It has one of the PGA Tour’s most distinctive stops and a resort that has ranked as America’s best for families. Chris Bertram returns from this South Carolina golf Mecca impressed..
Three days at one of America’s finest resorts.
It was fabric entrepreneur Jim Self who saw the potential for a resort in the middle of an uninhabited barrier island off the coast of South Carolina.
In the early 1960s Charles Fraser, the modern-day founder of Hilton Head Island and the developer of Sea Pines Plantation, approached Self as he felt the development needed a golf course. Self was part of a golfing family and was able to share the vision of Fraser. But while the latter wanted an ‘executive course’, Self insisted on a championship layout. That course was Harbour Town Golf Links, which is usually ranked among the Top 20 public courses in America.
It is was designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus and is characterised by lagoons and inner coastal waterways, while its fairways are narrowed by imposing oaks, pines and palmettos. It is especially easy to be blocked out by trees on the start and finishes to both nines.
Opened in 1967, it boasts relatively small greens that add significantly to its challenge. Back then, it was 6,655 yards but now stretches to more than 7,000 – although even that is not especially long by PGA Tour standards, with Harbour Town the established host of the Heritage Classic.
Water plays a key part in its exacting nature, with the 4th, 8th, 14th, 17th and 18th – the latter two lined by the tidal Calibogue Sound – all fraught with danger.
The 17th is a splendid par 3 that plays into the prevailing wind and is followed by the famous climax, with water all the way up the left and out of bounds on the right, but most notably the red-and-white striped lighthouse in the background.
Of the holes not dominated by water, the 9th is a classic risk-reward par 4 to a small green with typically tricky-to-read undulations.
The other courses within the high-end Sea Pines Resort are Atlantic Dunes – which used to be called the Ocean and was completely renovated by Davis Love – and Heron Point, also by Dye. Atlantic Dunes now lives up to its name while Dye redesigned the swales and mounds of Heron Point – which has four holes where water guards the green – in 2007.
We detail elsewhere why we think Palmetto Dunes should be your base for the trip and in turn, we believe if you play one other course outside of Harbour Town, make sure it is this resort’s Robert Trent Jones.
There are on Hilton Head Island more than 20 golf courses within 30-minute drive and indeed there are three at Palmetto itself, but the RTJ is definitely the best of the rest.
It is one of oldest courses on the island, is usually in pristine condition and is exceptionally popular, often catering for more than 220 golfers a day.
It is a bit more open and longer than its sister courses and has a real RTJ feel. Housing is well set back from a spacious course that requires a buggy unless you really want a good walk.
The 1st plays to a classic RTJ pushed-up green and it’s also noticeable how undulating the fairways are. That theme continues on the 2nd – a wide, straight hole complicated by a pond in front of the saddleback green with bunkers right and left. This already feels a proper course, and here one also gets a sense of the waterways that run throughout.
In fact, the lagoon that runs throughout this course and some of the communities is 11 miles and the second longest man-made lagoon system in the United States.
There is good variety too. So while the 3rd is a gettable par 4, it bites back with the 4th, which is a long and narrow par 5 to a green tucked behind a mound on the left. The 6th is also a stringent, tighter two-shot hole and in between comes the 5th, a short hole with a look of the 4th at Augusta to it.
There is lots of water off the 7th tee and the 8th is a short hole over a tongue of water stretching towards you. There is plenty of undulation in that green too, as there are on many here.
Water is also in play up the right of the 9th, and from there you turn at a right angle to play the 10th... and can already feel the ocean breeze whistling down it.
This is the best-looking hole on the RTJ, playing to a palm-fringed green that slopes away from you... but with the calling card of the Atlantic Ocean behind it.
The 12th is a nice par 3 over water with no margin for error... and might be a better golf hole than the spectacular 10th.
The fine 17th maintains the momentum to the end, playing across a stream to a shallow green on 17; one of the best holes on a very solid resort course.
Palmetto Dunes has been ranked the number one family resort in America, and it is not hard to see why once you’ve visited here. If they have forgotten to include an amenity or other, we couldn’t think of it! Once you’ve checked into this comprehensive resort, there’s every chance you won’t feel like leaving other than to perhaps play Harbour Town.
And a key part of that comprehensive allure is its three-pronged golf offering. Because in addition to the RTJ there is also the George Fazio and the Arthur Hills.
The Arthur Hills needs good placement of shots and is the second-most popular after the RTJ; it’s popular with shot-makers who enjoy a precision game.
Birds, alligators and deer all enjoy this beautiful natural environment, punctuated by water hazards – with the lagoon system featuring on 10 holes – and stands of palmettos. Oh, and the Hilton Head Range Light Station, to keep up with Harbour Town...
The most notable hole is the 13th, played across the lagoon which you’ve got to cross twice as you negotiate this dog leg.
The Fazio is consistently good without having the stand-out holes of the other two. It has a lot of sand on it and is in some ways a combination of its sisters.
Expect pushed-up greens and tree-lined gently undulating fairways but wide playing areas – especially on the back nine – decorated by white sand bunkers and water snaking throughout. It sits on Carnoustie Lane and this par 70 – Hilton Head Island’s only par-70 public course – is lauded as one of the island’s toughest tests.
There are only two par 5s and instead it serves up a succession of par 4s starting with the 432-yard 1st and ending with the 462-yard 18th. The greens are relatively small and undulating.
The last four holes are excellent and sum up the Fazio; three well-bunkered par 4s and a great short 17th over water.
112 Golf World September 2018 The Robert Trent Jones at Palmetto Dunes: perenially busy for very good reason.
Palmetto Dunes, a golfing nirvana with three excellent courses. Alligators not pictured.