HILTON HEAD, S.C. - When you lump South Carolina coastal golf and beauty in the same thought, you might lean to bypassing chaotic Myrtle Beach and come up with the low-key, well-preserved Hilton Head. But you might be wrong. The Grand Strand can be a noisy, crowded place, but it does have some world-class layouts in terms of scenery.
Which has the more scenic golf? It's close. The Grand Strand has more options to choose from, while Hilton Head is like the exclusive downtown club that only admits the really good-looking women.
If it's scenery you're after when you pull out the driver for your first swing, both venues have it. Here then, for comparison's sake, are what we consider the most scenic golf courses in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head.
• Caledonia Golf & Fish Club: Of all the "plantation golf" in the Carolinas, Caledonia may be the finest, at least among those clubs the non-aristocrats can get into. A canopy of ancient live oaks envelops you on the drive up to the antebellum clubhouse, and from there it just gets better. The course is routed through some of the best terrain in the lowcountry, wild and beautiful, as befits a site where hunting and fishing has been going on virtually undisturbed for centuries.
When you play this course, unfettered by house or condo, you can easily imagine you're back in the 1700s, with the stillness of the woods and marsh, fish jumping in the creeks and birds rattling in the trees.
• Tidewater Golf Club and Plantation: This is a gorgeous golf course, with overhanging oaks, marsh everywhere and high bluffs overlooking the sun-sparkled Intracoastal Waterway, complete with cruising sailboats and dotted with local fishermen. Everywhere you look, the conditioning is top-notch.
• Rivers Edge: This is a beautifully laid-out stunner along the banks of the Shallotte River and the surrounding marshes, in the northern tip of the Grand Strand. It's an exceptional piece of lowcountry terrain, subtly routed through its natural curves and contours and, yes, even elevation.
• Pawleys Plantation: Lemonade on the clubhouse patio and crab soup on winter afternoons. Both George Washington and French General Lafayette found their way through here and praised the area for its beauty.
Pawleys sits on the edge of a rice plantation. The back nine is particularly bucolic, and the service is decidedly Old South.
• Willbrook Plantation: The setting couldn't be more lowcountry picturesque, laid out in the marshy Waccamaw River basin, among huge, spreading oaks, pampass grass and the marsh with a few weeping willows tossed in.
The golf course does wind through the houses of the neighborhood, but many holes are isolated.
• The Dunes Golf & Beach Club: This is a private, oceanfront course with an ethereal, maritime setting. This pretty course, which many say is the best along the Grand Strand, plays through live oaks and gently rolling coastal terrain and is only a short wedge from the Atlantic Ocean.
• Melrose Golf Course on Daufuskie Island: This has three of the most dramatic finishing holes in South Carolina, running along the coastline where you can see the lighthouse at Harbour Town and out to sea. The course plays through palmettos and scenic wetlands.
• The Country Club of Hilton Head: This golf course has a relaxed, lazy, country club feel to it on the front nine: a pleasant layout, birds chittering in the trees, leisurely people doing leisurely things. There are some challenging holes, but still you almost find yourself nodding off.
Then, on the back nine, it opens up and bang. The scenery hits you in the face. It's still relaxed and leisurely, but now you have something close to spectacular to look at as you work your way around this fine, parkland course.
• Old Tabby Golf Links: You know you're in for something special when you take the lonesome drive just to get to the entrance of the islands leading to Old Tabby. Arnold Palmer and his associate Ed Seay designed an excellent, challenging course, but perhaps the smartest thing they did was let the setting take center stage.
You never lose that feeling of being on a relatively isolated, coastal island, with nesting egrets alligators and other island wildlife. It's so quiet, the birdsong seems louder, and you can hear the rustlings of critters in the deep woods.
• Secession Golf Club: This is a superb, private course, an homage to Scotland and the roots of the game itself, set in a spectacular lowcountry setting. It's essentially Scotland, with its stacked-sod bunkers, set down in the South Carolina coast of broad marsh views and moss-draped oaks.
Now, the lowcountry has a mess of Scottish-themed courses, but none with such beauty. It could be described as links-like, in that there are few trees to mar the exceptional views of the marsh that seems to leap into view at every turn, changing colors with the seasons and time of day.
• Chechessee Creek Club: The club is located on a lonely piece of land bordering Chechessee Creek, which feeds into the Chechessee River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
The result is a golf course not so much carved through classic South Carolina low country; it's more like it was a very expensive gardening project. The course slithers through the pines and oak trees with a light touch. When you're actually out playing, most likely walking, you have time to notice this minimalist approach.
• Haig Point Club (Calibogue), Daufuskie Island: A private course just across the Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head, the Calibogue course is a Rees Jones layout - scenic, seaside golf. It rolls through sea island forests and along wide stretches of pristine salt marsh.
"I knew when I first saw it we could build a word-class golf course," Jones said. The greens are fast and sloped, and the back tees stretch to 7,113 yards.
January 5, 2009