SEABROOK ISLAND, S.C. - The Low Country means a lot of things to Carolinians. For residents of North Carolina and upstate South Carolina, this region that spans from southern Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head is a land of mystery and beauty.
Live Oaks and Spanish Moss hover over the roads and old plantations like stoic guardians. Coastal marshes brush up against sandy beaches to produce some of the southeast's most sophisticated ecosystems.
Hundreds of miles of Intracoastal waterways wind through the inland areas liquid mazes, and kettles of She Crab soup and Fish Chowder simmer away on stoves from Pawleys Plantation to Charleston.
It is almost enough to distract one from all the great golf resorts the region has to offer.
One of these offerings is Seabrook Island Resort, and if you haven't had the pleasure, you may want to think about reserving a golf villa and a couple tee times on the resort's two championship courses.
Seabrook is located a half-hour south of downtown Charleston, just outside of the rustic environs of John's Island. With air travel still tenuous at best, Seabrook Island offers thousands of golfers a first-rate Low Country resort experience within driving distance of some of the southeast's largest metropolitan areas.
Charlotte, N.C., the Carolinas largest city, is just three hours north and accessible via interstate highways. Atlanta, the unofficial capital of the south, is five hours away, and Jacksonville Florida sits just a half a days trip to the south.
Seabrook Island head golf professional Alan Walker is as happy as a Low Country clam. A few years back, Walker was an assistant pro at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida. If you've ever been to Innisbrook and played any or all of its four outstanding golf courses, you know that the entire resort operates in a nearly flawless fashion.
"Once you've worked there, I think you are ready to work almost anywhere in the country," Walker says. "I take that same sense of work ethic here, but it is much more laid back."
When you arrive at Innisbrook for the first time, you feel like you are entering a golf compound. For players seeking a totally self-contained golfing experience in which you never have to leave "campus", Innisbrook is Taylor-made.
Seabrook, on the other hand, lets you come and go at your own pace. The resort centers on beautiful Low Country homes, and golf villas and tourist attractions are the exception, not the norm.
As Walker explains, Seabrook Island is the golf resort for people who just want to go about the business of playing upscale resort golf and relaxing by the beach without being pestered by over zealous attendants.
You won't be stroked and coddled at every moment at Seabrook, there aren't twenty different restaurants with overpriced snowbird specials, nor do you have to report in before leaving the grounds.
"You are going to find a very unresortlike atmosphere," Walker says. "It is a private island with homeowners and it is much quieter. We have a more mature client here. Its not like Myrtle Beach where you are going to have a bunch of guys just out to party."
That is not to say that Seabrook is not a formidable golf resort. The Island is home to 29 golf villa complexes with 190 spacious one, two and three bedroom units. There are also 15 private homes available on the resort's rental program that range in size from three to six bedrooms.
In the middle of it all are Seabrook's 36 holes of pure Low Country golf. Only guests of the resort are afforded tee times, so chances are that on an off-weekend or a weekday you may find yourself alone with the Willard Byrd and Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed layouts.
Crooked Oaks Golf Course has a unique claim to fame: the Jones Sr. track in the only course in the Charleston area with bentgrass greens. What does that mean to you, the golfer? If you are from the North, or even the Charlotte and Atlanta areas, you will probably be putting on the same type of surface you roll on at home.
Despite the introduction of a number of improved Bermuda grass putting surfaces, most golfers consider bentgrass a superior turf. However, growing the temperature sensitive grass south of the Grand Strand is a risky proposition. Long summers and warm nights can lead to the growth of fungus, and ultimately the devastation of the entire green.
Walker says the decision to install bentgrass as part of $2.4 million renovation of the Crooked Oaks Course in 1999 was made after researching a number of similar environments.
"Our former superintendent had done the research, and Myrtle Beach had some courses with it," Walker says. "We have potable, fresh water, so that was a major factor.
"And we have an underground drainage system so we can control the amount of moisture on the greens. We use fans in the summer to help with circulation, and being on the coast we stay milder than the inland courses, where it could be 7 or 8 degrees warmer."
If you have ever watched the PGA Tour make its way through the Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island during the MCI Classic Heritage of Golf, you can get an idea of what's its like to make your way around Crooked Oaks.
Fairways are tight, but appear even tighter as groves of Live Oaks and Low Country Hardwoods encroach upon landing areas. Gentle doglegs lead you through the heart of the island, and smallish greens wait to receive only the most accurately placed approach shots.
"Crooked Oaks is demanding off the tee because of the trees, but they can be your friends by keeping your ball in bounds," Walker says. "The greens are the challenge at Crooked Oaks. The bentgrass greens are faster and the complexes are smaller. It is more of a straightforward course with a few doglegs. It is not tricky layout."
Jones Sr. was the chief steward of the "penal" school of golf course design. His mantra, when designing one of his many masterpieces, was "hard par, easy bogey." Walker says that Jones relaxed his philosophy when laying out Crooked Oaks, primarily to ensure that guests of the resort enjoyed their overall golfing experience.
"This is a resort course, so he didn't want to beat anyone up too bad," Walker says. "At Crooked Oaks you'll find that you are not going to have a bunch of big numbers. You are not going to have that never-ending hole. It is tough to get the ball up and down around the greens, so you can make a bunch of bogeys, just not a lot of 7 and 8's."
In fact, Walker claims that the Byrd designed Ocean Winds Course may be the more difficult of the two tracks.
Not known as a penal designer, Byrd's work dots the Low Country like freckles on the face of a red head. The Atlanta-based architect is known for working within the natural confines of a site to produce, straightforward, playable golf courses.
It just so happens that Byrd's site for Ocean Winds is not as benign as meets the eye.
"The difficulty with Ocean Winds is off the tee," Walker says. "Overall, the course plays harder than Crooked Oaks because you are dealing with the wind and more marsh and wetlands. It is more penal off the tee."
Ocean Wind's front nine plays through the interior of the island, but the back nine takes you on a wild and windy ride around the resort's perimeter. The course takes on a markedly different feeling on the par 4 10th hole as it turns out towards the ocean.
"The key here is the variety that you have, not just from one course to the other but from one nine to another," Walker says. "Ocean Winds is more scenic than Crooked Oaks, and Ocean Winds back nine is more scenic than its front. You are going to see alligators, Egrets and Pelicans. Some people just ask to take carts out to look at the wildlife."
For upscale coastal cuisine, check out the Club at Seabrook Island's Island House Restaurant. If you are after some appetizers or a juicy hamburger and a cold beer, ride up to Bohicket's Lounge at the resort's marina.
The Seaview Restaurant across from the golf club offers a dinner buffet with seafood items and other meats and vegetables. The Half Shell Lounge and the Pelican's Next pool bar are all located oceanside and are open during the summer season.
If you are on your way on or off the island, try Gilligan's Seafood and Steaks on John's Island. Don't let the chain restaurant exterior fool you - Gilligans has a great selection of local seafood and even some decent half pound burgers.
Of course, driving in to sample one of Charleston's eateries is always an option.
If you want to play on Seabrook's golf courses, you need to stay on the island. The resorts 29 golf villas and 15 private homes should be ample reason to forego the local Red Roof Inn. For reservations, call 800-845-2475, or visit online at www.seabrookresort.com.