Dream Ticket - Golf in Charleston, South Carolina
Pete Dye first cast his eyes over the saltwater Kiawah marshlands in the autumn of 1988. He was there to inspect the site on behalf of the PGA of America, and his brief was simple: from scratch, Dye was to create a stadium-type course that would stage the 1991 Ryder Cup.
It was the first time in the history of the matches that the event had been awarded to a course that did not yet exist, and the decision to go ahead with the project reflected the growing commercial importance of the fixture, and the need to stage it on the east coast so that Europe could watch it prime time.
Until 1987, the Americans had more or less taken it for granted that they would win the biennial contest. Then came Jacklin and a unified European assault that wiped out Jack Nicklaus's team at Muirfield Village in 1987. A tie at The Belfry in 1989 resulted in the Europeans retaining the cup, which explains why the 1991 fixture was not so much a game of golf as a hard-fought battle. As it turned out, Dye's creation was the star of the show, and the 'War on the Shore' was decided by the last putt in the last match on the last green - a moment that will forever live on in Ryder Cup history.
The Ocean Course would be built on a fragile two-and-a-half mile stretch of beachfront along the Atlantic which Dye regarded as one of the greatest pieces of seaside property he had ever seen. Based on a narrow perimeter of land, Dye envisioned two loops of nine holes, the first played clockwise to the east and the Ocean Course. Walking the dunes shortly before seeding was due to commence, Dye's wife, Alice, remarked how curious it was that while the course was just yards from the ocean the player only got to see it on a handful of holes. As a result, eight inland fairways were elevated by some six feet, and today, when they're not toiling in the breeze, golfers can enjoy unobstructed views of the Atlantic from just every single hole.
If any course influenced the design of the holes at Kiawah, says Dye, it would be Portmarnock in Ireland, which is similarly located on a piece of links land between the Irish Sea and an inland tidal bay. The difference at Kiawah is that the sea oats were hand-planted and the rolling dunes were created by bulldozers, and although the aprons have recently been reseeded with a smaller, tighter-leaf Bermuda in order to make bump-and-run golf possible, the tees and fairways are sown with Bermuda, and require constant watering. The result is a truly unique playing experience, the flexibility of the course such that, since putting the Ryder Cup gladiators to the sword, it has been enjoyed by thousands of everyday golfers who travel from all corners of the world for a shot at this most extraordinary piece of work.
Play the Ocean Course in any sort of wind, and it's the toughest in the world. And still one of the most enjoyable. Choose the tees that allow you to play it on your own terms (no pompous secretaries screaming "tees of the day!" here), and it's fair, too. Everything is set out for you to see, landing areas are generous, and there are few blind shots. Every hole is a test of shot-making ingenuity, and nowhere is your short game more closely scrutinised. But above the magnificence of the setting and layout is the condition in which it is presented and the professionalism of the staff who make you feel so at home.
Today there are no fewer than five championship courses here, and while Pete Dye's work may have celebrity on its side, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Gary Player have all contributed to the mix. Interestingly enough, Nicklaus was busy here way back in 1981, when it is said his philosophy was to create courses that would challenge even him. Turtle Point certainly stands as one of Jack's classic early designs, and the Nicklaus traits are all here: the course is long, it demands solid driving and a strong long-iron game, a fade works better than a draw, and the greens are small.
Where Dye was forced to manufacture the landscape, Nicklaus took the environment presented to him and wove his course through it. Turtle Point has been favourably compared with Cypress Point, with early holes meandering through forest before coming to a dramatic conclusion beside the ocean. Tom Fazio's Osprey Point, Gary Player's Cougar Point and local architect Clyde Johnstone's Oak Creek - described somewhat intriguingly as a 'Scottish-American' style course - completes the picture. In short, Kiawah is justified in its claim to be one of the world's finest resorts, backing up first-class golf with unrivalled service and luxurious accommodation in the lodges and villas discreetly tucked away in the maritime forests.
Bang next door, the similarly blessed oasis of Seabrook Island has remained relatively anonymous while its neighbour has raked in the plaudits. And that's just the way they like it. Seabrook is a private equity club that prides itself on being low-key, allowing guests to soak up the low-country atmosphere while enjoying the exclusive use of two fabulous courses. Take a villa or an apartment here and you feel like you are a member of your own select and secret club; there is none of the formal registration in and out, no fuss, no bother. That sense of seclusion continues all the way to the golf itself, as lush fairways meander through Spanish moss-laden oaks, sea marsh and thick forest, the only interruption being the drinks cart that laps the course at a refreshingly regular rate.
