A scant 15 miles as the crow flies from Harbour Town Golf Links, the low-profile layout on Hilton Head Island where Jack Nicklaus got his feet wet as a designer in 1969, is the sleepy little town of Bluffton, S.C. On its outskirts is a 20,000-acre coastal preserve that extends from the headwaters of the May River to Bull and Daufuskie islands via the Cooper River, the land eventually giving way to the freshwater rice fields of the New River. It is on this land mass, touched by three rivers and thus a sea island in the truest sense, that a stylish resort and residential community called Palmetto Bluff debuted in 2004.
Thirty-five years after he consulted with Pete Dye on a seminal course that reinvigorated golf architecture in America, Jack returned to build a Lowcountry links of his own on a very desirable site. In his book Nicklaus by Design, Jack said Harbour Town “is significant to me as the place where I started to think strategically. With Pete, I learned how to use my imagination, to visualize the elements of a potential golf hole or golf course and then make those elements fit.” Drawing upon his experience as a player and his collaboration with Dye, Jack produced a superlative design at the May River Golf Club.
Bounded by rivers and dotted with interior lagoons, May River is a multi-themed layout that takes its cue from the site’s expansive marshes and tidal sloughs (pronounced slews). Conspicuous earthworks are absent, as are signs of fabrication, a tribute to Jack’s restraint and the site’s unique geologic features. Because of its meandering loops, the May River itself had a significant impact on the routing of the course. Portions of the layout wind past moss-draped oaks, loblolly pines and clumps of palmetto along the May River’s bluffs, with only the sights and sounds of Nature—snowy egrets stalking the shallows on stilt-like legs, the gobble of a wild turkey deep in the forest–to interrupt a golfer’s attention.
At the outset, the Nicklaus design team realized its bounty: Palmetto Bluff’s land elevation is significantly higher than that of the region’s mostly sea-level courses. Also, it has a more sandy soil composition. (Clay is the dominant subsoil in the Bluffton area). The sandy soil coupled with the use of emerald-green paspalum for the tees, fairways and rough (paspalum turfgrass is tolerant of brackish irrigation) permits year-round play at May River, where most golfers prefer to take a caddie and walk. In step with the current preference for naturalistic palettes, plantings alongside the fairways are indigenous to the Lowcountry. No petunia beds here. Finally, more than 30 massive live oaks were transported to the course from other portions of the property, adding to the seasoned framing of the 7,171-yard, par-72 layout.
Special attention was paid to the bunker complexes at May River. Most are boldly conceived and visually striking. There are five acres of sand on site, but many of the bunkers are of the “lighthouse” vs. penal variety and are designed to signpost the holes. The bunker sand, imported from Ohio, has an angular consistency, permitting steep flashed faces. Dramatic as they are, the bunkers play fair and drain well. The greens, which consumed much of Nicklaus’s attention, vary in size and character, though many are of the type favored by Donald Ross: crowned muffin-tops that roll off to close-mown chipping areas.
This strategic, scruffy-at-the-edges spread, accessible by members and resort guests only, offers multiple routes to the green on most of the longer holes. From the tips, May River presents a firm challenge to the seasoned expert, yet the forward tees are quite approachable by inexperienced players. “May River is a thinking-man’s golf course,” Nicklaus explained. “What we created feels like a walk in the woods, an experience that completely fills the senses. It feels like a throwback to an era when golf truly was a thinking-man’s game.”
Asked to identify the layout’s design style, Nicklaus pointed out that May River has no particular style. “We took what we had and tried to work with it,” he said. “On a site this good, the golf course creates its own style. Some people would look at it and say it’s all been created, which it has. Others would say it looks like it’s been here forever, which it has.”
At the time the course opened, I asked Jack how May River would play. “The course has good shot values, it has interesting risk-reward scenarios,” he explained. “It’s very user-friendly. We’ve got nice bail-outs on every hole to give the average golfer the opportunity to enjoy it. The final confirmation for me is when women come up to me and say they like the course. If women like it, then I know it’s going to be fine.” Golf, after all, is also a thinking-woman’s game.
In addition to the main track, the club’s 34-acre practice area recreates the feel of an actual course. There’s also a short-game practice area designed for children as well as a secluded area for private lessons. The handsome Golf House overlooks the ninth and 18th greens in one direction and the practice range and first tee in another. It has all the features golfers like, including a first-rate pro shop, traditional locker room, lounge area and a grill room with an expansive deck.
The centerpiece of the community’s village, fashioned after historic Carolina fishing hamlets, is the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, the first East Coast property from Auberge Resorts, creators of Napa Valley’s famed Auberge du Soleil. The Inn features 50 guest bungalows (including eight cottage suites) designed in the Lowcountry style and offering fine views of the May River and interior islands. (Request one of the odd-numbered cottages overlooking the river). With large screened porches, gas fireplaces, pine-plank floors and vaulted ceilings, the cottages honor the region’s architectural heritage without sacrificing luxurious amenities, including spacious bathrooms with walk-in steam showers, fine linens and up-to-date technology. Art throughout the resort is original and produced by local artists, including West Fraser, son of pioneering developer and Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser.
The resort’s main restaurant, overlooking the river, serves eclectic Southern fare, with the emphasis on local seafood. The 9,600-square-foot Spa at Palmetto Bluff, modeled after a Southern-style manor house, is located on a private island in a freshwater estuary with a wading bird rookery. Treatments, including massage therapy, skin care and body treatments, draw upon healing traditions and ingredients indigenous to the area, such as corn meal, peaches, cotton, wild rice and red river clay. A private garden with a selection of roses, flowers and herbs graces the grounds of the spa.
More to life than golf? The scenic rivers and creeks that surround Palmetto Bluff are a paddler’s paradise. Pods of bottle-nosed dolphins regularly break the water’s surface. Interior freshwater trails connect the village to other neighborhoods as well as the bluff’s eastern shore. The Palmetto Bluff Canoe and Kayak Club provides boaters a central point from which to embark. Other outdoor activities include bird-watching (ospreys are common), biking, horseback riding and fishing.
New for 2010, the resort has introduced what it calls its Ultimate Lowcountry Golf Experience. The two-night package features one round of golf at May River and one round at Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head. In addition to a luxurious guest cottage and full breakfast daily, the program also includes boat transfers between Palmetto Bluff and Harbour Town Marina. It’s a real time-saver–it’s far faster to travel by boat in this watery realm than by car.
While I consider the Inn, along with the Sanctuary at Kiawah, among the finest resorts in the Southeast, the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine recently ranked The Inn at Palmetto Bluff the #1 Resort in America. That’s pretty tall cotton. Of course, so is the lead rate for the Ultimate golf package: $625 per night. Then again, you won’t find a better tandem of Pete-and-Jack golf anywhere. Details: 888-595-2170. www.palmettobluffresort.com.