Hilton Head National Golf Course faces new uncertain future

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When Bill Palmer shook hands with Jim McGlothlin after a Las Vegas golf outing dinner in February 1988, it set in motion an almost 30-year journey for Palmer — and soon may also set a new course for the future of the greater Bluffton and Hilton Head Island area.

That late-night handshake closed the deal to start Scratch Golf Company as a new subsidiary of McGlothlin's Virginia-based United Company. The immediate goal was to purchase a quality piece of land in Bluffton and build the first true public course in the area. Today, three decades later, that handshake may result in the re-shaping of southern Beaufort County as the first major development to emerge from the recently established Beaufort County Community Development Code.

Bill PalmerThat handshake culminated in Hilton Head National Golf Course. An aspiring young golf professional, Palmer was managing the Hilton Head Company's golf operations in the 1980's after starting his career on Charles Fraser's team at Sea Pines. But Hilton Head Island was in a period of flux in the mid-1980s and Palmer's aspiration seemed far-fetched until that fateful outing with McGlothlin — an extremely successful entrepreneurial attorney who had founded United Company and turned it into a diversified global energy and private investment company. 

“Jim had a second home here on the island,” Palmer said. “I had given him some golf lessons, and we hit it off as friends. He invited me to join him and some other executives from his company for a gathering in Las Vegas. That final night we were just having a nice conversation after dinner and he casually asked what I wanted to do in life. I described my hopes to build a top-quality public course near Hilton Head that would be visible from U.S. 278 because I strongly believed such a course could be very successful due to the fact that the resort courses and private courses on the island had become too expensive. I told him I was looking for some investors, and he shocked me by saying, ‘Let's do it, but I don't want other investors — just you and me.”

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As it turned out, McGlothlin was already friends with golf legend Gary Player. "So when we met with Gary, he was totally on board with the idea,” Palmer said. “He was excited about getting started with his new design team. We put four parcels of land together, which gave us plenty of room for the course and more if we wanted — but Jim had this amazing vision and felt that the course would be even more special if there were no houses around it whatsoever. Jim believed that if we made our club the very best public golf course in the area, by keeping it in pristine condition and giving it a memorable name along with the Gary Player designer label, the course could flourish. He insisted we didn't need housing to be successful, which everyone at the time thought was crazy.”

For more than 20 years, that's the way things stood. The course was an instant hit and became known as one of the best public golf courses in the Southeast. A nationally televised tournament, the Amoco-Centel Championship, was held at Hilton Head National in the early 1990s, and all was good.

But things changed in 2010 when Scratch Golf was notified that plans for the new Bluffton Parkway called for it to slice directly through the course, eliminating nine of the course’s 27 holes.

Hilton Head National3"We suddenly became a different golf experience," Palmer said. "We were still profitable, but it forced us to think about what else we could do with our 300 acres. The environment around us was changing, and we needed to be good stewards of our investment."

Scratch Golf also learned that Beaufort County's Planning Department had crafted new development guidelines that had been 10 years in the making to better cope with a surge of residential growth. Called the Community Development Code, the guidelines received national recognition as a tool to prevent urban sprawl and instead “promote walkable, mixed-use neighborhood communities within certain sectors of the county,” according to the code.

Hilton Head National4“If we decided to develop, our acreage was to become the first major initiative under the new code,” Palmer said, “so we started working with the county more than a year ago to make that happen, and we've cooperated totally with county planners from day one. We want our project to be something special — just like our golf course was 30 years ago.”

Despite their careful planning, noisy opposition to any development on the site has been raised by Bluffton residents worried about the impact of any large-scale project. So a special sub-committee has been charged with finding solutions to concerns about traffic, density and the environment before moving things up the ladder to the county’s Natural Resources Committee and before seeking full Beaufort County Council approval.

Hilton Head National5“Such fears are understandable” said county councilmember Mike Covert of Bluffton at a recent open meeting, "but new people are going to keep coming to our area whether we like it or not, and the best way to deal with this inescapable phenomenon is proper planning. That's what the code is all about. It's far better than helter-skelter development.”

At a different public meeting, County Council chairman Paul Sommerville chimed in on the issue, too: “Growth in Bluffton is inevitable,” he said. “And we need to make the best of it.”

As the meeting concluded, an attendee also voiced an opinion on any growth plans: “Truth is that greater Bluffton is still a small town at heart, despite its population boom, and like many small towns across America that have experienced growing pains, the locals can become skeptical and often hostile to things that might cause change to their traditional lifestyle.”

Councilman Gerry Stewart of Sun City is currently taking a neutral position on the course development but says he sees “a lot of plusses” to the village-type plans currently on the table — “especially something like the performing arts and entertainment center that can serve people in both Bluffton and from Hilton Head.”  

Council member Stu Rodman of Hilton Head concurs.

“I see the location as a logical spot for some important facilities that can be enjoyed or used by the public,” he said recently.

So what can be expected of the new Hilton Head National? Here are four key components of the site’s future:

1. Vision for the Community

“Our vision, consistent with the village place type that has recently been assigned to the property by the county, is a walkable community that includes unique retail and culinary venues, educational and entertainment venues, connected adult and senior living and medical space, hotels and conference space, and open space,” Hilton Head National officials said. “It will be designed so that one can walk, bike or drive to and from one area of the property to the other. In accordance with best management practices and county requirements, development on site will be coordinated and evolve with future needs and required infrastructure improvements.”   

2. Public Spaces

“While nearly 300 acres is a significant amount of property to develop, we feel very strongly that a significant amount of that should remain in open space. Whether that be naturally occurring space including lakes, wetlands, etc., or additional parks and walking trails on the property,” officials said. “We also intend to make our adventure park a truly interactive and educational facility, well as entertaining to our guests. We want a unique experience that will set the region apart from nearby areas and allow it to continue to be a special place, to live, work, recreate and visit.”

3. Environmental Sensitivity

“For the past 27 years, we have been very mindful of our legal and civic obligation to protect the environment. That commitment will not change,” National officials said. “To the contrary of what some say, we believe that with a carefully designed and managed plan, not only will the development not negatively impact the surrounding ecosystem, but will enhance it.” 

4. Obstacles & Success

“We plan to take this process one step at a time. We must first obtain approval from County Council. When that occurs, we will work toward our next goal of focusing on the details of the layout and design that best fits our plans and meets the county’s requirements,” officials said. “Success will be measured not by the length of time required, but by the quality and uniqueness of the end result. Our goal is to be known as forward-thinkers in the evolution of Beaufort County. Many thought 29 years ago that to come into the county from the island to build a public golf course was simply not feasible. We want to show once again that we have the ability to think ahead and plan what will hopefully be an example of a unique, quality experience for residents and visitors alike.”