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.