The folks in the tourist office at Hilton Head will tell you this island paradise is as much a destination for tennis players as it is for golfers, and with more than 300 courts on the island, there's a degree of credibility to the statement. But the truth is, at Hilton Head, golf is the name of the game.
The town's Chamber of Commerce estimates that between $31 million and $45 million is spent annually at Hilton Head on more than a million rounds of golf played. Depending on whom you talk to, you'll hear there are 21 or 24 courses on Hilton Head, a 12-mile-long, 5-mile-wide semitropical barrier island off the coast South Carolina. The discrepancy is that three of the courses included in the higher figure are nine-hole layouts, and thus not considered championship courses.
Regardless, every hole on or near Hilton Head is a challenge -- exactly how challenging is often less dependent on the quality of your game than on the wind and weather. Hilton Head's blend of Atlantic beaches and temperate ocean climate provide the perfect environment for year-round outdoor recreation. The locale is also the southernmost spot on the East Coast where the four seasons are still easily discernible, yet not so far north that an occasional alligator won't wander onto a course. (Local rules allow that "If a ball comes to rest so close to an alligator that a player feels threatened, the player, with certain restrictions, may move the ball.")
Hilton Head's evolution into a sports resort spans several centuries. Naming it for a British sea captain who landed there in the 17th century, Europeans made it the site of grand plantations owned by wealthy Englishmen and worked by slaves who produced indigo and sea-island cotton until the Civil War. Afterward, the sparse population existed on meager earnings from small-scale farming, hunting and lumbering.
In 1950, two lumber producers, Fred Hack and Lt. Gen. Joseph B. Fraser, bought some 8,000 acres of virgin pine forest. In 1956, a two-lane bridge replaced the ferry connecting the island to the mainland. The next year, Charles E. Fraser, the general's son, began to develop Hilton Head into a modern sports and resort mecca.
In 1969, Arnold Palmer won the Heritage Golf Classic on Hilton Head's newly completed Harbour Town Golf Links. Since then, not only has the Heritage become one of the most prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour, but the island itself is one of the country's most popular golfing destinations.
Traditionally, the Hilton Head tourist season starts in April, when the island's two major events are held. One is the weeklong, televised Family Circle tournament at the Sea Pines Racquet Club. It is the longest continuously sponsored event on the Women's International Tennis Association Circuit. The tennis tournament is immediately followed by the MCI Heritage Golf Classic.
Between April and Thanksgiving, reservations for the island's 2,000-plus hotel and motel rooms, ranging from budget accommodations to the Westin Resort, are at a premium; so are those for the more than 6,000 private homes, condominiums, villas, townhouses and interval-ownership units.
Fortunately, the policy at Hilton Head is "stay anywhere, play everywhere," which generally includes the private golf courses as well.
At or near the top of anyone's golf agenda at Hilton Head should be a round or two at the fabled Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Plantation. It's a tough and demanding course requiring accurate tee shots followed by approaches to postage-stamp size greens.
Harbour Town was designed by Pete Dye, with some help from Jack Nicklaus. There are several unforgiving par 3's with tight putting surfaces. The par-4 eighth hole, ranked as the most difficult on the course, is 422 yards from the men's tee. Playing it requires a combination of skill and luck, since it's a mild dogleg to the left.
The signature hole here is the 458-yard, par-4 18th, commonly known as the lighthouse hole, because that's what one aims for off the tee. It's said that a par on the 18th is an achievement of note, while a birdie ranks an amateur with the pros. The hole is long and narrow, running between the ocean on one side and the woods on the other. The tee, a reasonably wide landing zone about 200 yards from the green, and the green, with a long bunker in front of it and water behind, are in pretty straight alignment, with a marshy bay on either side of the landing zone. Miss that outcropping of land and you'll definitely take a drop.
The course at the Country Club of Hilton Head is perhaps the most visually diverse of all of the island's layouts. It incorporates the rolling features of the land with terrific views of the Intercoastal Waterway, while meandering in and out of woodlands.
Just to play this course is a thrill. But to play it at or near par is something else: Pin accuracy is a must from the first tee to the bowl-like green on the 18th. Fairways must be split right down the center because bunkers or water traps always seem to be lurking along the sides. And the greens are so small you may wonder if there's room for the cup.
