Considering how popular it is and how many attractions it offers, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island is remarkably civilized for a family vacation destination that draws about two million visitors every year. There is mini-golf for the kids, but no 12-foot gorillas grinning by the side of the road. Night life? Sure, but no flashing neon billboards. Even the strip malls and chain restaurants are subdued if not downright refined. From its conscientiously preserved low-country landscape to its iconic red-striped lighthouse, Hilton Head exudes relaxed sophistication.
What draws families during the peak summer season are 12 miles of sandy beaches, all without intrusive homes, jet skis, loud music, or trash. You can also follow the more than 60 miles of bike trails from one end of the island to the other, kayak in the natural dolphin habitat, explore the Pinckney Island Nature Preserve, and dine at more than 200 restaurants — none of which features a multicolored musical waterfall.
Hilton Head is easy to get to from Westchester, too. US Airways flies to Hilton Head Island Airport, and most other airlines can take you to Savannah International, just 45 minutes away. There are 3,000 hotel rooms and 6,000 rental units to choose from.
You can play golf in the summer (and winter), but the best conditions are during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Hilton Head Island is home to 24 golf courses (with many more off-island), which can be enjoyed by everyone from casual beginners to scratch players. It’s also where the PGA Tour gathers to compete after the Masters every April. This year, the RBC Heritage tournament celebrated its 46th anniversary at Harbour Town Golf Links — a course that should be on every golfer’s bucket list. Of all the courses on the island, only four are strictly private, so you can play almost all of them — including Harbour Town — with a surprisingly gentle hit to your credit card. We visited four of the finest, including one just off the island in nearby Bluffton.
Harbour Town Golf Links
Hilton Head Island; www.seapines.com
Greens fee: $272 (though fees vary seasonally)
Tiny greens, narrow fairways, breathtaking vistas of Calibogue Sound — along with the most-recognized lighthouse in America — are the hallmarks of this world-famous golf course. It was one of Pete Dye’s earliest designs (with able assistance from Jack Nicklaus) and, accordingly, puts a premium on shot-making and course management rather than brute strength. From the tips, it’s 7,101 yards with a 75.6 rating/147 slope. There are four shorter sets of tees, though, and you’ll enjoy the course more if you choose the right ones for your game. I played the blues (6,640 yards) with a former European Tour player and they were plenty for both of us.
Harbour Town builds to a crescendo as your round unfolds. It’s demanding, solid golf through the first two-thirds of the course, but starts its climb to the climatic 18th hole once you reach number 13, a 354-yard par four where Dye’s trademark railroad ties elevate a tiny, tricky green above a bunker that surrounds it on three sides. That’s followed by the often-televised par-three 14th hole, 165 yards, where the water in front and along the right are the only things you can think about. The last par five on the course is hole 15, 541 yards, which demands a long drive and perfect second shot to avoid the water on the left.
The 16th hole, 395 yards, can humiliate the best players. It’s a hard dogleg left where the landing area is dominated by trees in the middle of the fairway and the green is guarded by massive bunkers. The wind-blown 17th hole, a 174-yard par three, demands not just directional control but perfect distance, since long is as bad as short.
Then there is the finisher, a 444-yard par four that plays along Calibogue Sound. Your aiming point off the tee is the candy-striped lighthouse in the distance. Your second shot will be a long iron or something similar that has to carry over the sound. You can bail right, but then you’ll have some tricky grass mounding to contend with as you chip to the green. It’s a hole you’ll remember.
While you’re in Sea Pines, check out the other two courses: Heron Point by Pete Dye, which opened in 2007; and the Ocean Course, redesigned by Mark McCumber in 1995.
Old South Golf Links
Bluffton, SC; www.oldsouthgolf.com
Greens fee: $95 (morning); $80 (after noon)
One of the most popular courses in the area is Old South, located just a short drive off the island in Bluffton. The gently rolling terrain, moss-draped live oaks, and intra-coastal marshes that wind through the course yield a delightful low-country golf experience.
The opening five holes are a good warm-up for the tougher tests to come on the par-72 layout. The sixth hole, a 397-yard par four, demands an accurate shot, as does the 370-yard seventh. The eighth hole calls for a 160-yard shot to an island green. All the par threes, in fact, have water very much in play, as do most of the other holes on the course. Old South offers five sets of tees ranging from 5,135 to 6,772 yards. The rating/slope from the tips is 72.4/129.
The finishing holes are delightfully challenging. Sixteen requires the precision of a surgeon for both shots over water to reach the green 417 yards away. Seventeen has water all along the right side for its complete 180-yard distance. The final hole is an excellent 550-yard risk-and-reward par five. A wide fairway sets up your choice on the second shot: Do you go for the green over the creek and one of the largest waste bunkers in the Western hemisphere, or play it safe for an easy par?
Oyster Reef Golf Club
Hilton Head Island; www.oysterreefgolfclub.com
Greens fee: $142
This classic Rees Jones design snakes through lagoons and lush low-country landscape to deliver stunning views of the inlet to Port Royal Sound as well as some fun but challenging golf. It’s part of the Heritage Collection of courses, which includes three others (Shipyard Golf Club, Palmetto Hall Plantation Club, and Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club) that you can play with very attractive package pricing.
Oyster Reef shouldn’t be played from the tips unless you’re a scratch player or better, since it’s 7,018 yards with a 74.7 rating. The blue tees (6,440 yards, 72.2/124 rating/slope) present plenty of difficulty as well as the chance to score. From the blues, all of the par fives are birdie opportunities, although there is plenty of trouble to watch for along the way. From the blues, eight of the par fours measure 400 yards or less, but all require accuracy off the tee to set up good approach shots.
The par threes are standouts, with two of them, 11 and 16, playing over water. The real star of the show, though, is the sixth hole, a 160-yard beauty that is one of the most photographed holes on Hilton Head. The strongly contoured green is framed by magnificent live oaks with Port Royal Sound in the background and sculptured bunkers in the front. Before you take your tee shot, be sure to pause for some visual nourishment for your soul.
Arthur Hills Golf Course
Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort; www.palmettodunes.com
Greens fee: $109
The Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes was built on a series of rolling dunes not far from the ocean, so it’s characterized by bumps and hollows that seldom yield level lies (or flat putts) and ocean breezes that must be taken into account. You won’t find many obstacles in front of the greens, although there are plenty to either side on most approaches, so straight-hitters are rewarded. As for the rest of us….
Length off the tee isn’t a requirement to score on this course, although accuracy and course management certainly are. You’ll learn that lesson early in your round. It comes on the second hole, a 373-yard par four that calls for a layup to the water fronting the green and placement of your tee shot on the right half of the fairway. The ninth hole, a 518-yard par five, might seem like a bomber’s sure birdie, but the tree-lined fairway makes for a tight driving hole, and the pond in front of the green isn’t something to be toyed with.
There’s plenty of fun to be had on the 12th hole, a 399-yard par four. Water guards the entire right side from tee to green, and the fairway just gets more and more narrow the closer you get to the green. Seventeen is another example of how course management counts more than distance. You have to hit over water twice on this 380-yard par four, and there’s OB and woods to contend with as well.
Palmetto Dunes also has one of the finest practice facilities on the island, not to mention two other fine courses — one designed by Robert Trent Jones and the other by George Fazio.