With more than 50 combined public and private golf courses in the immediate area, it’s no wonder that Hilton Head has earned the moniker “The Golf Island.”

Located in the southeastern corner of South Carolina between Charleston and Savannah, Ga., the second largest barrier island on the east coast (behind Long Island, N.Y.) features 12 miles of pristine sand beaches and a subtropical climate that beckons close to 3 million vacationers per year. Golf may be the biggest draw of all—the area’s courses generate more than one million rounds played on an annual basis.

The following Lowcountry layouts are at the top of the list of courses that any visitor can play.

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Harbour Town, 18th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

The Sea Pines Resort

When you think about golf on Hilton Head, the first image that pops into your head is most certainly the red-and-white-striped lighthouse behind the 18th green at Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus’s Harbour Town Golf Links, host of one of the PGA Tour’s longest-tenured events, the RBC Heritage. Believe the hype—Dye’s seminal 1969 design is a must-play. Part intimidation, part splendor, and all charm, you’ll have a story to tell each time you recount the round while watching the pros on TV.

While you may have seen Harbour Town at the top of several “Best Courses You Can Play” lists both in South Carolina and nationally, you may not have been privy to the two other top-tier sister courses that make up the Sea Pines trio, all of which are Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries.

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Atlantic Dunes’s lion’s mouth 16th green with the 17th and 18th holes in the distance (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

The first course built on the island was George Cobb’s Ocean Course at Sea Pines in 1962, which underwent a modern transformation at the hands of Davis Love III in 2016 and reemerged as Atlantic Dunes. Named the 2018 National Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association, the course exudes Lowcountry character accentuated by exposed natural sand dunes and indigenous vegetation. Its enchanting closing stretch—which includes the beachfront par-three 15th, a lion’s mouth green at the 16th, and back-to-back water-lined holes at 17 and 18—is the reason it’s my favorite layout on the island.

Heron Point—formerly known as the Sea Marsh course—was Dye’s first contribution to Sea Pines in 1964. The late architect returned in 2007 to make the course more friendly (relatively speaking when concerning Dye), rebuilding fairways and incorporating seven tee box options. His signature bulkheads (see the par-three 7th, with an island green propped above a massive encompassing bunker and water holes (the par-four 18th reminiscent of his finisher at TPC Sawgrass) are abundant.

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Heron Point, 7th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort

If you’re not ready to shell out top dollar, but still want the authentic, top-of-the-line Hilton Head Island golf experience, Palmetto Dunes is for you, starting foremost with the oceanfront Robert Trent Jones course. The green at the par-five 10th hole is as close as you can get to the Atlantic Ocean on any golf course on the island—and that proximity tends to bring challenging winds into play once you reach the final 10 holes. Coming in March 2021, Palmetto Dunes will be the first resort in the southeast to introduce Toptracer Range Technology in 15 covered bays at the Jones course’s public practice facility.

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The shared green at the 11th and 16th holes of the George Fazio course at Palmetto Dunes (photo by Al Lunsford)

Considered one of the toughest trials on the island from its Gold tees (6,873 yards), the George Fazio course at Palmetto Dunes tests players with a series of long par fours and par threes. The only par 70 course on the island is safe for slicers with all out of bounds on the golfer’s left. A green shared by the 11th and 16th holes gives the back nine an eccentric, captivating touch.

The Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes is among the most interesting designs you’ll find in Hilton Head. A shotmaker’s course, 10 different holes are presented with the challenge of facing off with a lagoon system that winds through the property. Hilton Head’s first lighthouse is prominently featured in the backdrop of both the 5th and 16th holes.

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Hilton Head Island’s first lighthouse behind the 5th green at Palmetto Dunes’s Arthur Hills course (photo by Al Lunsford)

Heritage Golf Collection

The 81 holes that make up this collection of golf courses are island golf personified. Relaxing with a bit of challenge and tons of intrigue, they represent some of the best-value golf options on Hilton Head Island.

For me, Oyster Reef Golf Club ranks above the rest. The semi-private Rees Jones design built in 1982 is a wonderful mix of well-manicured tree-lined holes and a collection of par threes that rivals any course in the area. The picture-worthy par-three 6th hole plays toward a sweeping view of Port Royal Sound, while the par-three 16th requires a carry over water to a welcoming 40-yard wide green.

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Oyster Reef, 16th hole (photo by Al Lunsford)

Shipyard Golf Club offers three nines; the original Clipper and Galleon courses were designed by Cobb in 1970, and the Brigantine course was added by William C. Byrd in 1982. A former Champions Tour host, Shipyard has kept itself in tip-top shape and feels more like a private club than 27 holes of resort golf. There’s a good chance you’ll come across an alligator or two, as all three courses offer their fair share of water.

Robber’s Row and Barony are the two 18-hole courses at Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club. Cobb’s Barony course, among the earliest built on the island in 1963, doesn’t punish off the tee, but does demand sharp approach play. Robber’s Row gets the nod in comparison—the 1967 Cobb and Byrd course was the subject of an eye-popping redesign by Dye in 1994. The best holes are back-to-back—a semi-blind tee shot over marsh on the short par-five 14th, a sand-surrounded green at the par-three 15th, and a par-four 16th that plays just 265 yards from the tips. Historical markers around the course detail events on what was formerly Civil War grounds.

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Robber’s Row, tee shot at the 14th hole (photo by Al Lunsford)

Other On-Island Courses

Rees Jones is responsible for two other fine public layouts on the island. The Country Club of Hilton Head, host of past U.S. Open Qualifiers in 1999 and 2005, challenges with pot bunkers and 16 holes featuring water. Bear Creek Golf Club’s layout is walking-friendly, and its large natural areas encourage an abundance of wildlife.

Nicklaus’s solo-designed Golden Bear Golf Club offers high-quality golf at a surprisingly low rate, earning recognition as one of “America’s Top 100 Courses Priced Under $100” by Travel and Leisure in 2002. Part of the Indigo Run community, the course places an emphasis on accuracy through surrounding woodlands.

Off-Island

Bluffton, S.C.—the town you pass through on Highway 278 just before the bridge to Hilton Head Island—is also bustling with great public (and private) golf. High on my recommendation list is Old South Golf Links, where Clyde Johnston built seven of the 18 holes along the intracoastal marshes of McKay’s Creek at what may be the Lowcountry’s best hidden gem. Just down the road, Arnold Palmer’s Crescent Pointe Golf Club and Love III’s Eagle’s Pointe also offer fantastic day-to-day play at an excellent value.

What’s your favorite public course in the Hilton Head Island area?

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