Hilton Head remains as reliable as any Southeastern golf destination

Harbour Town Golf Links is timeless, while Palmetto Dunes' lodgings and other on- and off-island golf courses offer solid value for a golf vacation.


The iconic view of the 18th hole at Harbour Town is beautiful, but is it also slightly misleading?

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - In an era where drone photos and Instagram drive people's desires to travel, there is a great deal to be said for a golf course that, for the most part, doesn't photograph terribly well.

There is a reason why the vast majority of people's visual exposure to Harbour Town Golf Links at the tapered southeastern tip of Hilton Head consists of shots of the marshside par-4 18th with the island's iconic candy-striped lighthouse in the background. Aerial photographs of the masterpiece by architect Pete Dye (with help from Jack Nicklaus; the Golden Bear's first foray into design) can be instructive, but they can't really capture the surprising slope at the back of the 4th green, or the scary back-to-front pitch of the 6th, or the comically tiny size of the pot bunker in the crook of the boomerang-shaped 9th green, or just how narrow the wings of that green are, or just how small nearly every green on the course is.

Even if you watch coverage of the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage every April, you won't quite grasp how much more narrow the corridors of the course feel than the norm, or how surprisingly difficult it can be to lose a ball in spite of this fact, until you walk down the forested hallways of the first 15 holes and then burst out onto the expansive marshes of the final three.

Instagram will never tell the whole story of Harbour Town. To understand its unique scale, you need to see it. To understand its brilliance, you need to play it.

And even then, it might not make its genius apparent after a single round. Golfers who associate excellence with traits like visual flash and over-the-top conditioning are liable to label Harbour Town overrated (especially with green fees peaking north of $400 these days), because it traffics first and foremost in subtlety. The greens are not wild, but they don't need to be, because they're small and the task of getting a ball onto them is tougher than what most golfers are used to. They're a perfect match for the other major elements of the course. At times, Dye hides certain bunkers from view from the fairway, fooling first-timers who think they have missed a green in a safe place, only to find their ball in a sunken bathtub-sized pot.

I could go on and on about Harbour Town, but that might spoil some of the fun of your own first-hand discoveries when you play it. My advice: set aside some of your expectations of what a great golf course is and revel in its differences.

Hilton Head Island's other golf courses are well worth discovering

Just as Harbour Town's marsh-and-lighthouse postcards can obscure its true self, Harbour Town's overall fame can overshadow a solid remainder of Hilton Head's resort golf scene. Harbour Town is one of three golf courses in the massive Sea Pines development, which takes up the lower third of the island. Sea Pines' other two courses, Heron Point (a Pete Dye redesign of a George Cobb original) and Atlantic Dunes (a Davis Love III redesign of a George Cobb original), command plenty of attention from visitors and the community's sizable membership, many of whom own homes inside the gates.

But Hilton Head is not just Sea Pines. The menu of other resort courses - both on and just off the island - makes it a strong destination where golfers can sample an intriguing array of courses to satisfy a good range of budgets.

Situated on the southernmost tip of Hilton Head Island, the legendary Sea Pines Resort offers five miles of beaches including a beach club, 21 clay tennis courts, 14 miles of bike and walking trails, horseback riding, Eco-Adventures, water sports and three golf courses. Pete Dye’s Harbour Town Golf Links, home to a PGA TOUR event, is the signature…
Sprawling across 2,000 acres, Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort is bounded by three miles of Atlantic Ocean beach on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other in the heart of Hilton Head Island. The resort is a haven of vacation home and villa rentals and oceanfront hotel rooms (including a Marriott), three golf courses, a tennis and…

Because of all the oxygen Sea Pines commands, Palmetto Dunes Resort manages to fly somewhat under the radar on the island. But its quiet neighborhoods - and robust villa rental program - give it something of a Kiawah Island feel at a more attainable cost. While none of its three golf courses - by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., George Fazio and Arthur Hills - attain the heights of Harbour Town, they are also in a more reasonable price range, with top green fees in the $160 neighborhood. The Jones course's out-and-back routing gives golfers a brief glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean around the turn, and the Fazio course's Zoysia greens are some of the best on the island to putt.

Layout-wise, the Fazio is a bit of a throwback; built in 1974, its runway tees, amoeba bunkering and elevated greens characterized by ridges and tiers all help it feel like a period piece. This is an expression of confidence at a time when many courses built from the 1950s through the 80s are instinctively turning away from their midcentury-modernity in favor of the contemporary flavor: frilly bunkers, eccentric greens and expanses of short grass. This style is enjoyable as well, but so is a course that leans into its heritage, whatever it may be.

