An introduction to Hilton Head
Within South Carolina’s Lowcountry region, is the hugely popular Hilton Head Island. This is a golfing mecca and with some stunning golf courses in Hilton Head you can understand why. It is right on the doorstep of the historic town of Savannah over the state border in Georgia.
For an island of just 180 kilometers squared, Hilton Head packs a punch when it comes to golf. There are 23 championship golf courses on the island with a range of both public and private courses. At the time of writing there were 15 courses open to the public.
Aside from the golf, which we’ll come onto later, the island is also popular for its Atlantic Ocean beaches. The whole Atlantic side of the island is essentially one long gorgeous beach.
There are miles upon miles of bike trails, upmarket hotels, wonderful restaurants and plenty of shops. You can absolutely understand why this is such a huge tourist destination.
To the western side of the island is Windmill Harbor, which leads onto Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. The vast reserve sits between the island and Bluffton, the first town on the mainland.
Coligny Beach Park and its neighboring Coligny Plaza, is well worth the visit. This is a really relaxed spot with seating areas, gazebos, shops and restaurants.
And lastly, the Harbour Town lighthouse is a must-visit. It is an iconic landmark on the 18th hole of the golf course of the same name. But it is also a tourist attraction in its own right, serving as a fascinating museum.
The best golf courses in Hilton Head
The Golf Club at Indigo Run
Right in the heart of the island alongside the Cross Island Parkway, The Golf Club at Indigo Run is a member-only club. Alongside the golf there are numerous tennis courts and a fitness center.
This fantastic course was named as one of the nation’s ‘Top Ten New Private Courses’. This accolade was bestowed when it opened in 1996 by Golf Digest.
This was actually one of the last courses to be built on the barrier island and has the unique claim to have been designed by the father and son duo of Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II. It is also the only signature course co-designed by the two of them.
The Nicklaus duo have masterfully created a routing which twists and turns through the native pines and large oaks putting a premium on strategy play. This isn’t a course where you need to pull out the big dog and pummel it as hard as you can.
Despite being a member-only club, it is possible to get tee times here, and you find it is actually quite decent value.
Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort (Robert Trent Jones Course)
Palmetto Dunes is one of the places to stay when visiting Hilton Head Island. The resort has received a range of awards over the years including regular accolades from the likes of Tripadvisor, Condé Nast and many more.
There are three outstanding golf courses sprawled out within the 2,000+ acre plot, foremost amongst them is the superb Robert Trent Jones course. This was the first of the three courses to be built and is a layout which regularly gets lauded as one of the ‘Best You Can Play in S.C.’.
Despite there being so many courses cramped into the one island, there are actually few which have panoramic Atlantic views. Well the Robert Trent Jones course bucks this trend, none-more so than on the par-5 10th hole, a signature hole with spectacular ocean views.
Throughout the whole back-nine, you have some terrific views (albeit few of the Atlantic). This is an expansive course, with wide tree-lined fairways where the prevailing ocean winds can cause havoc with wild tee shots.
This is without doubt one of the finest golf courses in Hilton Head Island and all the better it is open to the public.
Long Cove Golf Club
The Long Cove course opened for play in 1981 and is part of an exclusive private residential community. This is a gorgeous stretch of Hilton Head and it is here the Long Cove course weaves elegantly through the native marshlands.
Designed by the design duo of Pete and Alice Dye, it really is a treat for anyone who gets to play here. It is also one of the more challenging you will play on the island.
This is a beautiful part of the lowcountry, and despite water being present on most holes, it actually plays like three very different courses. You have a number of tree-lined holes, a collection of sandy-desert style holes and then holes which play through the marshes.
Pete and Alice worked seamlessly with the existing land, creating a number of risk-reward holes. Speak to a member and they will confirm there is no signature hole, every hole is superb.
Even the presence of housing, albeit hidden away discreetly, doesn’t take away from what is an outstanding golf course.
Wexford is a neighborhood in the southern half of Hilton Head, overlooking the tributary and the Cross Island Parkway. This is another upmarket gated residential community where owning a property ultimately gives you access to all the amenities onsite.
This includes the divine Wexford Golf Club, which was first opened back in 1983 and designed by Willard C. Byrd. In 2011 the great Arnold Palmer oversaw a major renovation and Wexford is now one of his signature courses.
Throughout the redesign, Palmer was very honest about the fact that many of the holes took inspiration from a number of classic ‘template’ holes, including the likes of the Redan, Alps or Biarritz. Yet each one has its own modern twist.
This might explain why a good handful of its holes get selected when experts choose their ‘18 favorite holes in Hilton Head’.
The setting is delightful; there are tall majestic oaks and a myriad of pines through which the course meanders. It has also seen its share of tournament play in hosting the 2017 USGA Senior Open Qualifier.
Harbour Town Golf Links
Harbour Town is a wondrous setting. It’s not quite on the southern point of Hilton Head Island where you’ll find South Beach. But just on the estuary as it comes inland.
