My round on the Robert Trent Jones (“RTJ”) Course at Palmetto Dunes made me wish I’d had two weeks of vacation to spend on Hilton Head instead of just one. No, not because the course was that spectacular, though it was great. It absolutely was a beautiful course in pristine condition for being so early in the golfing season.
No, I needed more time because playing six rounds of golf in six primarily cold, wet days after a three-month layoff takes a toll, physically and mentally. Even if I had all my faculties working at peak performance, the RTJ Course would have been a formidable challenge.
However, with tired legs, an exhausted mind, and the knowledge that in less than 24 hours I’d be in the middle of an eight-hour drive home, I never stood a chance. Two or three holes in, I realized this was perhaps one golf course too many for the week, so I just accepted reality and tried to enjoy the journey through an absolutely magnificent golf property.
Despite my diminished golfing capacity, the RTJ Course at Palmetto Dunes offers absolutely everything a golfer could want from an ocean side resort course in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The staff provided friendly service, the clubhouse and practice range facilities were impeccable, and the golf carts contained perhaps the best GPS interface I’ve ever used. Not knowing that ahead of time, at least the yardage book I sprung for makes a nice souvenir.
This would also be a notable round of the trip for two reasons. First, it was literally a perfect day for golf. The air was cool and crisp, but not cold, upon my arrival for the 7:58 a.m. tee time. More importantly, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which meant bright, uninterrupted golfing sunshine for the first time all week.
Second, for the first and only time of the week, I would not be playing a round of golf by myself. I was paired with Charles, and his sons, Grant and Kyle, from Houston, Texas. All three of my playing partners, despite having vastly superior golf games on this particular day (and likely most other days as well), were affable, easy to get along with gentlemen with whom I thoroughly enjoyed my round of golf.
Admittedly, it took a couple of holes for me to get used to playing with other people again, much less strangers. However, their easy-going natures and lack of visible frustration with my struggles with a golf swing this particular morning allowed me to simply enjoy the sunshine and the spectacular vistas found across this monster Jones design.
This namesake course was originally designed by none other than Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and opened for play in 1967. Despite being famous for its ocean-side 10th green and 11th tee box, the course exemplifies the hallmarks Jones’ “hard par, easy bogey” design philosophy.
The course underwent a $3 million renovation in 2002 by Roger Rulewich, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. protege. Rulewich reshaped and restructured the greens, tees, and bunkers. Several fairways were elevated and reshaped, and the Course’s drainage system was improved through increased incorporation into Palmetto Dunes’ extensive lagoon system.
The golf course contained everything one would expect from a Robert Trent Jones, Sr. resort course design. The fairways were wide, though which side of the fairway my drive landed upon dictated how I had to attack the gigantic, tiered greens.
The green complexes contained a lot of elevation change, with substantial mounding in addition to the bunkers, which was impressive for a seaside golf experience. And, of course, the ubiquitous Jones bunkers were everywhere, fairways, approaches, beside and behind the greens. The bunkers were humongous, and there were a damn lot of them.
There is no mistaking that the RTJ Course’s marquee, signature hole is the par 5 10th hole. With its stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the dunes behind the green, the 10th hole is truly the pinnacle that the entire golf course builds towards.
The lead up to and routing leading away from the 10th green and 11th tee were omnipresent in my mind the entire round. I suppose that feature is by design, almost like 17 at TPC Sawgrass and 18 at Doral.
I’m also quite certain that if the golf course were played backwards, from the 18th hole back to the 1st hole, the round would leave the golfer with the same feeling of a tremendous crescendo of golf peaking at the 10th hole, followed by a soft journey back down to the starting point, rather than some disjunctive or summary epilogue of afterthought space-fillers.
When you turn the corner coming off the 8th green and stand on the 9th tee, you can see the endless horizon beyond the palms behind the 10th green. Two holes later, standing on the 11th tee, it hit me that it had to be all downhill from here. It’s amazing how powerful that hundred or so yards of seaside real estate is, and the affect it had on me for the round and the week.
Luckily, the back nine of the RTJ is filled with interesting holes that weave their way around the lagoons of the Palmetto Dunes complex. There are forced carries and tee locations that force a golfer to work the ball both directions, if he is able. For me, these holes were more than sufficiently interesting enough to keep my attention, despite knowing that the golf course peaked several holes before.
The RTJ Course is unlike any other course I’ve experienced on Hilton Head Island. Unique amongst its characteristics is that for the most part, trees are not really in play unless you are significantly out of position, which I was, often.
Despite the numerous bunkers and water hazards, with the exception of only a few holes, I thought the course played very wide open, indicative of true resort course styling.
The course is packed with beautiful scenery, but if I have one criticism, it’s that it doesn’t contain perfect flow or routing. Specifically, the front gets a little boring with five consecutive holes lying adjacent to William Hilton Parkway, all facing the same direction. There is no opportunity for the wind to impact these holes differently when the golf course doesn’t turn.
Immediately following this stretch are the holes dominated by the voyage to and from the Atlantic Ocean’s edge. Once you turn away from the beach, the holes meander through the lagoon system back towards the clubhouse. It is like playing three different golf courses in one, though I’m not sure they segue to the next phase all that cleverly.
Despite my terrible, borderline embarrassing golf display, I got up and down from 40 yards to save par on the 18th hole after finding the fairway bunker off the tee. I finally made a putt of some distance and personal significance on my last hole of the trip, which left me with a smile on my face and a bit of “where’s that been all day?” grin from Charles, Grant, and Kyle.
My closing hole heroics were the perfect cap to a great week. I gratefully shook hands with the Gurrola clan, whose company I had thoroughly enjoyed, and made my way across the see-and-be-seen patio to the clubhouse bar for a quick snack before returning to the hotel.
If you are looking for a vacation destination that will give you a chance to play as much golf as your body and wallet will allow, I can’t recommend Hilton Head Island strongly enough.
And if you are looking for a fun, unique golf experience while on the island, with some amazing visuals and sight lines, I would encourage you to consider the Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes. I know I will on the next trip.