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If Architect-driven Golf Is Your Thing, Tee Off in Hilton Head

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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Hilton Head Island golf course designers.
Golf course architect Pete Dye, right, known as the "Marquis de Sod" in golf circles, is one of a handful of top course designers with showcase links on Hilton Head Island.

A new slogan adopted by South Carolina's Hilton Head Island is a fitting one: Hilton Head Golf Island. With some 25 golf courses on the island or in nearby Bluffton, plus more near Beaufort less than an hour away, visiting players have a wealth of choices. So where to start?

Nowadays, many "hard-core" golfers find themselves drawn to the works of specific (and well-known) architects. While players once had no clue who built their favorite links, today the names of Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and Rees Jones (and his late father, Robert Trent Jones, perhaps the first well-known designer of the modern era) - plus such golfers-turned-architects as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Davis Love III and more - now are as well-known by devotees as their favorite PGA Tour stars.

If architect-driven golf is your thing, Hilton Head is your place. All the above plus such names as George Cobb, Bob Cupp, Clyde Johnston and former players Tom Wieskopf, Gary Player and Fuzzy Zoeller also dot the coastal landscape.

Some architects have only single courses at Hilton Head. The following are those with multiple designs, offering itineraries that will sate even the most ardent Nicklaus, Dye or Jones fans.

Pete Dye

One of the "Marquis de Sod's" first works was one of his best: Harbour Town Golf Links, built in 1969 to host the now-RBC Heritage. Nicklaus also has his name on the course as a consultant, but Harbour Town's tiny, bulkhead-guarded greens and penal bunkers are Dye at his best.

One doesn't have to go far from Harbour Town to find another Dye gem: Heron Point by Pete Dye, also within Sea Pines Resort. Dye's redesign of the former Marsh Course has recently undergone tweaks to soften its greens surrounds, making it more playable for tourists. If you can't find a tee time at Harbour Town, Heron Point is a delightful consolation prize.

Finally, there are Colleton River Plantation's Dye Course, Port Royal Plantation's Robber's Row (a Dye renovation) and Hampton Hall Club, all three with the distinct touches that make Dye the architect many players love to hate.

Jack Nicklaus

The Golden Bear's first venture into design was with Dye at Harbour Town, but Big Jack returned often to Hilton Head, leaving three of his own creations. He built solo designs at Colleton River in 1992 and the Golden Bear Club at Indigo Run in 1993.

Perhaps Nicklaus' finest work, and one of the very best courses in South Carolina, is the acclaimed May River Golf Club at Palmetto Bluff. Voted among the state's top five by the SC Golf Course Ratings Panel, May River made use of its eponymous river, marshland and old-growth forests to create a spectacular and challenging golf experience.

Rees Jones

Known in golf circles as the "Open Doctor" for his renovations of famed courses to prepare them to host US Opens, the younger son of Robert Trent Jones has created two Hilton Head courses of his own: Hilton Head Plantation's Country Club of Hilton Head and its sister course, Oyster Reef.

The former, built on one of the island's most elevated sites, redid its greens in 2010 with MiniVerde ultra-dwarf Bermuda and has hosted US Open qualifying. Oyster Reef, built in 1982, features multi-tiered greens, deep bunkers and its iconic par-3 sixth hole, set against the marshes and water views of Port Royal Sound.

If that's not enough Jones golf for you, Rees' famous father's Palmetto Dunes course (one of three in the resort, the others by George Fazio and Arthur Hills) is a user-friendly but occasionally demanding layout with one green overlooking the beach.

Tom Fazio

One of the most prolific golf course designers, Fazio kicked off his design career (after apprenticing under his uncle George) with his Wild Dunes Links Course near Charleston. Fazio now has more courses in South Carolina than any other state except Florida, including a foursome located along US 278 near Bluffton.

Belfair's North and South courses incorporate the marsh, sand and thick forests of the area into a pair of spectacular experiences. The same is true of Berkeley Hall's two courses, also the North and South. While Fazio has no course on Hilton Head itself, his handiwork as a young man can be seen in his uncle and mentor George Fazio's Palmetto Dunes course, a layout with plenty of sand and narrow canals that seem to gobble up errant shots.


Less well known than the aforementioned designers, Arthur Hills created a couple of masterpieces on Hilton Head. His Hills Course is perhaps the toughest of Palmetto Dunes' threesome, and his course at Palmetto Hall Plantation is equally challenging.

George Cobb was one of the first designers on Hilton Head, collaborating with Willard Byrd to create three nine-hole designs - Galleon, Clipper and Brigantine - within Shipyard Plantation; players can combine any two into an 18-hole experience or go the full 27. Cobb also designed the Ocean Point course at Fripp Island and Port Royal Golf Club's Barony Course on Hilton Head, while Byrd created Port Royal's Planter's Row course.

Winner of five RBC Heritage titles, Davis Love III returned to The Sea Pines Resort in 2017 to complete a total reconstruction of the former Ocean Course, now dubbed Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III. One of three Sea Pines courses, it won the 2018 "NationalCourse of the Year Award" by the National Golf Course Owners Association. Love also designed two other Lowcountry layouts -- Eagle's Pointe in Bluffton and Ocean Creek on Fripp Island.

Clyde Johnston, a South Carolina native, created a local favorite, Bluffton's Old South Golf Links and consulted on Fuzzy Zoeller's Island West. Johnston's best and perhaps least-known work, though, might be the Legends Course at Parris Island in Beaufort, where a visit to the Marine Corps training station can accompany a round of Lowcountry golf.

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.