windswept feel to them, as the course climbs naturally over grassy dunes with their backsides up to the ocean breezes.
Lost Key Golf Club was designed by Arnold Palmer and associate Ed Seay, routed around and between the protected wetlands. The result is narrow playing corridors and a course that can be more penal than it is strategic.
"The low, wispy sand ridges that occur at intervals throughout sections of the second nine, similar to those near the Gulf of Mexico only a quarter mile to the south, help to give the course its coastal distinction," a TravelGolf review said.
The 6,801-yard course opened in 1997 with a re-design by Palmer in 2006. The course uses Sea Dwarf paspalum grass from tee to green, a grass that is drought and cold tolerant, and which holds its deep green color through the winter months.
The lighthouse at Harbour Town is one of the most recognizable landmarks on the PGA Tour. This is the course that launched Dye's career and established Jack Nicklaus as a course designer to be reckoned with, a course that many of the top pros always name on their favorites list.
It's also one of the few, perennial choices on "top 100 lists" open to the public, albeit at a pretty penny. It's Dye at his "target golf" best; you have to hit to certain spots on the fairway and be at your best with your irons.
Gulf Shores isn't technically an island - it's a thin peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico at the southern tip of Alabama - but you may get more of an island feel than in, say, Florida, in which some "islands" are islands for marketing purposes only.
Kiva Dunes has been called "pure coastal golf" and "one of the most exhilarating golf courses in the Southeast," by TravelGolf writers.
The layout was routed through existing dune and coastal vegetation and the near-constant wind, mostly cross-winds, gives the course much of its character. In fact, the course was designed with the wind as the predominant factor.
The Rookery at Marco is a terrific setting for a golf course, even when the developers decided to move in and build a big, upscale development. Imagine playing golf perched on the edge of the 10,000 islands, a long tee shot away from where the first of those 10,000 - Marco Island -- sits here on the southwest edge of Florida.
The vast expanse of the southwest part of the state makes itself known via the wide marsh views and the many swamp critters who haven't yet learned to pay resort fees: the place is crazy with hawks swooping around and it isn't unusual for their shadows to pass over as you traipse around the course. In the interconnected canals, you're liable to see anything that swims or crawls in this swampy part of the world.
August 31, 2007
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.
For a comprehensive club-fitting experience, Kiel Christianson tried out the Club Champion method, which has grown to many major U.S. markets.
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