Clark Sinclair, director of golf at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort on Hilton Head Island, chuckles – perhaps nervously, perhaps not – when asked how accurate the name is for his Robert Trent Jones Oceanfront Course.
That is, how much “oceanfront” do players see during their 18-hole journey around the tree-lined, rolling-terrain layout? It’s not Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, with more than half its holes within sight of the Atlantic – no course in America is, for that matter – but where does sand and surf come into view?
“Well, the 10th green and the 11th tee are on the ocean,” Sinclair, a resort regular since 1981, says, “and you can see the ocean on No. 9. You get a head wind (from the ocean) on 9 and 10, which can change (how the hole plays) a lot, and then you have a tailwind for your tee shot at 11.”
If that doesn’t sound like a lot, not to worry. With brisk breezes and salt in the air, there’s no mistaking where a player is for, say, Arizona. Too, chances are, as you battle the typically Robert Trent Jones features – huge greens, plenty of sand and straightforward obstacles – you’ll come to regard that brief glance at the water as an accent, not a missing piece.
And what an accent: Teeing off on the par-5 10th (550 yards from the back tees), the hole – one of two oceanfront holes on Hilton Head – generally requires three solid shots, in large part due to the aforementioned wind but also because of three large fairway bunkers bordering the fairway. The elevated green, guarded by three more bunkers, sits on the horizon as if you’re playing to the end of the earth.
And once on the green, the Atlantic Ocean dominates the view. Most players will appreciate that “kick in the pants” wind on their subsequent tee shot, too.
One of Palmetto Dunes’ three courses – the others are designs by Arthur Hills and George Fazio – the RTJ Oceanfront Course was built in the 1960s by the late Jones (whose sons, Robert Trent Jr. and Rees, have become architectural giants in their own right), then renovated by Jones protégé Roger Rulewich in 2002. If the course was solid originally, the re-do made it even better.
“(Rulewich) turned the course upside down,” Sinclair says. “He restructured the greens, contours and fairway, updated the irrigation system.” Adding elevation to a course that once was considered an “airstrip” (Sinclair) and a “highway” (general manager Nathan Krelis), Rulewich used only the dirt from excavations that created a lake at the seventh hole.
The back nine, meanwhile, sits amid a lagoon system that comes into play on Holes 10-14 and 17. Especially daunting is the par-3 12th, guarded by water and a deep bunker in front and more bunkers and water behind, not to mention the par-4 13th, requiring a tee shot over water and an approach to an elevated green guarded by four bunkers.
The elder Jones is known for his “target golf” philosophy, rewarding accuracy but penalizing off-line shots. Sinclair says the renovation is “more user-friendly, not as target-oriented as some other” Jones courses. “The redesign was meant to open things up for more family play,” he says. Maybe so – but the result remains plenty challenging.
Of the three courses, the RTJ Oceanfront is the most acclaimed – Golfweek magazine ranked it among the best courses in the Southeast, and Fodor’s Golf Digest named it South Carolina’s Course of the Year in 2003 – and thus the most popular, with 45,000 rounds a year compared to less than 40,000 each for the Hills and Fazio courses. “Most (players) ask for the Jones, especially since the renovation,” Sinclair says.
When asked for playing advice, Krelis says the key word – again – is “straightforward. The redesign put all the obstacles in front of you,” he says. “Some traps (at No. 9) and water hazards (in the extreme dogleg left at the 18th) are hidden, but mostly it’s all right there in front of you.”
The RTJ Oceanfront’s greens are Champions hybrid Bermuda (Fazio uses Diamond Zoysia, Hills Tif Dwarf) and play smooth, if not exceptionally fast. “We try to keep them not as fast as they could be,” Sinclair says, grinning.
And in keeping with the renovation’s new-and-improved course, Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort even has a free Smartphone app that answers real-time course questions about playing each hole. Golfers can track yardage with the built-in GPS and record scores with a mobile scorecard, as well as getting hole-by-hole information and playing tips (the app is available in app stores; search for “Palmetto Dunes Golf”).
After a round, players can adjourn to Big Jim’s restaurant in the RTJ Oceanfront clubhouse for a post-round meal or beverage. They might not have a view of the Atlantic, but chances are they won’t mind by then.
Players looking to play any of the Palmetto Dunes courses can take advantage of special April deals. The “Ultimate PGA Tour Experience” package offers accommodations and three rounds of golf starting at $184 per person per night and runs through April 27.
To get the special deal, call (843) 567-6513 and use Promo Code: PGA. For more information about the deal or the resort, go to www.palmettodunes.com.