The cross-trainer shaped 12-mile wide island’s developers might have been wise to carve out a giant swoosh shaped roadway just for kicks. Even Hilton Head’s Intracoastal waterways and inland marinas appear to be blue shoelaces and socks from an aerial vantage point. Locals often use the toe and heel as navigational totems. If this were Dubai, man-made, spike-shaped islands would be sculpted to the immediate south of the well-heeled shoe leaving little doubt that this place was made for golfers. But artificial islets would fly in the face of au naturel Hilton Head whose sneaker silhouette is just the way God made it.
When cruising down William Hilton Parkway, HHI’s main drag, you can’t help but marvel at how retail signage is so unobtrusive and seamlessly integrated with its environs. And you don’t have to live and breathe the green movement to appreciate how cool it is to make a cookie cutter drugstore fit in with its surroundings as if it were a palmetto tree.
A concerted effort to blend new construction with its natural surroundings has been Hilton Head’s M.O. since resort development began in earnest in the 1950s. Ecologically conscious building covenants were set up to ensure the island’s trees first bent. The result: the foliage of mossy oaks turns even a Walmart parking lot into a pretty nice place to picnic. It’s no wonder the International Ecotourism Society cherry-picked Hilton Head to host its annual conference this fall.
An ordinance restricting evening light pollution along the beach and shoreline makes navigating at night sans-GPS a lot like playing a game of Where’s Waldo in a city made out of candy canes. While making out road signs takes extra squinting, on the bright side, spotting the Big Dipper and Ursa Major on a starry night is a breeze.
Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes
The layout of this course is so perfectly proportioned that it reminds me of six-time swimsuit vixen Brooklyn Decker. It helps that the resort’s lagoon network is so well integrated into the course that it glistens like a supermodel. While there are spectacular views throughout, the 11 holes where water comes into play have heightened charms and I lost a couple sleeves of my long and soft Noodles in the drink. If your shot-making skills aren’t up to par you may even have to yell “Fore!” to a kayaker. Paddlers may come into view on 9 and 11 through 15.
Open for play since 1968 and spiffed up by Jones protégé Roger Rulewich in 2002, this is an old-school masterpiece with some contemporary modern flourishes. The golf carts come equipped with Coolwell G2 air conditioning systems to keep you refreshed and while I opted for a traditional ride, I did give the Segway X2 Golf a test drive. While standing up for 18 holes isn’t my cup of tea, it’s still fun to tool around with this gyroscopic cruiser. You just lean forward like a ski racer to speed across fairways and thanks to buoyant low pressure all-terrain tires, you don’t have to worry about conforming with 90-degree turn rules when hunting for your ball. The course itself starts off deceptively straightforward with generous wide landing areas, great for golfers sloughing off some offseason rust or those looking to overcome a case of the yips. It gradually morphs into a spectacular yet sometimes visually daunting ball-gobbler on the back nine. Well guarded greens continually stymied me, burying plenty of my approaches in the bunkers.
The signature 10th hole which backs onto the ocean is the beguiling jaw-dropper but the layout’s true mettle tester is the 7th where many high handicappers underestimate the demanding tee shot and get snickerdoodled into a snowman score. It’s what I call a Steeler's Wheel hole: bunkers on left, water on right, so you've got to stick your tee shot in the middle, dead straight on the fairway. The approach, with a big tree on the right, forces you to aim for the scrawnier left side of the green. While my ball striking inconsistency and high shank percentage puts me squarely in the high handicap camp this was my tour de force, with a trio of great shots landing me a few feet from the hole. Of course in the throes of overexcitement, I miffed the par putt. I read it right but was too timid and ended up short of the cup by a few centimetres.
After wolfing down some really great fresh fish tacos at Palmetto Dunes beachside Dunes House, it was time to head on to the Heavenly Spa at Westin for a little pampering. The spa menu’s Royal Tee golf ball massage caught my eye and what better way to unwind my tight shoulders and bogeyed-out muscles. Having experienced hot stone massage before, the one where hot lava rocks are smoothed all over your body, the initial sensation wasn’t too novel. The first 10 minutes felt like a regular sports massage interspersed with some golfball-rolling action. But later on, you really notice the golfball dimples when the therapist starts rolling them on your neck, arms, lower buttocks, and especially the balls of your feet. The advert claimed they used Pro V1 balls but a sneak peek in her ball-warming Crock-Pot revealed the presence of some Max-Fli's. I suggested that it would be cool if the treatment was paired with some tee pricking acupuncture but was told the size of golf tees would make it excruciatingly painful.
When I got up to the starter at Heron Point, I was shocked to find out I’d be playing alone. It’s rare that you can play a course of Heron Point’s calibre solo. The course formerly known as Sea Marsh, christened back in 1966, was given a complete facelift in 2007 by the diabolical golf genius of Pete Dye. His redesign stripped the bones down to their marrow and added lagoons, swales, pot bunkers, tons of undulation and, of course, his signature railroad ties used both as bulkheads and for sheer style. While a really high handicapper like myself might forgo tallying up their score at the end, Dye’s demanding design can still be fully appreciated especially during small flourishes of temporary greatness, a beautiful stroke here and there that’ll keep you stoked for the entire round.
I had the pleasure of playing the first third of the course in total solitude. A man. His clubs. His cart. The soft burbling of swimming turtles, cormorants (water turkeys), and a couple sleepy-eyed gators my only company for six holes.
Whether an eagle is still an eagle if nobody is there to witness it remains a philosophical wank job but I did come close (but no cigar) to a couple of for-my-eyes-only birdies. It would have been oh so tempting to drop a second ball to make another attempt at those errant putts but I would only have been cheating myself.
By the seventh hole I’d caught up and joined the group ahead of me, an amiable couple of retired Chicagoans. While conversations about NCAA basketball sure beat the ones I was having with myself, I can now confirm that my group game is on average almost a stroke per hole worse than my solo game. Maybe it’s simply the pressure-compounding gaze of extra sets of eyes fixated on my swing or the friendly competition over the honour to tee off first at the next hole. I can only imagine how this changes exponentially when there’s a gallery of observers applauding and hollering, “Get in the hole” after every hit.