Each and everyone of us will recognise the iconic red and white lighthouse which features on most signature shots of the course. No doubt you’ll also recognise it from being the host venue to the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage.
Either way, this is a top class course and without doubt one of the best golf courses on Hilton Head Island. It was designed by Pete and Alice Dye, yes that duo again, and opened for play back in 1969.
Harbour Town plays vastly different to many of the other courses on the island. This is not your ‘pull out the big dog’ course, but instead one which requires you to plot your way round. Strategy and skill over brute force. Many of the fairways are narrow and the greens small and well protected. This is what makes it a challenging one to play.
Despite also being considered one of the best golf courses in South Carolina, it also gets its fair share of detractors, who prefer the modern, more expansive setups. But these courses are rare these days and what you can’t deny is how much fun it is to play. Even the recovery shots are fun and interesting!
Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III at Sea Pines
The first golf course to ever be built on Hilton Head Island was the Ocean Course at Sea Pines. It was designed by George Cobb and masterfully renovated by Mark McCumber.
But in 2016 it got a complete transformation, so much so it is literally not the same course. They even renamed it Atlantic Dunes. The rebuild was led by Davis Love III, with help from his brother Mark and their lead architect Scot Sherman.
As part of the rebuild, they removed hundreds of trees, replacing them with indigenous plants and restoring once plentiful sand dunes. The character of the course has fundamentally changed.
For a layout where only one hole comes close to the Atlantic Ocean, the superb par-3 15th, there is a surprising amount which comes into play. In fact nearly every hole has an abundance of water.
The conditioning is superb and it’s fair to say the renovation has elevated this once tired course. So much so, there are some who think Atlantic Dunes could give its sibling courses Harbour Town and Heron Point a run for their money for the ‘best golf course at Sea Pines’ award.
Heron Point by Pete Dye at Sea Pines
Wow…yet another epic golf course at Sea Pines.
There are without doubt some world-class golf courses within Hilton Head. But the quality and quantity of golf you get at Sea Pines is on another level.
Clearly Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort has three superb golf courses. But I’d argue Sea Pines just has enough to confidently be considered the best golf resort on the island.
Either way, we digress. Heron Point is another masterpiece. Like the Atlantic Dunes course which was previously the Ocean Course, Heron Point originally began life as Sea Marsh Golf Course.
But in 2007, the renowned architect Pete Dye was called upon to completely transform the course. In typical Dye fashion, this was no small project. The construction of hillocks, mounds and swales have changed the identity of the layout with a number of subtle elevation changes now in play.
From the back tees the course stretches to over 7,000 yards but with seven tees on each hole, much of its ‘edge’ can be removed. You then only have to worry about the water hazards and litany of bunkers.
Oyster Reef Golf Club
On the northern side of the island, in the Hilton Head Plantation area, is the fantastic Oyster Reef Golf Club.
Buffered between a number of other Hilton Head golf courses, Oyster Reef was an immediate success. When it opened in 1982, it was recognised as one of the Top 25 New Courses in America.
The course was designed by Rees Jones and has been carved out of 190-acres of gorgeous lowcountry terrain. The breathtaking spot has lagoons, lush vegetation and at points, some outstanding views.
It is often ranked as one of the ‘locals’ favorites’. Particularly with the spectacular sixth hole, you get an inkling why. It is a par 3 which from the backs stretches to just shy of 200 yards. From the tee you can see a huge jigsaw piece-like bunker, a narrow green, dense vegetation and in the distance, the beautiful Port Royal Sound. Good luck with that one.
The course continues to garner the recognition. Over the years it was awarded a ‘Top 20 Courses in the Carolinas’, Golf Digest awarded it ‘Top 75 U.S. Golf Resorts’ and many more. Needless to say, a trip here will not disappoint.
Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort (George Fazio Course)
The second of three courses at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, was designed by George Fazio and opened in 1974.
Despite this being one of the most challenging courses on the island, certainly from the back tees, it is without doubt a favorite amongst the locals here. This is probably because there are wide fairways and it is a bucket of fun plotting your way round.
The par-70 plays tough, maybe not quite so tough as the Arthur Hills course also at Palmetto Dunes, but this is still a tricky course to conquer. There are only two par 5s, with the bulk being a number of long par 4s.
The signature hole is the 16th, another long par-4 with water running the length of the left-hand side. Large bunkers are positioned strategically along the fairway. Even once you’ve kept your ball in play, the green is flanked again by bunkers and water.
What is the best golf course in Hilton Head?
The best golf course in Hilton Head Island is the outstanding Harbour Town at Sea Pines Resort. It was designed by Pete and Alice Dye and opened for play in 1969. It is a regular on the PGA Tour hosting the RBC Heritage.
How many golf courses are there in Hilton Head?
On the island of Hilton Head in South Carolina, there are 23 championship golf courses. There is a mix of private and public golf courses. A host of world class golf course architects have been involved in the design of many of them.