The 20-minute drive from Interstate 95's Exit 8 to Hilton Head Island is lined with a number of golf courses - and that's before you reach Hilton Head proper, with nearly two dozen on-island golf choices. But one course stands out as the area's "gateway" - both for its name and its visible presence along US 278.
About a mile and a half from the bridge to the island, travelers see the entrance sign on the right for Hilton Head National, along with a fountain, a pampas grass- and bunker-guarded green and the flags of South Carolina, the US and the golf course.
"That's our billboard," said Sterlyn Mitchell, head golf professional, of the inviting display.
Unfortunately, it's not actually a part of the golf course any more. The green, once part of the original layout by international golf icon Gary Player, is all that remains of nine holes that were claimed via eminent domain to build the Bluffton Parkway.
"People will ask, ‘Is (the hole) still open?" said Mitchell, who has been at Hilton Head National the past five years and nine years total.
Though the answer is no, what remains is an intriguing 18-hole package - nine holes by Player and the former 27-hole layout's "third nine" by Irmo, SC, native Bobby Weed - that is popular with locals and tourists alike. Since 2012, Hilton Head National has won recognition by the Island Packet and Bluffton Today newspapers and Hilton Head Monthly Magazine's "Readers' Choice Awards" as the area's favorite course.
A big reason is the course's playability for golfers of all levels from its four sets of tees as well as the variety between nines. "The back nine (opened in 1990) is by Player, while Bobby (Weed) did the front nine (in 1995)," Mitchell said. "What that left us was a dual design, so you get a little taste of both, two very different nines."
Mitchell enjoys Weed's front nine, with its deeper bunkers and more undulating greens, plus design elements that show the influence of Pete Dye, Weed's mentor. "Bobby started out as superintendent at (Dye-designed) Long Cove," a private Hilton Head course regularly ranked among the state's best, "so you get a little of that," Mitchell said.
Among those features are bulkheads around greens, notably at the par-3 seventh, where wooden beams replaced a severe front slope until 4-5 years ago. The Player (National) nine has flatter putting surfaces and is more user-friendly, but still daunting.
Mounding was created along perimeters with builders using dirt removed to create a large lake at the signature sixth hole, a short, "reachable" par 4 just 298 yards at its longest, with a right-side mound rising 30-40 feet above the fairway.
"There's nothing more exciting on weekends watching the (PGA) Tour guys than a drive-able par 4, seeing a Dustin (Johnson) trying to hit it from the tee," Mitchell said. "The average player can take a swing at it, and if you hit the green it's an easy birdie, but otherwise it's a hard par."
The seventh hole - with marsh below the right-side bulkhead, and the par-5 eighth, the dogleg left, No. 1 handicap hole protected by two large bunkers and one small pot bunker - combine with No. 6 for a challenging three-hole stretch. "Those three are fantastic," Mitchell said. "No. 8's small green is hard to hold, even with a wedge; it's almost got a Donald Ross look, sort of crowned," which rejects poor shots.
The Player back nine is highlighted by the par-4 18th, a demanding driving hole flanked by woods and marsh, capped by an elevated, angled green that appears to be a classic Redan. In fact, Mitchell said, the hole once shared a huge Scottish-style double green with the now-gone Player ninth.
"We only use the front half of that green," Mitchell said. "If not, players could be out there all day (putting)."
Hilton Head National is popular with locals, especially during off-season months when prices plummet. In April-May, prices run $74-$84, but a March "tee time special" offers a foursome for $259, or about $65 per player. TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) rates the course at 4 ½ of five stars.
"If you ask (locals), we're probably in the top three (on Hilton Head)," Mitchell said. "They recommend us to tourists, and if you ask a bartender, he's likely to say, ‘Try Hilton Head National.'" For information or tee times, call 843.842.5900 or visit