SPRING ISLAND, S.C. - Just getting to Old Tabby Links on Spring Island is fair warning that this golf course, this place, isn't like any other.
It wasn't until 1991 that the sea island about 30 miles from Hilton Head Island received its first bridge, from another island, Callawassie. Once on the island, it's a twisty-turvy, several-mile trip to the golf course, through forests and past driveways to hidden estates.
This is the latest reincarnation of Spring Island, this time not as a cotton plantation making its owner the richest man in the country in the 1800s but as a gated community that puts nature and its pursuits front and center.
The 3,500-acre island is limited to only 410 home sites, and the golf course, designed by Arnold Palmer in 1992, is restricted to only residents and guests. It shares billing on the island with an equestrian center, a hunt club, a nature center and research institute, and, most importantly, 1,000 acres guarded by a trust from any development.
The golf course's name denotes a common thread throughout: The use of tabby-like material on the bulkheads, bridges - even on the floor in the River House, the course's rustic-feeling clubhouse.
The reason for the theme is apparent on the ninth fairway, when one notices the tabby ruins of the Edwards mansion that rises three stories and stretches 150 feet.
The family owned Sea Island Cotton, a 345-slave plantation, until the Union army burned down the house during the Civil War. The ruins are a case study in the construction material; its size is a display of the former glory of cotton and the South.
On the golf course, Palmer didn't go for flash but laid it gently among its surroundings, using the maritime forest as his palate for the front nine, former quail hunting fields for the back.
Old Tabby Links is a lovely walk through the property, with only glimpses of homes set at least 100 yards off of the course. For the most part, one sees only jumbles of live oaks, palmetto trees and lolobby pines.
"Each hole has its own setting," said Bill Sampson, head golf professional and director of golf. "You can't see people on the other holes."
Old Tabby Links' greens are massive, lightning fast and sloped. Three putts are a common occurrence unless you have been practicing your putting on glass.
Knowing which way a green slopes also might be a method to separate the members from the guests. Even the fairway sometimes sucks a ball in. On the fourth and 10th holes, the approach narrows down to a thin throat to the green, which slopes toward a shaved bank on the left side.
Sand is the primary obstacle at Old Tabby Links, and there is a lot of it, either in the form of a series of bunkers up one side of a hole, at the corners on doglegs or amassed in huge waste bunkers, with pappus grass in the middle of them.
Several holes snuggle up to the rivers surrounding the island. At first, I thought No. 9 was the signature hole. It's a tough par 5 with trees on the left side nearly meeting a large pond that juts out from the right side, both necessitating a well-thought-out strategy for one's approach. A narrow window leads to a green guarded by sand on the sides and marsh in the back, with a beautiful view of Colleton River.
The hole also has the distraction of the tabby ruins next to the fairway. Despite all of that, No. 9 isn't the signature hole, No. 17 is.
Old Tabby's 17th hole is a par 3 with a thin strip of high ground for the cart path that teeters between the marsh right and a pond left that is fraught with wildlife. In the spring, it's an enormous rookery for several bird species, turning the trees into massive balls of white feathers. It's also a favored hang out for alligators. The course had to build rafts for the reptiles so they would sun there and not on the cart path.
As for the golf on that hole, it's wicked if you don't hit the green. Hit short; and there's a deep bunker awaiting; go too long, and you'll have to land a chip ever so gently on the waxed putting surface without sending your ball scurrying off the side.
Other holes of note are No. 11, which has dual tees just for variety, and No. 15, a par 4, with an island green.
The 16th hole starts with a near-island tee box for the back tees and a hop-skip and a jump to a solid fairway, then a dogleg right to a green that backs up to the marsh over which one can see for miles to the ocean. It's a view that you get to stay with for the rest of the round.
The golf course wraps up with one last beautiful walk along the marsh, a straight par 4 designed with kindness. It's wide and fairly straight-forward. And for a nice touch at the end, the green's backdrop is an enormous live oak.
There are six well-spaced tee sets from which to choose, from the 7,004-yard back tees with a 73.5 rating and 142 slope, to the forward tees at 5,022 yards.
Don Gwaltney has been a member for 19 years, about the time the gated community began. "I like the newness of it," he said. "It's like walking onto a new course every day because of the nature. You're going to see something different every day.
"All of our holes are very different." Gwaltney added that a friend hadn't visited for three years but still could recall every hole.
His favorite hole is the par 5, No. 4, a dogleg left that requires accuracy, strategy and distance. "It needs every shot," he said.
The opportunity to play Old Tabby Links is a privilege, not just for the course but because of the painstaking effort the community makes to keep its natural surroundings the draw, with some great golf woven among it.
It's also daunting to see the ruins, a visual reminder that instantly sums up what the South once was, a cotton powerhouse fueled by slave labor. It was an era that came to abrupt end, with an army and torches. Old Tabby Links provides memories far beyond some great golf.
March 15, 2010