When listing some of the premier golf destinations in the United States, The Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is always near the top of the list. The flagship golf course at Sea Pines is the legendary Harbour Town Golf Links. Designed by Pete Dye in 1969, it remains one of the most beloved and admired courses in the US. It is a favorite of PGA TOUR professionals also, who come to Hilton Head Island to play in the prestigious Heritage Tournament every year. The iconic finishing hole, bordered by the Calibogue Sound and framed by the famous Harbour Town Lighthouse, is one of the most recognizable holes in golf. Heralded by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the “World’s Best Places to Stay”, I decided to see for myself what the Sea Pines Resort is all about.
My first observation of the Sea Pines Resort was how vast it is. Occupying the southern third of Hilton head Island, the resort is located along 5000 acres of oceanfront property that stretches across the island to Calibogue sound on the north side. Because the resort area is so large, you never get the feeling of being cramped or rushed. Sea Pines really has an old southern feel and pace to it. My only concern was having enough time to explore the entire resort! One thing is for sure – This isn’t simply a golf resort. It’s much more than just golf.
Visitors have several choices for accommodations when booking a stay at Sea Pines. The villas and homes are perfect for small groups and families, and there are four distinct areas to choose from for your stay. The Oceanside villas are just as the name implies – a short walk to the beach or directly on the beach itself. Many are also a short distance to the Sea Pines Beach Club as well as the Heron Point and Ocean golf courses. Harbour Town’s villas and homes allow quick access to the famous Harbour Town Lighthouse, boutiques, galleries, waterview restaurants , cafes, lounges and more. Here guests can also enjoy the nightlife and dinner cruises after spending a day on the water with jet skis, parasailing and fishing charters. At the center of the resort, the Plantation villas and homes offer something for nature buffs. Set among huge oaks and miles of nature trails, guests can enjoy bike rides, cook outs by the pool or just watch the world go by.
For those looking for a more upscale, full service experience at Sea Pines Resort, there is the Inn at Harbour Town. This AAA Four Diamond European style boutique hotel sits adjacent to the Harbour Town Golf Links, the Sea Pines Resort Racquet Club and the Harbour Town Conference Center, and is also walking distance to Harbour Town’s shops, restaurants and marina. The Inn offers luxurious suites and rooms, private butler and concierge service, imported bed linens and soaking tubs, among other luxuries. The service is second to none, and the all British staff gives the Inn a distinct European charm. Our room on the third floor overlooked the first tee and putting green of the golf course. I thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet while sitting on the balcony in the early morning watching the sun rise over the inn, drenching the clubhouse and golf course with its warm rays. The Inn at Harbour Town is the perfect place to stay in my opinion. It is close to everything, wonderfully staffed and comfortable enough to stay in your room all day if you so choose. The overall feel is intimate and uncrowded, and because there are only 60 guest rooms I imagine it will always feel this way.
Harbor Town Golf Links – Sea Pines Resort
With the golf courses that await visitors at Sea Pines, you won’t want to stay in your room very long. While there is certainly lots to do here, golf remains the focal point of the resort for good reason. Famed course architect Pete Dye (With input from Jack Nicklaus) created the Harbour Town Golf Links in 1969 and it has played host to the best golfers in the world ever since. Not a long course by today’s standards at 7101 yards (The course was lengthened by the addition of several new tee boxes since the PGA TOUR played it last April), it remains a stern test of golf, sporting a slope rating of 147. Pete Dye utilized large waste areas, railroad ties, water hazards and huge oaks draped with Spanish moss to create a modern golf masterpiece. The resort has taken steps to ensure the course remains in fantastic shape, and as such motorized golf carts are relegated to cart paths only. You’ll want to leave the heavy staff bag at home however, because the combination of a classic design and strong caddie program makes this a perfect course to walk. Studying the design, there seems to be a pattern for how to attack each hole that alternates with an uncanny rhythm. For example – The first hole must be approached from the right side, the second from the left side, and the third from the right again. The same pattern emerges again on the back nine on holes 12 through 15. (Left, right, left, right)
As I just alluded to with regards to the design, most of the holes move in one direction or the other and golfers must approach the green from a specific side of the fairway to get at the pin. A perfect example of this is the par 4 eighth hole. As if measuring 473 yards from the back tees wasn’t enough, you must hit your tee shot to the right side of the fairway to even have a chance to go for the green. After a 280 yard tee shot that split the fairway, I was still left with a shot of some 200 yards that I had to draw 15 yards from right to left around the towering oaks on the corner of the dogleg. I was pretty happy to leave that hole with a five. Not only does a player have to think about which side to approach the greens from, but some holes require you to decide how far away you should be to approach the green. Hitting a tee shot too far on the 9th or 16th holes could leave you with an impossible shot around or over trees, or in the case of the 16th hole, a tree. There is a sole palm tree in the middle of the fairway that can reek havoc on a poorly placed tee shot. On the 15t hole, should your lay-up shot not go up the right side, far enough past the corner of the trees, you’ll be left with no shot to the green. Every hole at Harbour Town requires thought and a sound strategy. The reward for a well played hole is relatively small and flat putting surfaces and a chance for birdie. With only four feet of elevation change, the course is very flat, but you won’t even notice. That is just part of the genius of this design.
