Hilton Head Island Offers Abundance of Ambiance

Details on the area’s top-three courses.

There may be golf destinations with more courses, but there are none with more ambiance than Hilton Head Island. You can play year-round, but the best conditions are during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Hilton Head Island is home to 24 courses (with many more off-island). It’s also where the PGA Tour gathers to compete after the Masters every April. 

This year, the RBC Heritage tournament celebrates its 46th anniversary at Harbour Town Golf Links. Tiny greens, narrow fairways, and the breathtaking vistas of Calibogue Sound (with the most-recognized lighthouse in America) are all hallmarks of this world-famous course. It was one of Pete Dye’s earliest designs (with able assistance from Jack Nicklaus). Accordingly, it puts a premium on shot-making and course management, as opposed to brute strength. From the tips, it’s 7,101 yards with a 75.6 rating/147 slope. There are four shorter sets of tees, though—and you’ll enjoy it more if you pick the ones that suit your game. 

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Harbour Town builds to a crescendo as your round unfolds. It’s demanding, solid golf through the first two-thirds of the course. The climactic 18th hole is a 444-yard, par-4 finisher that plays along Calibogue Sound.

Greens fee: $272. Sea Pines Resort, 32 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head Island, S.C., (866) 561-8802, www.seapines.com.


One of the most popular courses in the area is Old South Golf Links, located just a short drive off the island in Bluffton. The gently rolling terrain, moss-draped live oaks, and intracoastal marshes that wind through the course offer a delightful low-country experience. 

The opening five holes are a good warm-up for the tougher tests to come on the par-72 layout. The sixth hole, a 397-yard par-4, demands an accurate shot, as does the 370-yard seventh. The eighth calls for a 160-yard shot to an island green. All the par 3’s, in fact, have water very much in play, as do most of the other holes on the course.

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Old South offers five sets of tees, ranging from 5,135 to 6,772 yards. The rating/slope from the tips is 72.4/129, and the finishing holes are delightfully challenging. Sixteen requires the precision of a surgeon to tackle both shots over water in an effort to reach the green 417 yards away. Seventeen has water all along the right side for its complete 185-yard distance. Meanwhile, the final hole is an excellent 550-yard risk-and-reward par 5. 

Greens fee: $95. 50 Buckingham Plantation Drive, Bluffton, S.C., (843) 785-5353, www.oldsouthgolf.com.


Oyster Reef Golf Club’s classic Rees Jones design winds through Hilton Head Plantation’s lagoons and lush low-country landscape to deliver stunning views of the inlet to Port Royal Sound, not to mention some fun but challenging golf. It’s part of the Heritage Collection of courses, which also includes Shipyard, Palmetto Hall and Port Royal. All are available at attractive package pricing.

Oyster Reef shouldn’t be played from the tips unless you’re a scratch player or better, since it’s 7,108 yards with a 74.5 rating. The 6,440-yard, 71.9/124 blue tees present plenty of difficulty, as well as the chance to score. From the blues, all the par 5s are birdie opportunities—although there is plenty of trouble to watch for along the way. Eight of the par 4s measure 400 yards or less, but all of them require accuracy off the tee to set up good approach shots.

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The par 3s are standouts, with two of them—11 and 16—playing over water. The real star of the show, though, is the sixth hole, a 160-yard beauty that’s one of the most-photographed holes on Hilton Head. The strongly contoured green is framed by magnificent oaks, with Port Royal Sound in the background and sculptured bunkers out front. Before you take your tee shot, be sure to pause for some visual nourishment.

Greens fee: $75. 155 High Bluff Road, Hilton Head Island, S.C., (843) 681-1764, www.oysterreefgolfclub.com.

The Arthur Hills Golf Course at Palmetto Dunes was built on a series of rolling dunes not far from the ocean, so it’s characterized by bumps and hollows that seldom yield level lies (or flat putts), and ocean breezes that must be taken into account.

Length off the tee isn’t a requirement to score, but accuracy and course management certainly are. You’ll learn that lesson early in a round. It comes on the second hole, a 373-yard par 4 that calls for a layup to the water fronting the green, and placement of your tee shot on the right half of the fairway. The ninth hole, a 518-yard par 5, might seem like a bomber’s sure birdie, but the tree-lined fairway makes for a tight driving hole, and the pond in front of the green isn’t something to toy with.

There’s plenty of fun to be had on the 12th hole, a 399-yard par 4. Water guards the entire right side from tee to green, and the fairway gets more and more narrow the closer you get to the green. Seventeen is another example of how course management counts more than distance. You have to hit over water twice on this 380-yard par 4, and there are woods to contend with. 

Palmetto Dunes also has one of the finest practice facilities on the island, not to mention two other great courses—one designed by Robert Trent Jones and the other by George Fazio.

Greens fee: $99. 4 Queens Folly Road, Hilton Head Island, S.C., (800) 516-1277, www.palmettodunes.com.

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