Selecting the best of the holes is difficult. Some people claim the 14th, a devilish 152-yard par 3, is as ornery as can be. The tee and elevated green are guarded by a large bunker separated by a wide water hazard over which there's a 300-foot boardwalk with a small drop zone in the middle. The hole is also subject to swirling winds off the water, making a good tee shot a necessity.
The 12th is the club's signature hole, and the highest spot on all of Hilton Head -- 28.24 feet above sea level. At 511 yards, and a par 5 with a 9 handicap, it doesn't sound like much -- except that the elevated tee becomes a steppingstone for the elevated fairway, and from there, it's all downhill, all 28 feet of it. If you're to reach the green in three shots, they'd better be long ones and right down the middle, because a string of bunkers lines the left side of the fairway. The second shot should also be down the middle. Two good shots should put the third about 120 yards from the pin, and at a point where the ocean is visible behind the green; the stiff breezes are a giveaway.
Hilton Head does offer more than just golf. There's plenty of tennis. The beaches, especially those on the ocean side of the island, are a cyclist's delight at low tide, with the sand hard as pavement. Route 278, the island's main road, is lined with shopping centers and malls containing boutiques and branches of several major stores.
For nature lovers, birding in the salt marshes and along the beaches ranks among the best on the East Coast, and the numerous bays and coves are excellent for fishing. For more serious anglers, there is deep sea fishing. Many charter boats operate from the island's harbors.
HILTON HEAD GOLF COURSES
Hilton Head operates on a "plantation" system, whereby the majority of land, including all the golf courses, is divided into large, gated residential-recreational subdivisions, a reminder of
the times when sea-island cotton
* Hilton Head Plantation: This is the island's largest, with four courses. Hilton Head Country Club and Oyster Reef Golf Club are semi-private -- a limited number of tee times are available to non-members. Bear Creek Golf Club and Dolphin Head Golf Club are private.
* Long Cove: Home to the private Long Cove Club, regularly listed among the top 20 courses in America by Golf Digest.
* Palmetto Dunes: Palmetto Dunes has three miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches within its 2,000 acres, as well as three 18-hole resort layouts. They are the Arthur Hills Course, George Frazio Course and Robert Trent Jones Course.
* Palmetto Hall Plantation: The newest plantation on Hilton Head, Palmetto Hall will eventually have two 18-hole layouts. The Hills Course opened for play last year, and the second course, scheduled to be opened next year, is expected to be more than 7,100 yards, making it the island's longest.
* Port Royal Plantation: The three resort courses at Port Royal -- Barony Golf Course, Planter's Row Golf Course and Robber's Row Golf Course (though Barony and Robber's Row alternate as private courses on a monthly basis) -- are located outside the gates of this, the island's only private ocean-side community. Port Royal is also the site of Hilton Head's famous Racquet Club.
* Sea Pines Plantation: The largest and oldest of the plantations, this is site of the annual MCI Heritage Golf Classic. In addition to three other layouts (the public Ocean Golf Course, the resort Sea Marsh Golf Course, and the private Sea Pines Country Club), there are more than 80 tennis courts, including a stadium court for the annual Family Circle tournament.
* Shipyard Plantation: These three nine-hole layouts -- Shipyard-Brigantine, Clipper and Galleon -- can be played in any number of combinations. For the record, these are not executive or pitch-and-putt courses, but as difficult and unforgiving as any on the island.
* Wexford Plantation: Wexford Golf Course, the only one on Wexford Plantation, was finished in 1989. It is popular because of its challenging play and scenic vistas.
* Spanish Wells Plantation: The private Spanish Wells Golf Club is so well hidden that few visitors are aware of its existence. Yet this nine-hole course, on which the front nine doubles for the back nine, places an unusual amount of emphasis on ball control and accuracy.
IF YOU GO . . .
* The easiest driving route from Baltimore is to head south on Interstate 95 almost to the South Carolina-Georgia state line. Take Route 17 South to Route 46, then onto Route 278 directly to Hilton Head. Travel time from Interstate 95 to Hilton Head is less than one hour.
* Delta provides service to the island airport from the Savannah Airport. Others flying to Hilton Head are American Eagle and USAir.
For more information: Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 5647, Hilton Head, South Carolina 29938; (803) 785-3643; fax: (803) 785-7110