I have mixed feelings about Hilton Head Island, especially after my first round of golf at the recently renovated Wexford Plantation. It almost made me forget about traffic there, a major headache for those who live on and just off the island, as well as those who vacation there. On the one hand, the golf on the island is superb, what with Harbour Town Links, the ultra-private and regaled Long Cove, and 22 other layouts, including one of my new favorites in all of the South, the aforementioned Wexford Plantation. At just 42 square miles and with 24 golf courses and a heritage going back to the late 1960s, Hilton Head is both the granddaddy of golf communities and one of the most dense golf areas in the nation.
But it is also one of the most densely populated, especially at peak seasons when its 39,000 residents tend to crowd onto the modestly sized island, joined by thousands of golfers and beach goers. That makes even the most basic transportation, but especially on the one bridge to and from the mainland, seem downright Manhattanesque. (I once waited eight full minutes to make a left hand turn onto Fording Island Road, Route 228, the only road between Bluffton and Hilton Head.) As I left Wexford late on a November Saturday afternoon, I turned into a long line of cars on the road just outside the gates. Since there was no football stadium within a hundred miles, I wondered where they were going on a Saturday. (Hilton Head did not strike me as a haven for early bird buffets.)
Wexford's homes are almost all big and lavish and priced well into the millions. Many of them are second homes.
The best remedy for traffic for Hilton Head residents is to stay put inside their golf communities, of which there are many to choose. If I could afford to live in Wexford –- home prices average into the millions -- I don’t know that I would have much reason to wander anyway. I’ll get to the golf in a minute, but although I am somewhat allergic to water, I found myself lusting over the parade of boats parked in the marina beside the clubhouse, some as big as a small house. The community’s system of locks, one of only three such systems on the east coast, maintains water inside the 37-acre marina at a consistent level, no matter what is happening in the Broad Creek and Intracoastal Waterway, which flow from Wexford out past the famed Harbour Town Lighthouse, across the Calibogue Sound and into the Atlantic. Half of the 280 boat slips are located behind homes along the marina’s canal. The snack bar just before the 10th tee does double duty as the dock master’s station.
In addition to the boating, Wexford puts a heavy emphasis on tennis, with six Har-Tru courts, four of them lighted. The tennis center includes two decks of seating for viewing the matches between Wexford’s players and those from other communities in the Carolinas. The club employs a director of tennis and head tennis professional. For those interested in more cerebral pursuits, the community sponsors discussion groups and a “sunrise salutation yoga” session (an interesting way to greet the new day).
Arnold Palmer designer Brandon Johnson created some interesting effects in the fairways at Wexford. Here, a "volcano" of bunkers obscures the approach shot to a green.
Most residents of Wexford Plantation greet the new day, when they are in residence there, in beautiful 6,000 square foot and larger homes, many of which you would feel comfortable categorizing as “mansions.” Adjacent to the marina and just across the narrow canal from the 9th fairway, a sprawling home stretched across what looked like at least three fair-sized lots. “Nice looking Marriott,” one of my playing partners blurted. I’d guess that Marriott included at least 15,000 square feet of living space. Other homes around the golf course were larger and more elaborately landscaped than any I had encountered in 10 years of golf community visits. And, yet, there were few signs of life inside and outside those homes on an early November day; apparently Wexford’s part-timers start arriving a few weeks later for the winter.
No matter the time of the year, Wexford’s golfers have one of the best golf courses anywhere at their disposal. Brandon Johnson, a chief architect with the Arnold Palmer design group, finished the rework just three years ago. Most folks who played Wexford’s earlier layout called it flat and boring, or words to that effect. It is anything but that now. On some holes, bunkers are layered one behind the other to give the effect of more or less continuous sand; but when a first time player at Wexford takes a little time to drive up the fairway or scoots over to the side of the fairway to take a peek, it is obvious the designer provided much more landing area than initially meets the eye. On other, less bunkered holes, the few traps there may be puckered up into a modest volcano shape, helping to obscure a bit of the green and adding an extra element of challenge. (On one short par 4, such a mound just beyond the landing area obscured the entire green, making it mandatory to pick a branch of a treetop to aim at.)
Conditions are impeccable as you might expect from a club that charges a six-figure initiation fee. The greens, whose topography will continue to settle for the next few years, exhibited some curious breaks that I just could not read from either side of the hole. They were also pretty firm, causing a lot of thought as to where to land an approach shot; for some pins at the front of the green, the answer was just short of the putting surface as an uphill chip shot was preferable to a downhill putt from behind. The fairways are pretty much immaculate, the Zoysia grass propping the ball up almost as on a tee.
One of the most interesting holes was also the most fun, the par 5 15th, where two initial shots leave a wedge over water onto a two-level green. The bottom level lies a good four feet below the top level, and when I got too cute with my pitching wedge approach, trying to use the bottom of the bank as a backstop, my ball stopped just on the edge of the top level. I was pleased to putt it only 10 feet past the cup.
From its longest tee boxes, Wexford Plantation plays to 6,913 yards, with a rating of 74.2 and slope a robust 147. The two other men’s tees play to a total of 6,563 yards and 6,165 yards, and ratings and slope of 72.5/143 and 70.9/129, respectively. Women’s tee boxes are at 5,191 yards and 4,670 respectively.
For golf this good, accommodations to traffic can certainly be made. If you would like more information about Wexford Plantation or any of the numerous other golf communities on Hilton Head, please contact me.
One of the largest homes we have seen in a golf community sits across the canal from the 9th fairway at Wexford.