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Hidden Treasure: Palmetto Dunes’ Hills Course Offers Testing Golf – and a Piece of History

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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Walk up to your golf cart at the Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort on Hilton Head Island on a Wednesday or Saturday, and you might think you took a wrong turn at the Atlantic Ocean and ended up not in the South Carolina Lowcountry but near St. Andrews in Scotland.

Tom Campbell is as Scottish as haggis and the Highlands, with a shock of white hair and a thick burr in his voice. Greeting players at the clubhouse and escorting them to the first tee, the Hilton Head Plantation resident, retired expatriate and part-time starter imparts both course knowledge and a dry wit.

"He adds a lot to things," said Edward Sires, the Hills course's assistant professional and, for five years, a member of the staff at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course. "A lot of regulars here ask for him: ‘Where's the Scottish guy?'"

The Hills course might not remind anyone of St. Andrews, but it's a layout that grizzled veterans of that land of rolling, sea-swept terrain would appreciate. Palmetto Dunes has three distinct courses: the Robert Trent Jones, longest but also most wide-open; the George Fazio, with canals running through the course and Donald Ross-style elevated greens; and the Hills - perhaps the toughest of the three.

"A lot of better players like the Hills because it's a challenging golf course," said Sires, standing in this day for head professional Samm Wolfe. "It's a shot-maker's course, one you've got to plot your way around."

With tight fairways flanked by thick stands of palmetto trees, the Hills course does share one trait of links golf: Built in 1986 on a series of rolling dunes, it forces players to calibrate ocean breezes that, despite all those trees, still can turn a shot into a nightmare.

In the late 1990s, one of the game's best - PGA Tour multiple winner Matt Kuchar - played the Hills course during a college tournament. At the dramatic par-4 17th hole, which doglegs left with forced carries over water on both tee and approach shots, Sires said the Georgia Tech product made "a 7 or an 8, I'm not sure, because he tried to go over the trees" in the dogleg.

While water can be found on 10 of its holes, the Hills course has not a single fairway bunker. Deep, sandy pits guarding the greens, though, ensure no one feels as if he missed out on anything, though. The course earns 4 ½ (of five) stars from Fodor's Golf Digest and was selected as South Carolina's "2009 Course of the Year."

Besides the 17th, Sires' favorite holes are the dogleg-left par-4 10th ("you've got to pick targets on each shot"); the par-4 12th, doglegging right with water all along the right side ("you need a perfect drive or the ball can sweep into the water"); and the par-3 eighth, a short hole (156 yards from the tips) but all carry over water and usually into the wind. "It plays about a half-club longer than you think, so take an extra club or watch the ripples," Sires said).

Then there's the history, namely the Historic Leamington Lighthouse, originally known as the Hilton Head Range Light Station. Built between 1879 and 1880 as a part of a system of navigation lights guiding ships into Port Royal Sound, it is one of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina.

Unlike its "cousin" behind the 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links, Leamington is a genuine historic structure; only the 94-foot Rear Lighthouse survives along with a brick oil house and a water cistern, plus the cast-iron skeleton of the main lighthouse shrouded by trees. For more information on the lighthouse, visit

Sires, as does Campbell, reminds players to "pay attention to the wind." But with old lighthouses, water and large alligators on most of those water holes, you're forgiven if you sometimes forget. For more information, visit; a feature of the site is an animated flyover of the Hills course.

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.