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South Carolina’s Top Five Golf Courses; for Most, It’s a Case of Rounding up the Usual Suspects

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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When it comes to great golf, South Carolina takes a back seat to no one. With more than 350 courses, from private to public and in all price ranges, the only debates are which courses are the best of the best. And, generally, the names don't change much.

Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup, 2007 Senior PGA Championship and 2012 PGA, with another coming in 2021, usually stands atop the heap. But not always; Hilton Head's Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing - SC's only annual PGA Tour stop - has its admirers, including the PGA Tour players who voted it their second-favorite regular Tour stop behind Augusta National.

Those two have, for years, ranked as 1 and 2 - or, maybe more accurately, 1A and 1B, with the order in the eye of the beholder. But don't think there aren't other courses that, in other states, would be in the top-course running.

For purposes of this Best Five, we've considered only courses open to the general public; SC has plenty of great private courses, but too few get to play them. If you're visiting as a tourist, new resident or just passing through, these should all be on your to-do list.


The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort

The Ocean Course has hosted the Ryder Cup and PGA Championship.

Forget The Ocean Course's impressive resume as a site for majors and Ryder Cups; Pete Dye's iconic design, stretching along the Atlantic Ocean and offering more beach-view holes than any in America, is a course every serious golfer should play at least ... well, once is a start.

Dye elevated each fairway to enhance views of the beach and ocean, and carved holes between impressive dunes that serve as both hazards and occasional shields from the winds off the water. Most holes are, surprisingly, generous off the tee. But when you mix in the those ocean winds and the vast expanses of sand that line the elevated fairways and the "wow" factor gets amped up in a hurry. No matter your score for the day's round, you will have a smile on your face as you recount the highs and lows of the round in the beautiful clubhouse.

All of which makes the Ocean Course a bucket-list item. The luxury of the resort, notably its five-star Sanctuary Hotel, makes it a destination.

The Ocean Course: 866.224.2612


Harbour Town Golf Links at The Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head Island

The 18th hole of Harbour Town Golf Links overlooks the famed Hilton Head Island lighthouse.

Call it the anti-Ocean Course, even if Dye designed both (Harbour Town in partnership with Jack Nicklaus). The fact most of the world's finest players call this tight, twisting beauty one of their favorites every year serves as evidence to its timeless quality - now more than a half century since its and the launch of the PGA tournament.

Demanding tee shots through narrow corridors negate some of the advantages of the modern "big hitters" and rewards accuracy over pure length. That also comes into play when trying to hit the small, firm greens. Harbour Town's finishing stretch - the dogleg-left par-4 16th, the scenic but difficult par-3 17th and the famed finishing 18th with the Harbour Town Lighthouse on the horizon - has tested, and bested, the greats of golf.

Many of the PGA Tour players look forward to Heritage week every year, bringing their friends and families - proving Hilton Head Island is a great vacation spot as well as a fantastic golfing destination.

Harbour Town Golf Links: 866.561.8802


May River at Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton

May River Golf Club uses elements of water, sand and marsh to challenge golfers. Photo courtesy May River Golf Club at Palmetto Bluff

Just off Hilton Head Island sits what has been called perhaps Nicklaus' finest work, and certainly one of the best of his more recent creations. Opened in 2004, May River might be South Carolina's purest golf experience, with plenty of marshland, sand, water and old-growth trees framing a spectacular golf course.

Relatively few have played this course due to its relative youth and its slightly off-the-beaten-path location, and the fact that most players must stay at the property's Montage Hotel to gain access to the course. But those who have played it rave on and on about this dynamic jewel, saying it is every bit as outstanding as its two more famous peers at Kiawah and Sea Pines.

May River Golf Club: 843.706.6500


The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, Myrtle Beach

The Dunes Golf & Beach Club is a perennial rankings winner. Photo courtesy The Dunes Golf & Beach Club

Speaking of courses with history, The Dunes is the Grand Strand's second-oldest golf course (just a couple of decades younger than Myrtle Beach's "The Granddaddy," Pine Lakes Golf Club) and holds the architectural pedigree of the late Robert Trent Jones, one of golf's first signature designers. The Dunes has also hosted a number of PGA Tour and then-Senior Tour events in its lifetime, and has framed black-and-white photographs of some of the game's all-time greats hanging in its clubhouse to prove it.

Renovated a number of times over the years, the course features sand, water, marshes and trees, plus sightings of all manner of coastal wildlife. Every golf course has its signature hole, and The Dunes' is the famed par-5 "Waterloo" (No. 13), wrapping around a lake and daring players to cut off as much water carry as they dare. Talk about "oldies but goodies," this is the quintessential proof of that cliche.

Most outside play at The Dunes is available through a number of partner hotels.

The Dunes Golf & Beach Club; 843.449.5236


Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island

Caledonia provides a classic coastal golf experience.

The late Mike Strantz, an artist by disposition who learned the golf-design trade from Pete Dye, was known for painting portraits of his holes before every touching the earth with a bulldozer. Caledonia is vivid proof of the brilliance of that concept. Along with its sister course, True Blue, it brings into play all the elements of coastal golf - the water, sand, marshes and moss-covered trees - in a dazzling panorama that can distract players from the task at hand.

When the two courses first opened, locals referred to them as "the pretty one" (Caledonia) and "the hard one" (True Blue), but more recently, both courses have proved to have elements of beauty and difficulty in their makeup. Caledonia's famed finishing hole, with its second-shot carry over water to a well-guarded green, sits just below the clubhouse porch, offering drama for both players and observers.

Myrtle Beach has more than 90 courses, offering a variety of challenges and delights. If you can only play one, though, Caledonia is the one to see.

Caledonia Golf & Fish Club; 843.237.3675

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.