While I didn’t play my best, I was very happy with a solid 76 from the Heritage tees, given that the course rating is 75.6 and I actually played a longer course than the PGA TOUR guys did (until the 2012 Heritage at least). My round was highlighted by a wedge shot from 83 yards on the second hole that spun back into the hole for eagle, and a closing birdie on 18 after a crushed tee shot and solid 8 iron approach as the sun was setting over Calibogue Sound. The new tee box on the 18th hole stretches it to 472 yards, up from 444. Just aim at the lighthouse and swing hard! I’m proud that I managed to make par on all four of the par three holes at Harbour Town. As I discovered first hand, Harbour Town’s par 3s are among the finest collection of short holes in the world. In fact, the 14th hole (which measures 192 yards and is protected by a small green with water all the way up the right side) is consistently ranked as one of the toughest par 3s on the PGA TOUR. We finished the day with our own ceremonial tee shots into Calibogue sound, minus the cannon of course.
Our second day at Sea Pines Resort included a round of golf at Heron Point, another Pete Dye design. On its own, Heron Point would probably be the highlight of any golf trip at most other resorts, but in the presence of Harbour Town Golf Links, it is forced to play second fiddle at Sea Pines. Compared to Harbour Town, the landing areas at Heron Point are more generous and undulating. To compensate, Dye made the greens more undulating as well and surrounded them with deep sand bunkers, water hazards lined with railroad ties and his signature mounding. A complete reconstruction in 2007 gave this course new life. Some who have played it may call it “Harbour Town lite”, but Heron Point is no easy track as evidenced by the almost identical yardage, rating and slope as its big brother on the other side of the property. Joining us at Heron Point that morning was Josh, our caddie from the previous day at Harbour Town, and Adam who also works at the resort. I really had to be on my game, as Josh was a member of the 2011 division III collegiate golf national championship team. We had a great time trash talking each other all day, and since Josh and Adam had to work the bag drop after our round I took the opportunity to avail myself of their services, rudely barking out orders for fun. In all seriousness, Josh was a good sport, great caddie and an ideal playing partner. He knows the courses at Sea Pines intimately and his yardages were always spot on. His ability to learn his player’s game and provide club selection is a trait that separates very good caddies from all the others.
The third course at Sea Pines Resort is the Ocean Course. It is the original golf course built on Hilton Head Island back in 1960 by George Cobb, and was rebuilt in 1995 by Mark McCumber. It is the most friendly of the three courses and a favorite of casual golfers and beginners, measuring 6906 yards from the longest tees with a slope of 142 and a 73.4 rating. Despite its name, there is only one actual oceanfront hole – the 210 yard, par 3 15th. This doesn’t detract from the overall experience however. The Ocean course shares a clubhouse with the Heron Point course on the east end of the resort, and is a short walk away from the beach club. I didn’t get to play the Ocean course during my stay on Hilton Head Island, but I hope to return and see it for myself one day soon!
