The best golf I played of the entire week on Hilton Head was, by no coincidence, on the easiest golf course I played all week. My round at Oyster Reef Golf Club was my last lone wolf round for the week, and played on what proved to be the final day of horrendous weather. It was also probably the most fun I had all week.
Oyster Reef had been recommended to me by several different people whose opinion I trust, including my teaching pro and my friend’s parents, who actually live on Hilton Head Island. After playing Oyster Reef, I think I owe all those people dinner. Compared to the pain in the rain that was the Country Club of Hilton Head, Oyster Reef was pure joy.
Like Country Club of Hilton Head, Oyster Reef was a Rees Jones creation, tucked away on the north end of the Island inside the Hilton Head Plantation. Opened in 1982, the Reef was immediately recognized as one of the top 25 new courses in the United States. I played from the Blue Tees, from which the course measures a respectable 6,440 yards with a course rating and slope of 71.9/124.
Because this particular Friday was yet another unseasonably cool, wet day, and the forecast for Saturday included sunshine and warmer temperature, I assume the entire rest of Island decided to wait for the weekend to satisfy their golfing Jones. Oyster Reef was yet another golf course I was able to play in near total solitude.
The very friendly kid that greeted me at the bag drop, who on this slow day comprised the entirety of the cart staff, revealed that Oyster Reef had the reputation of draining better than pretty much any course on the Island. This bold assertion was backed up once I got on the course where, despite four consecutive days of on-again-off-again rain, the cart rule remained 90-degrees in the fairways.
I was sent off Number 10 Tee to begin my round and instantly observed three items that stuck out. First, the Reef’s fairways were a little thinner, a bit more dormant than the rest of the courses I played during the week. I’m sure the Bermuda grass fills in nicely once the temperatures begin to rise and the rye grass dies off.
Second, the greens of Oyster Reef were far and away the softest I encountered all week. Whereas I could feel the firmness of other course’s greens just by stepping onto the putting surface from the collar, I could instantly feel the 10th green squish slightly under my feet. There weren’t any puddles on the greens, but they were noticeably softer, more receptive to approach shots while maintaining good speed on putts.
Finally, Oyster Reef is largely cut from the same cloth as many of the other prototypical Hilton Head golf courses. The holes were primarily framed by thick stands of tall pines just outside the rough. I don’t remember a lot of limbs hanging out over the fairways, but the course had a definite Lowcountry feel nonetheless.
The Reef wasn’t an exceptionally challenging layout. The dog legged corners varied from sharp to gentle turns. There was significantly less mounding surrounding the fairways than on other Island courses, though mounds did surround many of the green complexes. And I felt like the risk part of the risk/reward calculus was less penal than on tougher tracts. And Oyster Reef easily had least amount of water in play of any course of the week.
For example, the highlight of my front nine was pulling off a hero shot on the par 5 15th hole. This long, dog leg left contained a narrow landing area from which you could attack the green on the second shot. My drive leaked through the fairway to the right, and from behind the fairway bunkers I had no line of sight to the green.
But, after chipping out back onto the fringe of the fairway, I hit perhaps my best hybrid of the week and nestled the ball up onto the green from 205 yards out. Of course, I missed the 8-foot birdie putt, but nonetheless, it was a clear example of Oyster Reef favoring the brave.
After surviving the horrifying tee shot on the par 3 16th hole, the course sort of ho-hums along with holes that alternate between gentle dog legs left and right. The only exception was the straight forward, straight away par 3 3rd hole, on which I under-clubbed at least one club maybe two, into the stiff breeze. Fortunately, in a moment of genius, my pitch up stopped one inch to the left of the hole to preserve the par.
However, after several solid but unspectacular golf holes, I arrived at the par 3 6th hole. This signature hole at Oyster Reef is a beautiful, demanding par 3 with spectacular views of Port Royal Sound as a backdrop. I’d like to be able to say the beautiful view and sounds of the Sound probably caused me to miss my birdie putt, but I know different.
The remarkable thing about the 6th hole is it felt almost as if I stumbled across some hidden gem. I had no idea that the Reef contained a hole adjacent to Port Royal Sound or the magnificent vistas from the following 7th tee box.
Other courses on Hilton Head can’t advertise enough their oceanfront golf experiences or their majestic views of Atlantic, but at Oyster Reef, the beautiful, serene scenes just seem to pop up around a corner. It’s almost as if the proprietors have a secret that they’re not sure they want to let you know.
That quality may be perfectly emblematic of the entire Oyster Reef experience. The clubhouse and the golf course are unpretentious and a bit understated, yet can provide moments of absolute splendor. The golf experience is more fun than it is challenging, but several holes and shots can absolutely jump up and take a bite out of your game if you’re not careful.
One of the other great surprises to me was that Oyster Reef abutted a Whooping Crane Conservancy. The watery natural preserve runs along the 14th and 15th fairways, and provides a sanctuary for not only cranes, but any number of bird species. While I’m all for conservation and species protection, that my round was serenaded by near continuous and varied bird songs was real treat.
Only after the conclusion of the round, after the smug satisfaction of carding a week’s best 83 had begun to take hold, did I realize that the Blue Tees played significantly less difficult, by the numbers, than any of the other course and tee combinations I had played all week.
In retrospect, if I wanted to keep the week consistent and taken the time to really think about it, I would have played the Gold Tees. At 7,018 yards,the Gold Tees play to a slope of 134, which would have been more in line with all of my rounds that week except Harbour Town.
Oh well. I posted a 43 on the back and bogeyed the final hole of the to card an even 40 on the front, and I was ecstatic. Maybe that the Tour and the USGA were really onto something with that whole Tee It Forward Initiative.
Regardless, if you are looking to thoroughly enjoy a straight forward round of golf on Hilton Head Island, with moments of spectacle and spectacular sprinkled in, for a reasonable rate, then Oyster Reef Golf Club should be your first phone call.