Hilton Head National: Play it while you can

Bluffton is about the lose one of the area’s standout courses. Not anytime soon, but the time is still coming. The course doesn’t have the fame of Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town Golf Links, but locals sure know about this hidden gem. Need a reminder? Does Hilton Head National ring any bells? Oh yeah, the course without any development on it. Even Palmetto Bluff can’t say that.

Sadly, the course known for its absence of development might be the development. Talk about irony.

The 25-year-old course, a blend of designs by Gary Player and Bobby Weed, already gave up nine holes of its original 27-hole design to Bluffton Parkway construction in 2010, leaving its signature par-3 over water merely a prop for traffic passing on Fording Island Road.

Now, an ambitious development plan before the Beaufort County Council will wipe the course off the map—if it’s approved. The course’s 300 acres will become a small city. The numbers are astonishing: 400,000 square feet of retail space, 500 hotel rooms, 300 apartments, 200 single-family homes, 400 assisted-living units, a 100,000-square-foot convention center, and a 1,500-seat performing arts center. You won’t see any deer or wild turkeys there.

But in the meantime, what about the course?

“Our mission is to be the best golf course in the area,” said head golf professional Sterlyn Mitchell. “In the meantime, we're operating an award-winning golf course that offers great service and championship conditions to golfers from all around the world.”

On a recent Sunday, that was precisely the case. Staff was waiting as I pulled up to drop off my clubs. Up a couple of steps was a clubhouse out of central casting: a well-designed building surrounded by rich landscaping. Inside, oriental rugs over wood floors led to a well-stocked pro shop one way or to a warm, inviting pub another.

As my tee time neared, the starter rallied our foursome and laid the ground rules: carts stay where they’re supposed to or the cart’s electronics yell at you. If you ignore the beeping and continue into the woods or onto a no-carts fairway, the cart shuts down. They’re quite protective of their well-groomed Bermuda and adamant about pace of play.

I had forgotten how much I love the course. It’s rare to find a course with four distinct par 3s. One has a hill to the left that feeds balls into a greenside bunker (I speak from experience). Another has a pot bunker that cannot be exited toward the green. Between my playing partner and myself, we tried six times to hit onto the green (it became a sport in itself). It couldn’t be done. A third par 3 is a visually taunting downhill green that looks much easier to hit than it is. The fourth is a putting green surrounded by a dry moat.

In between is an interesting collection of tree-lined par 4s and par 5s. The rows of trees demand that your drives remain straight. Large, undulating greens punish you with three (maybe even four) putts if your approach shot lands opposite the pin.

But no matter how you play, the natural setting and peace and quiet make it all worthwhile. Without a doubt, Hilton Head National is a treasure hidden among the ever-increasingly bustling Bluffton area.

Take my advice: Go enjoy Hilton Head National while it’s still with us. You’ll enjoy a glimpse of what the wilderness near Hilton Head looked like just a generation ago.

Lisa Allen of Beaufort is an avid golfer and writer who has played more than 100 courses across the country. Her preference to play is right here in the Lowcountry.