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Wild Dunes: Restoring a Classic

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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The par-3 12th hole at Wild Dunes Links Course, nestled among the dunes

When Wild Dunes Resort's Links Course opened for play in early 1980, its young architect was a relative unknown, nephew of a golf course designer and former PGA TOUR player. Today, Tom Fazio is one of the world's premier course creators with more than 200 layouts to his credit - and Wild Dunes is where it all began.

Much has changed for Fazio in the interim, and for his inaugural piece of handiwork. But Wild Dunes Links, which reopened for play in October 2015 after a six-month renovation, continues to be ranked among South Carolina's finest.

Even Fazio, though, can't beat Mother Nature.

The Wild Dunes Resort's Links Course was reworked in 2013 by Fazio Design.

Originally a par-72, 6,709-yard design blending inland dunes and marshes with a spectacular, ocean-view, three-hole finish, Wild Dunes now measures 200 yards shorter and plays to a par 70. The difference: changing an erosion-ravaged par-5 18th hole into a tough par 3 of 185 yards - for now.

"Our long-term goal is to get (No. 18) back to a par 5," says Wild Dunes Resort director of golf Jeff Minton. "In the short term, it's a par 3, but the par 5 is still there."

Since its opening, Wild Dunes Links has battled the elements that come with a seaside location. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated Fazio's layout, scything old-growth trees and flooding much of the course, but both Wild Dunes courses (the Harbor Course, also Fazio's, was added in 1985) were rebuilt.

Then in 2007, changing tidal patterns had washed away four acres of the Links' 18th, a dogleg-right, 501-yard par 5. Temporarily, the hole was made into a par 3 until a major beach renourishment project by the Town of Isle of Palms in 2008 brought back the par 5.

After an extensive restoration, the Links Course is once again a classic.

But once again, nature won. By 2013 the 18th hole was heavily eroded and unsafe. This time, Fazio Design, now led by Tom's son Logan and associate Bryan Bowers, was commissioned to rework the entire course. The major change was a strong par-3 18th of 185 yards, with a sweeping waste area and bunker complex.

Fazio Design also modernized the course, adding length on 11 holes, rebuilding greens to USGA specifications and resurfacing them with slick ultra-dwarf Bermuda grass.

"Nothing lasts forever," Bowers said. "We did an analysis of the age and conditions of the course," and decided to restore lost greens acreage while softening those greens to fit with faster modern surfaces.

Bowers said Wild Dunes' greens had shrunk by 30 percent from what they call "creep" - mowing patterns that over time made them smaller. The renovation increased total greens surfaces from 72,000 square feet to 105,000 square feet.

"We also reduced the slope (on the greens) from 4-5 percent grade to 1-2 percent," Bowers said, because of modern green speeds and mowing heights. Bigger greens mean better playability, better sustainability and more flag positions - all good things for players, especially resort guests.

New cart paths, re-sanded bunkers and a new irrigation system, plus closer-mowed areas around the greens, completed the restoration, bringing a classic course into the 21st century.

The beautiful dunes and landscapes make the Links course a pleasure to play.

One thing hasn't changed, though: the beautiful dunes and landscapes that make Wild Dunes a special place.

"The land where the Links Course sits is fabulous for building a golf course," Tom Fazio once said, recalling his original work, "and the elevation changes on holes 10-13 are something you don't typically find in the Lowcountry."

The same can be said of Wild Dunes itself. Nearly four decades after construction, and with a changed finish, Fazio's work still holds its own.

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.