Exploring Hilton Head's Palmetto Dunes

By: Rob Duca

Once you proceed through the gated entry, drive past the towering oak trees, dodge the bikers, walkers and joggers, and arrive at your accommodations, you might never be compelled to leave the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

10th Hole on the Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes

It's all here within the 2,000-acre property, whether your choice of activity is golf, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, tennis, parasailing or lounging at a beach-side bar with a cold beverage.

Hilton Head is home to nearly 30 golf courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links, host for the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage. Three outstanding layouts are located within the confines of Palmetto Dunes, including a Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-design that opened way back in 1969. Courses designed by Arthur Hills and George Fazio have since been added.

Palmetto Dunes is framed by three miles of Atlantic Ocean and a sheltered Intracoastal Waterway marina, with an expansive tennis center and an 11-mile inland salt-water lagoon system. And if you should decide to leave the reservation, the island's many pleasures - from dockside dining and a thriving club scene to world-class shopping - are within a 15-minute drive.

Unlike some golf destinations, one that begins, in fact, with "M" and ends with "Beach," Hilton Head has not been transformed into a gaudy, seedy stretch of neon lights, souvenir shops and tattoo parlors. Walk the beach at Palmetto Dunes, lounge poolside at the oceanfront Omni Hilton Head Marriott or take an evening stroll along the docks and you'll see the difference. Hilton Head has retained a graceful, informal atmosphere even as it has become one of the prime spots for golf-buddy trips and family escapes.

Not surprisingly, it has earned numerous accolades from national magazines as a top destination for golf, boating, dining, weather and value, which pretty much covers the range of categories one desires in a vacation.

On a three-day trip in April 2014, I played the Jones and Hills courses, and then veered off the resort to visit Old South Golf Links. (Because I visited the week before for the RBC Heritage, Harbour Town was closed to the public and the highly rated Sea Pines was booked solid.)

The weather was a pleasant 75 degrees, the golf courses were stimulating, if not overly spectacular, our two-bedroom townhouse was acceptable, although a bit 1970s, and the food was superb (more on that later).

On second thought, let's veer from tradition for a golf story and first discuss those epicurean delights. On our first night we went to Hudson's Seafood on the Docks, which employs one of only two remaining fishing fleets on the island and brings fresh local seafood straight from the docks to your table. It was there that I savored the freshest local raw oysters in my life (and I live on Cape Cod), followed by a delectable pan-roasted mahi covered in ocean sauce with sautéed asparagus and crispy potatoes.

18th at Palmetto Dunes' Hills Course

For the next day's lunch I savored a pulled-pork sandwich at Big Jim's BBQ, the restaurant in the Jones course clubhouse. Dinner was preceded by drinks at the posh Omni bar that overlooks the Atlantic, and then it was on to the Sage Room, one of the island's fine-dining restaurants, where I ordered an almond-crusted tuna that was out of this world. My dining partner had equally amazing Champagne-poached sea scallops.

Now on to the golf.

The Jones course at Palmetto Dunes is one of the oldest at Hilton Head, but it has undergone multiple changes over the past decade, including a remodel in 2003. "Even before we did the remodel it was one of the most popular courses on the island, but now it's really player-friendly," says Clark Sinclair, Palmetto's director of golf.

One of the most important changes was to raise the green on the signature 10th, providing a panoramic ocean view. The 550-yard hole winds toward the Atlantic and is a photographer's delight. Bunkers dot both sides of the fairway all the way to an elevated green that sits close enough to the ocean to hear the waves crashing onto shore.

The 410-yard seventh, rated the No. 1 handicap hole, is especially intriguing. Water lurks right off the tee, a series of bunkers on the left are stationed from 220 to 280 yards out, and more water must be carried on the long second shot.

16th Hole on the Hills Course

Water is a common theme at Jones, especially on the back nine when it enters play on five of the first six holes.

Fortunately, the fairways are wide and a driver is not essential, especially from the 6,440-yard member tees. Even better, the Jones course recently installed a GPS system on carts that's the best I've ever seen. Touch the screen at any point on a hole and it will provide exact yardage to that spot.

The Arthur Hills course, opened in 1986, is notable for the complete absence of fairway bunkers - truly, there are none - and a final seven-hole stretch of knee-knocking, gut-wrenching, water-filled carries.

"You're just playing the golf course for the first 11 holes and then all of a sudden you get to 12 and that's where the fun really begins," says Samm Wolfe, Palmetto Dunes general manager and the head professional at Hills. "The course kind of sucks you in."

Depending on your point of view, the Hills is strategic golf, target golf or hold-your-breath-and-hit-it golf. "It's a shot-makers course," Wolfe concedes. "There's no need to hit driver. It's fair, but tough."

The 399-yard 12th snakes around a lake along a route that narrows the closer you get to the green. On the par-5 13th, you'll face a carry over water off the tee, with more of the hazard running up the right side and in front of the green.

There is a break from the wet stuff on 14, although it's a dogleg-left, 412-yard par-4. But water returns in full glory on 16, running down the right side of the fairway and then in front and left of the green.

Finally, there is 17. "From the tee it looks like there is nowhere to land the ball," Wolfe says.

The lake meanders down the left side and then cuts across the middle of the fairway, resulting in consecutive forced carries, with the second shot played to a green surrounded by water in front, out-of-bounds left and woods at the back.

We could have played our final round at the Dunes' Fazio course, but decided instead to head to nearby Bluffton and Old South Golf Links. Designed by Clyde Johnston, the course meanders around marshes, past towering oaks and along rolling, Scottish-like terrain.

A massive lake winds around the perimeter of the course, and numerous creeks cut through its middle. But water is only in play if you are notably wild off the tee.

Old South Golf Links

Still, you'll know what you're getting into from the first hole, where the lake extends down the entire left side and bends around to the back of the green. It's pretty much the same kind of deal at Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 12. The signature hole is the par-3 eighth, which features an island green and lovely views of Lowcountry salt marshes.

Old South closes with a par-5 that combines every element. You must carry a marsh off the tee and avoid two oak trees lining each side of the fairway, then decide whether to lay up short of a creek or go for an elevated green protected by a massive waste bunker.

This is a course filled with character and challenge, featuring scenic, dramatic and demanding holes. It will keep your attention from the first tee shot to the final putt.

Initially, I was skeptical about making a trip to Hilton Head without including Harbour Town Golf Links on the agenda. But if you're searching for a buddy trip or family vacation without breaking the bank (Harbour Town greens fees: $272), you'll find it at Palmetto Dunes.

For more information, visit www.palmettodunes.com. For more on Old South, go to www.oldsouthgolf.com.

Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of New England Golf & Leisure magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.