Superb playing conditions are par for the course, both Crooked Oaks (designed by Robert Trent Jones) and Ocean Winds (Willard Byrd) being out-and-out gems, the latter featuring the added and unexpected bonus of genuine linksland holes on the back nine. Other amenities include a tennis centre, horseback and bike trails, and deep-sea fishing. What does this sort of holiday cost? The prices may surprise you. Seabrook's Ultimate Golf Packages, based on four people sharing a two-bedroom villa, and including breakfast, green fees and cart fees, start at around $86 per person (per night) in the low season (February/March), with same-day replay rounds at a $15-$25 cart fee.
Whether you opt to stay at Kiawah or Seabrook -or indeed on the aptly named Isle of Palms, home of Tom Fazios world-renowned Links Course at Wild Dunes - all roads after hours lead to the historic city of Charleston. Few places in America offer the opportunity to experience genuine culture (the city dates to 1670 and the Charleston Museum is America's oldest), which is why this stretch of the east coast is so popular, particularly with Europeans. The place is a movie-set maze of cobbled market streets and pastel-painted ante-bellum homes, a city literally bursting with galleries and restaurants. If you have the opportunity to stay a night or two, the swanky Charleston Place is ranked in Americas Top-20 hotels by Conde Nast Traveller, while the Charleston Grill and High Cotton are notable among the many fine eateries to discover.
Along with the opportunities at Kiawah, which accepts daily-fee guests, Charleston boasts further world-class golf at the Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms, a laid-back water-bound playground ten miles north of the city, along with Dunes West and Charleston National, stand-alone clubs that welcome visitors year-round. Wild Dunes is exceptional for its location, sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Intracoastal waterway, where Tom Fazio has designed 36 holes of quite spectacular championship golf. The Links Course is perennially ranked in the world's top-100, weaving a magical spell through mature dunes before sweeping you to the shores of the Atlantic: to visit these parts and not play the Links is a crime.
So far has Charleston developed in recent years that you would need two or three weeks to fully appreciate its golf and experience its southern traditions. But if you fancy a road-trip, do as the locals do and head to Hilton Head Island, a shorts-and-sandals sanctuary of nature just an hour or so south. It may only be 12 miles long and barely four across, but Hilton Head Island features more than 20 outstanding courses, with an abundance of tropical woodland and sea grasses to make even the humblest of holes exotic. The lure of knocking a ball about among the pines and palmettos is matched only by the island's setting and temperate climate, with miles of pristine sandy beaches promising lazy days in the sun, waterfront bars, and more outdoor activities than you can shake...well, 14 sticks at.
Plum in the middle of the island, languishing in much the same natural splendour that characterises Pete Dye's other famous creation at Harbour Town, Palmetto Dunes is one of Hilton Head's premier 'stay-and-play' retreats. Here, amid moss-draped pines and magnolias, guests can opt for the convenience of a beachfront apartment or enjoy the unabashed luxury of the Hilton and Hyatt hotels, bang on the ocean. As for the golf, the forested acres of the Palmetto estate were heaven sent, riddled with wetlands and lagoons which, needless to say, are very much part of the puzzle. Designer labels are two a penny, with 'signature' courses by some of the game's greatest architects, including Trent Jones, Tom Fazio and Arthur Hills.
Kiawah, Seabrook, the Isle of Palms, Palmetto Dunes - any which way you look at Coastal South Carolina, this is golf in an altogether different world. The one thing guaranteed is that all the featured resorts and courses will more than meet your expectations. If I could pack and leave tomorrow for that perfect vacation, I'd head straight back to Kiawah, pray for nothing more than a gentle breeze, and this time play the Ocean Course off the whites, and not the golds. With hindsight, that was just plain daft, though in my defence I should tell you there was a 50 mph April wind howling off the sea, and I started and finished with a birdie for an 86 (net 85).
I never did call back to check, but I reckon the SSS that day was somewhere near 84.
Golf Today Course Directory - Charleston/Hilton Head, South Carolina