Itching to golf? Spring is in full swing on Hilton Head Island

By Dave Hilson
Online Article Here

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- We're standing on the tee of the par-3 eighth hole of the Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, clubs in hand, but we'd probably be better off with fishing poles.

It's a long carry over the water that lurks between us and the well-protected green some 200 yards away. At least with fishing poles we could catch ourselves some dinner -- one of those hefty yellowtail seabass that has come to swim in the brackish waters surrounding the green would surely hit the spot.

Doug Weaver, the affable head pro at RTJ, tells us that at different times of the year waterways around the course are opened and seawater flows in to mix with fresh water, and along with it come the fish.

Doug's one heck of a guy and an experienced guide to have with us as we make our way around the par-72, 6,570-yard (from the blues) RTJ track. He is one of four golfers who famously recorded holes-in-ones on the par-3 sixth hole at Oak Hill Country Club during the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open. And he was named South Carolina's No. 2 teaching pro in the November issue of Golf Digest, so he knows what he's talking about and he's happy to give pointers.

Unfortunately, we're beyond help on this warm sunny mid-November day and, with no fishing poles in sight, my playing partner sends a couple of balls into the water before giving up and placing one in the drop area. I, luckily, avoid both water and bunkers, and sail a 3-hyrid onto the front edge of the green.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of water on Hilton Head. The South Carolina island is just an hour's drive northeast from Savannah, Ga., and bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Harbor River. Inlets, rivers and streams, traversed by aesthetically pleasing wooden bridges, wind their way through the landscape, so there's plenty of the wet stuff to contend with whether at one of the three courses on the Palmetto Dunes resort or at any of the other 18 that dot the island.

Visions of Forest Gump flash through my head as Ted, a retired military officer we're grouped with on Veterans Day, points out a shrimp boat chugging along an inlet of Port Royal Sound. We can see it plainly from the par-3 sixth hole of the scenic and challenging par-72 Rees Jones-designed Oyster Reef golf course. It's one of two courses we play that aren't part of the resort.

The other is the Pete Dye-designed Harbour Town Golf Links, a favourite among PGA Tour pros who stop there to compete in the RBC Heritage tournament and a must-play for any visiting golfer. Take on the famous Lighthouse Hole, the 444-yard par-4 18th, as the wind whips in off Calibogue Sound and across the fairway. But be sure to find a deal on a golf discount website because playing here can be exorbitant if you pay the regular fees.

As ubiquitous as the island's waterways are the stately manors and mighty oaks that line the fairways. With Spanish moss hanging from them like tattered curtains, the oaks announce you are, indeed, in the South, as do the gators, storks, pelicans and eagles that can be seen going about their business.

Robert Trent Jones courses are always a pleasure to play and the one at Hilton Head, one of the few on the island with a view of the Atlantic, is no different. Well bunkered, but with generous fairways and expansive greens, the course is enjoyable for players of all skill levels.

The other two courses on the resort were designed by Arthur Hills and George Fazio.

The Hills course, with water on 10 of its holes, tree-lined fairways and plenty of doglegs, is a good test for most golfers. Blind shots into several of the greens make for some difficult approaches. This par-72 course, which maxes out at 6,651 yards, emphasizes accuracy and precision over distance. It is also home to one of the island's most historic lighthouses.

The only par-70 public golf course on Hilton Head, Fazio's design -- voted the best South Carolina course in 2014 -- tops out at 6,873 yards and is the most challenging of the three courses.

With only two par-5s, the teeth of this course lies in its punishing par-4s. When the wind kicks up there, as it did during our round, it's almost impossible for the average golfer to reach some of these holes in regulation from the blues. The final four holes are among the most difficult we play all week.

Now, if you never want to leave the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, which is a complex of hotels and villas, you don't have to. It has everything you need, from a general store to a slew of restaurants, including the casual Big Jim's and more upscale establishments at the Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina.

We stay at the well-positioned Omni Oceanfront Resort, which has a fantastic view of the Atlantic and a huge beach. If you are lucky, you can watch dolphins and whales breach the surface of the water from your balcony.

The Omni has several outdoor heated pools and a spa to enjoy. As well, there are fantastic dining options, including the elegant HH Prime restaurant, which serves delicious steak and seafood. If you don't feel like eating out you can always cook in the kitchenette of one the recently renovated and well-appointed rooms that come with a decent-sized fridge and everything needed to prepare and eat a meal.

We also stay at Inverness Village, again inside the larger resort, which is a series of villas that have all the comforts of home. Sit out on the back patio and sip your favourite drink as you watch fellow golfers hole out for birdie -- or not.

If you do feel like getting off the Palmetto Dunes property, it's an easy drive along 278, a major thoroughfare that cuts through Hilton Head and passes many restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and golf courses that comprise the upscale community. Nothing is much more than a 15-minute drive awat and the many roundabouts you will encounter along the way make getting around a novel experience.

With weather warming south of the border, Hilton Head Island is the perfect place for a Canadian golf enthusiast to get a jump on the season.

Hop on over to Savannah

If you're on the island to play golf and have time to do a little sightseeing, put the historic city of Savannah, Ga., at the top of your list.

Founded in 1733 on the banks of the Savannah River, the city is known for its cobblestoned streets, beautiful fountains, parklike squares, horse-drawn carriages, ornate antebellum architecture, and mighty oaks. And you don't need a whole lot of time to see many of the attractions.

We had about four hours to hit the city on our way back to Savannah airport. Drive along Hwy. 278 as you leave Hilton Head and then take No. 17 into Savannah. That will get you to the visitor centre, where many of the trolley tours start. We used Old Savannah Tours, which cost $23 and allowed us to jump on and off when the mood struck.

Savannah never suffered the same fiery fate as Atlanta during the American Civil War, and few places in the South boast so much intact history. Highlights: The birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, Lafayette Square, home to the ornate Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, tours of famous movie sites and nighttime ghost hunting excursions.

Conde Nast Traveler named Savannah among the top U.S. cities to visit, and it's not difficult to see why.