While golf may be the focal point at Sea Pines Resort, it is also just the beginning. To me, a perfect compliment to a great golf resort is a world class tennis club, and that’s what you get at the Sea Pines Resort Racquet Club. Under the direction of former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Stan Smith, the racquet club has been consistently ranked as one of America’s top tennis resorts by TENNIS magazine. It boasts 23 green clay courts and a wealth of instructional programs led by the staff of USPTA-certified professionals. All guests get two hours per day of complimentary tennis, and more time can always be booked if you are in the mood. Being a former tennis professional myself, I can really appreciate a facility like this. Walking out of the front entrance of the Inn at Harbour Town puts you within a stone’s throw of the tennis club, and I took the opportunity to watch as several nationally-ranked young players went through their paces with the pros in fast paced practice sessions.
To review thus far, if you love golf and tennis you’ll fall in love with the Sea Pines Resort. Compared to most other resorts of this caliber it would more than hold its own with 3 world class golf courses and a top notch tennis club, but there is much more! Being on the ocean, it goes without saying that beach access is a primary attraction. Guests have five miles of pristine shoreline to explore for swimming, sunning and relaxation. There is also fishing, kayaking, charter boat tours, sailing, paddle boarding, water skiing and even jet ski rentals. Visitors can also enjoy a bike ride through a 605 acre forest preserve that is home to over 130 species of birds. In fact, a bicycle may just be the best way to get around the grounds, with 15 miles of trails that interconnect every area of the resort. The resort’s bicycle shop offers a wide selection of bikes for everyone. If you prefer to let someone (or something) else do the work for you, head over to Lawton Stables and take a horseback ride instead. Lawton Stables is a full service equestrian center offering trail rides, pony rides for kids and a petting farm. On top of all that, guests can also take alligator boat tours, forest preserve hayrides, use the fitness center for a work out, get a spa treatment at Le Spa and enjoy some shopping at the Harbour Town Shops. Whew!
I know what you are thinking – after doing all that, you are going to be hungry! Fortunately you have many dining options at Sea Pines Resort. Every corner of the resort is covered, and guests can leave the cash at home and simply charge the meal to their rooms. Be careful though, it adds up pretty fast! Not only are the restaurants at the resort very good, but Hilton Head Island has a large number of dining options too if you feel like something different. You aren’t tied down to the resort area here.
My time spent at Sea Pines Resort was far too short to see and do everything. Even a full week packed with activities would not be enough to explore all the activities, dining options and locations of this 5000 acre destination. To further augment the already impressive list of things to do, the resort guide lists special seasonal events and activities that are far too numerous to list here. The sheer size of the resort area, world class accommodations, superb golf & tennis, incredible array of activities and a knowledgeable staff combine to make Sea Pines Resort a must visit. Before playing Harbour Town Golf Links I would not have placed it in my top 10 favorite courses, but after playing it twice, it has taken its rightful place in my personal top three. Golfweek Magazine recently ranked Harbour Town at #12 on its list of the best resort courses. Considering the company it is in (Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes, Whistling Straits, Pinehurst and TPC Sawgrass to name a few) Harbour Town deserves to be on everyone’s must-play list, but perhaps the greatest endorsement I can give is this: I could have spent an entire week at Sea Pines Resort without playing a single round of golf and still been very satisfied with my stay. But common, that’s crazy talk! Spending a week on Hilton Head Island without playing golf? That should be a felony.
If you are planning a stay at Sea Pines, here are a few tips to make your stay a little more enjoyable.
- Stay an extra day or two. With so many things to do, you’ll have more time to explore or just relax.
- Play Heron Point by Pete Dye and the Ocean Course first, or you may suffer a bit of a letdown after playing the Harbour Town Golf Links first.
- At Harbor Town, make your tee time about four and a half to five hours before sunset. That way you’ll arrive on 17 and 18 just as the sun is going down for an unforgettable experience.
- Bring your carry bag and walk Harbor Town with a caddie.
- Go up the lighthouse at sunset, and bring your camera!
- Take a lesson. Golf or Tennis, the pros on staff here are among the best anywhere.
- Check the calendar for seasonal events and plan ahead so you don’t miss anything.
- When dining off resort, check with the locals for recommendations. My favorite was China Bistro, just a few minutes from the main gate.
- Bring your friends! Everything is more fun in a group, and you get discounts.
For more information about the Sea Pines Resort and to book your stay, visit http://www.seapines.com
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