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Atlantic Dunes: A New Course from a Familiar Name at Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Resort

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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Nearly 30 years ago, a young player from nearby Sea Island, Ga., captured his first PGA Tour title at the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing at Harbour Town Golf Links, the golf crown jewel of Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island.

That would hardly be the last time Davis Love III left Harbour Town wearing the tournament's tartan jacket and carrying the winner's trophy. Love won a total of five Heritage titles, more than anyone.

It was only fitting, then, that when Sea Pines decided to round out its trio of golf courses by renovating the former Ocean Course - one of the oldest layouts on the island - management targeted an up-and-coming architect: Love, who with his brother, Mark, and associate Scot Sherman produced Atlantic Dunes, which opened for play in November 2016, a month later than scheduled due to Hurricane Matthew.

"It's a fun way to extend your career," Davis Love says of his Love Golf Design business. Atlantic Dunes is a worthy addition to a resume that includes 20 earlier golf courses, including three in South Carolina - plus two US Ryder Cup captaincies and induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2016.

It's exciting, too, for Sherman, a Furman University graduate and Greenville, SC, resident. A protégé of legendary architect Pete Dye and former associate of SC native Bobby Weed, Sherman was lead designer on the Atlantic Dunes project, which updated a 1995 redo by former Tour player Mark McCumber.

Sherman says the goal was to "improve playability" on what was, he says, an old, flat design, and to upgrade the dated infrastructure to "make it more memorable." That included removing 500-600 trees, moving 55,000 cubic yards of dirt, and adding 14 miles of drainage pipes and 19 miles of irrigation, plus 15,000 tons of sand. Some 50,000 native plants were placed on the site's 42 acres, twice the size of Harbour Town.

"We replaced everything: grass, irrigation, drainage, and moved three acres of water," Sherman says, all to the tune of nearly $11 million.

The result is a course that - true to Dye's and Love's philosophies - can "intimidate you visually, that looks harder than it is," Sherman says. In reality, though, Atlantic Dunes has the widest fairway corridors of any Sea Pines course (Harbour Town and another Dye product, Heron Point).

"Alice (Dye, Pete's wife and an architect herself) always says you want to give every level of player a place to go," Sherman says.

The difficulty for better players comes from Love/Sherman's extensive use of water - in evidence and/or in play on a majority of holes - and 81 bunkers, plus liberal placement of large sand dunes framing the fairways.

The old Ocean Course "didn't feel like it was near the ocean," Sherman says. "We wanted to evoke that Atlantic Dunes feel. Even the bridges have rope railings," to evoke the ocean feel. The result is a course that is never boring, with a variety of holes demanding a variety of shots.

Playability is the key. "We (architects) have made the game so hard for the average guy," Love says, "but you have to make a fit for everyone. So we've dialed back the degree of difficulty."

But not the challenges, which start with water-lined holes and continue through to an exciting finishing foursome of holes, led off by the uphill, par-3 15th, which plays from 137 to 205 yards and one of only two oceanfront golf holes on Hilton Head.

After the short (323-394 yards) but tricky, dogleg right 16th, Atlantic Dunes closes with a pair of long, water-guarded holes: the par-5 17th (with its peninsula green) and the mammoth par-4 18th, which can play as long as 462 yards (390 from the white/member tees). Before the redesign, the finishing hole was a par-5.

"(The course) plays a couple of shots easier if you hit it smart," Love says.

Starting at the 2017 RBC Heritage, April 10-16, amateurs and players will get to learn that. Because of heavy demand, a third pro-am (one of two on Wednesday of tournament week) will be played at Atlantic Dunes.

Just like his boss, "I have a reverence for Harbour Town," Sherman says. Atlantic Dunes is testimony to that.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.