(UPDATED: April, 2023.)
South Carolina has been a haven for vacationing golfers for decades. At the southern end of the state's 187-mile coastline sits Hilton Head Island, a 40-square-mile sea island that has appealed to golfers since the late 1950s, when developer Charles E. Fraser founded Sea Pines Resort. Laid out by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus at the heart of the Sea Pines community, Harbour Town Golf Links opened in 1969.
Hilton Head has not looked back. Harbour Town became a PGA Tour stop (now the RBC Heritage) upon opening and has remained so ever since. Other on-island resort developments like Palmetto Dunes, Hilton Head Plantation and private enclaves like Long Cove and Weford have sprung up, their own golf courses winding through forests, homes and along marshes and beach.
Golf has exploded off-island, too, with daily-fee courses and a host of private communities lining US 278, the main road that connects Hilton Head with Interstate 95. All in all, the destination boasts more than 30 courses, most of them public, semi-private or resort layouts between the island itself and the neighboring, growing mainland community of Bluffton.
Many of the courses are on the premium side with green fees well above $100 (Harbour Town's rack rate pushes $400 in peak fall season, including cart and forecaddie fee), but you can get lower rates through a resort golf package or in the shoulder seasons and on some of the courses in Bluffton.
With that said, the area offers a bucket-list golf experience or two to go with lots of other solid options to go with exceptional dining, water sports, biking, hiking and other activities. Here's a rundown of the top 10 courses you can play on Hilton Head Island and nearby Bluffton.
1. Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort
It might be odd to consider that a course opened in 1969 could fairly be considered one of America's most historically significant, but it is absolutely true of Harbour Town. Not only did architect Pete Dye go against the grain of meaty, sometimes overbearing post-World War II golf design by making his Lowcountry masterpiece a low-profile, quiet charmer, he also started the "signature architect" movement when he conscripted Jack Nicklaus, then in the prime of his playing career, to help fine-tune the course for the pros, while also providing strong allyship in the face of potential criticisms of his innovative, cheeky work. The result is a course that not only holds up to the world's best golfers without being 7,500 yards, but is eminently fair for the rest of us mere-mortal golfers to play, too. Few golf courses are capable of being enjoyed by all golfers; Harbour Town is one of America's best such examples. - Tim Gavrich
HARBOUR TOWN GOLF LINKS— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) October 30, 2022
Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Pete Dye & Jack Nicklaus, 1969
Dye & Nicklaus ushered in the modern era of golf architecture so masterfully here that few latter-day courses hold a candle to its mix of intimacy, variety and peculiarity. pic.twitter.com/bMGkAWZUpm
2. Atlantic Dunes at Sea Pines Resort
The newest course at Sea Pines, Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III, opened in 2016 after a complete makeover by Davis Love III, his brother, Mark and design associate Scot Sherman of what used to be the Ocean Course. Love & Co. took out hundreds of trees, restored dunes and gave the course the beachy character that it lacked before the redo. Like Harbour Town, the holes are interesting, but there's more water that comes into play and the greens are much larger. While there are no weak holes, the highlight is the par-3 15th, one of just two holes with true Atlantic Ocean views on the island. The finishing stretch after that gets no less interesting. - Mike Bailey
3. Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort Robert Trent Jones Course
The oldest course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort (1970), the Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes is still one of Hilton Head's best. It's also the other course on the island where golfers can see the Atlantic Ocean, which comes into view on the par-5 10th. While the 10th is certainly the signature hole, it's simply part of a great transition to a terrific back nine, where the finish, with water coming into play on most of the holes, is among the best in the area. The course, which is always in good shape, it seems, features a great variety of holes overall, and the par 3s are stellar. - MB
4. Heron Point by Pete Dye at Sea Pines
On a proper Hilton Head golf vacation, it is worth it to play all three courses at Sea Pines, including Heron Point by Pete Dye. It has all the elements you might expect in a Lowcountry Dye design: water, bulkheads, plenty of sand and perfect conditions. Play it from the back tees and you've got quite a test, but there are six more sets to make it enjoyable for most every level of player. - MB
5. May River Golf Club
Located about half an hour off-island, this high-end Jack Nicklaus design is arguably the best-conditioned course in Bluffton. May River's championship layout makes its way around the May River as well as the coastal wetlands. Caddies are required, so it's a premium experience, but like the Sea Pines courses, well worth it if budget isn't a concern. Golfers must stay on-property at the Montage Palmetto Bluff resort in order to access the course. - MB
6. Oyster Reef Golf Club
This tree-lined, recently-renovated Rees Jones design is part of the Heritage Golf Group of resort courses on the island. The par-3 6th hole brings golfers to the edge of Port Royal Sound, where a tee box plaque recounts the Civil War battle fought on the water beyond the green. The course's restaurant, the LagerHead Tavern, is a popular haunt for locals and visitors. - TG
7. Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort George Fazio Course
Opened in 1974, Palmetto Dunes' George Fazio course is a sneaky-tough challenge, with a par of just 70 and a host of elevated greens helping it play deceptively long for its yardage from any set of tees. Some of the canals that snake their way through the Palmetto Dunes property come into play, especially on the bearish par-3 17th hole, which plays as long as 230 yards to a small, tilted green set across the waterway. - TG
8. Old South Golf Links
Just on the mainland side of the bridge, Old South is an appealing Clyde Johnston design that mixes inland holes with a beautiful marsh-side stretch toward the end of each nine. The presence of relatively few homes on the course makes golfers feel relaxed, ensconced in nature. - TG
9. Hilton Head National Golf Club
A standard in Bluffton since 1989, Hilton Head National is something of an oddity, with 18 holes designed by two different architects, Bobby Weed and Gary Player. Both gentlemen were on their game here, though, and the course delivers good fun throughout a core layout, unencumbered by homes. With green fees often topping out below $100, this is a strong value course in the area. - TG
10. Crescent Pointe Golf Club
Another Bluffton favorite is Crescent Pointe, which was designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 2000. It's another challenging layout that incorporates the natural terrain and water features of the Lowcountry. Among the highlights is the par-3 ninth, that plays nearly 220 yards from the back tee to an island green. The last three holes play along the banks of the Colleton River. - MB
What are your favorite courses to play in the Hilton Head Island area? Let us know in the comments below!