HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Maybe it’s all of the tranquil images associated with Harbour Town Golf Links – the candy cane-striped lighthouse, the yachts bobbing gently in the harbor behind the 18th green, the almost invariably sun-splashed April days, the whimsical tartan sportcoat that’s awarded to the RBC Heritage champion – that ultimately prove so confounding.
All of those visuals are pleasant and welcoming, particularly for the first-time visitor who has been savoring them on television for years. It’s where we’re told the pros go to decompress following the Masters. So why shouldn’t we amateurs expect the same?
You figure you’ll arrive at The Sea Pines Resort, maybe stop by the Quarterdeck at the base of the lighthouse, wash down a big bowl of gumbo with a couple of Palmetto Pale Ales, perhaps get invited to a private party on one of the yachts, eventually make the short walk back to your room, then wake up the next morning and enjoy a relaxing round at Harbour Town, ranked No. 2 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in golf-rich South Carolina.
Then, sometime during the round – maybe as early as No. 1, when you’re marooned on the left side of the fairway and realize you’ll have to scramble just to make bogey – you’ll grasp that you’ve severely underestimated the challenge that confronts you.
Even after all these years of hearing the Tour pros proclaim their love for Harbour Town’s strategy and shotmaking demands, you really can’t appreciate it until you experience it. The axiom about playing each hole backward is especially important here, said director of golf John Farrell.
Length, of course, is not the issue, though about 250 yards have been added to the Heritage tees, making the tournament yardage 7,101. Mid-handicappers are able to hit less than driver off several tees. Rather, it’s the subtleties: It might be the live oak left of the green at the par-3 seventh that shelters the back-left pin; the tall pines left of the ninth fairway that block access to the heart-shaped green; the oak that forbids entry to the green from the right side of the 11th fairway; or the pine in the middle of the 16th fairway that weighs on both the tee and approach shots. And always, one must contend with greens that average only 3,700 square feet.
“If you’re a 1-handicap going out there, the chances of shooting under 80 are minimal at best,” said Keith Royal, a former mini-tour player who was having dinner at the Quarterdeck with buddy Mike Passaretti. “It’s not, hit 14 fairways and you have a good chance. If you hit 14 fairways, you might have eight good iron shots. There’s just no let up.”
For all of the attention given the par 4s and 5s, Harbour Town afficionados often talk first about the course’s great short holes. None is more curious than the 14th. For guests and members, who usually need no more than a mid-iron to reach it, the 14th ranks as the easiest hole on the course. That all changes come the second week of April, when the pros have the doggonedest time hitting that narrow, diagonal green that tilts to the lagoon on the right. For the pros, the 192-yard hole ranks as the hardest on the course.
“There’s only one place to hit it,” Farrell said. “It’s either safe or it’s not.”
Pete Dye’s handiwork looks much more benign from the top of the lighthouse, which is accessible to anyone who pays the $3.50 entry fee and can scale the 114 steps. The lighthouse might look like it has been there forever, but it’s actually a reflection of the marketing savvy of Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser, who built it – it was still under construction in 1969 when the PGA Tour first visited Harbour Town – to establish an iconic image for the resort. These days, one is hard-pressed to think of any other landmark more closely associated with a course or resort.
Fraser’s other stroke of genius was to enlist Jack Nicklaus, then at the height of his powers on the PGA Tour, to assist Dye in the design of Harbour Town. That assignment spurred Nicklaus’ interest in architecture.
Northwest of the lighthouse, in Bluffton, about a 30-minute boat ride across Calibogue Sound and beyond the northern tip of Daufuskie Island, you’ll find one of the finest designs to come out of the Nicklaus Design shop: May River Golf Club, which is ranked No. 4 in the state.
When I mentioned to Royal and Passaretti that I was headed to May River, they emitted the sort of sound that is roughly equivalent to that made by teenage girls when Justin Bieber comes on stage. No wonder. May River seems to have that effect on golfers.
May River is part of Palmetto Bluff, a low-density development that spans 20,000 acres, making it two-thirds the size of Hilton Head Island. It is anchored by The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, which is run by uber-boutique operator Auberge Resorts. The company operates only nine resorts, mostly in California and Colorado, and there’s not a cookie-cutter element in any of them. Each is tailored, in design and services, to reflect its regional setting. So while the 50 guest cottages along the river reflect modest Lowcountry architecture, inside they are worthy of a resort that secured AAA Five Diamond status last year. Elsewhere, each treatment room at the spa has a soaking tub on a secluded screened-in porch; you can feast on fried pickles (yum!) at Buffalos; the members’ Canoe Club is literally shaped like a capsized canoe; and in RT’s Market, you’ll find everything from Savannah Bee Honey to Lowcountry Fig Preserves. Dinner on the porch at The Inn felt like, well, dinner on the porch of a Lowcountry estate.
To get a better feel for Palmetto Bluff, I enlisted naturalist guide Michael Smith to lead me on a leisurely kayak tour of the river. We had hoped to see dolphins, which often play near the resort, but had to settle for other critters.
Smith grew up on the river and is a walking Wikipedia of wildlife, liberally sprinkling in references to phytoplankton and the filtration system of oysters, which are vital to the health of the river. Female oysters, he told me, can produce as many as 100 million eggs annually, and the species is “the most dangerous and most important” in the river – dangerous because the razor-sharp shells are a hazard to humans. But they’re mighty tasty steamed and slathered in cocktail sauce.
Long-term plans call for at least half of Palmetto Bluff to remain undeveloped, and that easy-on-nature approach is evident at May River GC. The low-slung clubhouse sits amid the trees, elegant yet modest. That theme continues on the course: The cart paths are sandy rather than paved, there are no tee or directional signs, no ball washers, the unpretentious tee markers (oak, cedar, hickory and magnolia) are handcrafted by the staff, and the bunker rakes are all wood. It’s a wonderful walking layout, made even better by the company of caddies such as Skip Haskell, who shepherded me and head pro Greg Wrobel around the course.
If one were to view an aerial map of May River GC, it would look like a dense forest – oaks, pines and of course palmettos – with 18 slices of green turf carved out. But on the ground, it has surprising width, and the greens on the 8-year-old course
are not overcooked like some that Nicklaus has done in recent years. Homesites are rare and set back from the course, and the isolated character of each hole contributes to the sense that you’re on a journey through nature. Even if that journey sometimes takes you far afield from the fairways, there usually are recovery options.
Wetlands are prominent, lending definition in particular on short holes such as the sixth, a downhill par 3 across the marsh, and the marvelous par-4 seventh, with its island fairway and delicate sliver of green carved gently into a nook between the marsh and forest.
May River hosts about 10,000 rounds annually, one-third the number at Harbour Town. (Palmetto Bluff will shuttle guests to Harbour Town by boat as part of its Ultimate Lowcountry Golf package.) So May River remains something of an undiscovered treasure to much of the golf universe. But just as Harbour Town rightly is praised annually by the world’s best players, so too does May River stand as testament that Nicklaus has learned well since that first architecture assignment with Dye.