HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- There's more golf and tennis on Hilton Head Island than you can shake a 5-iron at, or a racquet. And if golf and tennis aren't your bag, there's about 250 restaurants, hiking, lots of biking, fishing and just about anything else you want to do on or off the water. It's no wonder so many people retire or have second homes here.
That was basically my week recently in the South Carolina Lowcountry just north of the Georgia state line (most people fly into Savannah about 45 minutes away). The centerpiece of any golf vacation here is, of course, Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort, home of the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage. After a rainout on the first day, Harbour Town would be my first course. A five-star experience to be sure, but the rest of the week was hardly a letdown.
The Sea Pines golf course collection
Harbour Town Golf Links is among the players' favorite courses on the PGA Tour, and for good reason: It's a shot-maker's course. While it's known for its finishing holes on the sound and its iconic lighthouse and marina near the clubhouse right behind the 18th green, the first 15 holes are a series of well-thought-out doglegs through stands of mature hardwoods, ponds and streams. The par 3s are among the best in the country, and this walking-friendly course is a test of patience more than it is length.
Ranked 18th on America's 100 Greatest Public Courses by Golf Digest, the Pete Dye-designed course was closed over the summer and into the early part of fall for another round of improvements. The course received new Celebration Bermuda on the fairways, tee boxes and rough, new Tif-Eagle greens and a brand new technologically advanced irrigation system. As for hole changes, the most notable came on the par-5 fifth, where the green was moved some 30 yards to the left away from a tall pine on the right that used to catch a lot of approach shots.
Harbour Town is hardly Sea Pines' only game, though. Heron Point was my second round, and it certainly wasn't much of a drop-off, if at all. Dye has personally overseen renovations to the course that he originally designed in 2007. The new version is a little softer, but hardly a pushover. And it's arguably as beautiful as Harbour Town.
The third course at Sea Pines, the Ocean Course, is currently being renovated by Love Golf Design (Davis Love III and his brother Mark), which rounds out the trifecta of excellent layouts at the resort.
On top of that, the resort just opened its new 4,000-square-foot locker room in the new 55,000-square-foot clubhouse. The locker room went from one of the smallest on tour to one of the circuit's best with its new amenities, which include a steam room, sauna and bar and dining area overlooking the course.
Heritage Golf has plenty of game, too
After a couple of days at The Sea Pines Resort, I got a taste of the latest offerings from Heritage Golf, which offers up a nice mid-priced collection of courses. My first foray came on the Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation, which opened in 1993. One of two courses at Palmetto Hall Plantation (the other is the Arthur Hills Course), Cupp's course meanders through wetlands, streams and lakes to create a classic test of golf appreciated by better or at least avid golfers.
The Cupp Course was one of three I got to sample from the Heritage collection. Next up was Shipyard Golf Club, a 27-hole layout built on property that goes back to the early 1700s, when Henry Talbot-Talbird came over from Ireland to start a brick manufacturing operation called "Brickyard Plantation." Later, Samuel Fickling bought the plantation and conducted a shipbuilding operation, hence "Shipyard Plantation."
As for the golf, George W. Cobb designed the three nines at Shipyard: the Clipper, Galleon and Brigantine courses. They are oak- and magnolia-lined layouts that demand accuracy over length, with plenty of bunkers, water hazards and smaller greens. And recently, the course laid down new Diamond zoysia greens, creating some of the best putting surfaces on the island. The new greens work better under the stress of the trees' shade and hot summer temperatures. (Palmetto Dunes' George Fazio Course also has Diamond zoysia greens.)
My last course on the Heritage tour was Oyster Reef Golf Club, another favorite on the island. This former "Lowcountry Course of the Year" is a 7,005-yard championship layout with plenty of intriguing holes, including the signature par-3 sixth, set up against the marshes and water of Port Royal Sound.
Last but not least: Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort
Arguably among the top three golf courses on Hilton Head Island, the Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort was one of the highlights of six-day golf journey. A quick tip before the round from former tour player and director of instruction Doug Weaver led to my best golf of the week on this very player-friendly layout that features one scenic hole after another. The pinnacle is the oceanfront par-5 10th, which punctuates a stretch of six or seven holes that work around water features.
The RTJ Course was followed by one of the toughest courses on the island, the Arthur Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes. From the get-go, you know you're going to have to hit precision golf shots on this 6,651-yard course, which seems to play much longer than its yardage. The theme of tucked away greens around doglegs comes early and often. Shaping shots -- or at least laying up to the right distances -- is mandatory if you want to shoot a decent score.
Accommodations, dining and other cool stuff
One of the great things about Hilton Head Island is that golf is just the beginning. There are more tennis courts (almost all of them Har-Tru clay) per capita than any other location on earth here. Many of the golfers here -- as well as the pros -- play tennis, and some of them, like Sea Pines director of golf John Farrell, are quite good. In fact, one of the highlights of my trip was meeting tennis legend Stan Smith, who is an accomplished golfer (he once shot 66). Smith runs the excellent Smith-Stearns Tennis Academy at Sea Pines.
And while I wasn't fortunate enough to get a personal tennis lesson from Smith, I did manage to get some help from a couple of other great pros from two other terrific tennis facilities. I picked up more than a few pointers from Dana Landin at Port Royal Racquet Club. And the next day, I got some cool biomechanical stuff from Glenn Sheaffer at Palmetto Dunes.
The tennis lessons, which are great workouts, also helped me counter some of the great meals I had on the island, which offers more than 250 restaurants. The resorts, of course, each had some great places to eat, starting with the Links, an American Grill, which features indoor/outdoor seating overlooking the ninth green at Harbour Town Golf Links.
At Oyster Reef, there's the brand new LagerHead Tavern, where executive chef Michael Toscano has created a Lowcountry-inspired menu using fresh, regional ingredients sourced from local farmers markets in an atmosphere overlooking the course and often featuring live entertainment. And at Palmetto Dunes, I was particularly impressed with the comfort food offered at Big Jim's BBQ, Burgers & Pizza.
The highlight of my culinary experiences, however, probably came off-campus at the 843 Restaurant, also known as 843 Via 808, which refers to the area codes of South Carolina and Hawaii. In other words, it's a fusion of South Carolina Lowcountry and Hawaiian cuisine, featuring farm-fresh ingredients from an imaginative menu that includes an extensive wine collection. The "simple and elegant" pecan-crusted Carolina Trout was one of the many highlights of a great meal.
And finally, the accommodations for the week were top-notch, ranging from the elegant Inn & Club at Harbour Town to a luxury two-bedroom condo at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. The AAA 4-Diamond Inn at Harbour Town has been completely refreshed and includes a new boutique pool with spa, rim flow edge and travertine stone deck.
I also got to spend a night at the Sonesta Resort, another AAA 4-Diamond resort, right on the beach next to golf and the famed Van Der Meer Tennis Center. A recent multimillion-dollar renovation at the resort has yielded some of the nicest rooms on the island, each of them designed for comfort and work.