About 15 minutes up-island is Oyster Reef Golf Club ($165), a pleasant Lowcountry-parkland layout that glimpses the Port Royal Sound at Hilton Head's north end along its double-looped, residential routing. Laid out by Rees Jones in the late 1980s, it comes just before RTJ Sr.'s younger son started moving seemingly earth and Heaven to build his courses. The huge rows of containment mounding that mark many 90s and 2000s Rees Jones layouts are absent here, giving things a more quiet feel. The elevated, sectioned greens do put a premium on approach play, though, assuming players can steer clear of trees off the tee. Following a recent trend toward playability and lower maintenance, Oyster Reef has taken out and reduced the size of several bunkers, giving higher-handicappers a more sporting chance.

Just off-island are several more golf courses that can be combined with those over the bridge in Hilton Head proper. Two good ones - Hilton Head National Golf Club and Old South Golf Links - sit side-by-side along Bluffton Parkway, which parallels US Highway 278 and helps make the 20-mile trek off Interstate 95 less of a slog than it used to be. Of the two, I prefer Hilton Head National Golf Club ($127), a Gary Player original reworked by Bobby Weed in 2000. Weed's affinity for the work of mentor Pete Dye shines through on the reachable par-4 6th hole, where he gives players just enough room to take a big swipe at a narrow green set between mounds on the left and water on the right. A bonus feature of HHN: no homes come into play. Old South ($99), a Clyde Johnston effort from 1991, boasts several holes on the marshy expanse separating Hilton Head from mainland South Carolina mixed in with mostly straightforward inland tests. Live oaks add to the scenery on both sides of the course.

Hilton Head Island golf courses mentioned in this guide
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Bluffton, South Carolina
Bluffton, South Carolina

Hilton Head Island golf vacations: insider tips and notes

- My late-October visit was perfect weather-wise, which can cut both ways in Hilton Head, as most of the courses are overseeding to some extent or another around that time. That means greens can be a little on the slow and soft side, and as is always the case at Harbour Town, if you take a cart, you'll be on the paths all day.

- This fact is why I would definitely recommend walking Harbour Town. It's one of the best-laid-out modern courses for walking in the Lowcountry. I loaded my clubs onto a pushcart for my round while still benefiting from the counsel of my group's forecaddie, Will Sturm, who works weekends and is one of the best loopers of any stripe I've encountered. Request Will if you want to be taken care of at Harbour Town.

- Palmetto Hall is a 36-hole facility on the island that dates to the early 1990s but had fallen by the wayside in recent years. This year, though, it was purchased by the Heritage Golf Group, which owns Palmetto Dunes, and both its Arthur Hills and Bob Cupp courses are open and set for multi-million-dollar upgrades. If you've been disappointed by conditions at Palmetto Hall in recent years, it's time to give the courses another look on your next trip.

- TopTracer technology was recently installed at the driving range for Palmetto Dunes' Robert Trent Jones Course. In addition to the easy availability of food and drink, I greatly enjoyed playing an approach-shot challenge across different holes at Pinehurst No. 2, with my progress tracked on one of the screens installed at each hitting bay. The tech is easy to use and because it's stationed at a traditional driving range, I found it much more engaging than a typical Topgolf location.

- Fly-in visitors have typically been limited to the nice-but-smallish Savannah/Hilton Head Airport (SAV), close to an hour away from the island, but the Hilton Head Island Airport (HHH) now serves eight major airports via United, Delta and American Airlines, including Chicago/O'Hare (ORD), Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) and Newark (EWR).

- This wouldn't be a worthwhile guide without some dining advice. On-island, the place to take in a sunset and quality seafood is the Quarterdeck, attached to the famous lighthouse in the center of Harbour Town village within Sea Pines. I was worried it would be an all-view-and-mediocre-food-type place, but my local shrimp were excellent.

- I also recommend The Smokehouse, a mid-upscale barbecue joint with very good ribs and smoked chicken wings. Rebuilt after a fire destroyed its original building during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it now has a smart indoor/outdoor layout with TVs everywhere, making it ideal for watching a game while enjoying some 'cue.

- My favorite dining experience in the area, though, is a true off-the-beaten-path hole-in-the-wall gem: Chickin Lickin'. Located beside a gas station one exit south of the Hilton Head turn-off on I-95 in the town of Hardeeville, it is my type of place: where the food is 100% of the focus. The friendly ladies who run it know their way around a fryer - the fried chicken is excellent and the fried okra is sublime. The authentic dirty rice, with bits of chopped chicken liver and such, is a must-have side. Much like Harbour Town, Chickin Lickin' doesn't exactly photograph well, but the food is spectacular - that's what counts.

FROM $237 (USD)
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC | Enjoy up to 5 nights' accommodations at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa and and up to 4 rounds of golf at Palmetto Dunes Golf Club (Fazio, Hills & Jones Courses) and the Country Club of Hilton Head.

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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Hilton Head remains as reliable as any Southeastern golf destination