A couple of weeks ago, I posted my choices for the best “classic” courses in South Carolina (scroll down two articles below this one). Here are my choices for the best “modern” courses in the state. (Note: As a panelist on the South Carolina Rating Panel, I am asked each year to rank the state’s courses. This year’s voting will be published in late March, but you can read our past rankings at scgolfpanel.org.)
After an unbroken string of five years voting with my fellow panel members that the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island was the best course in the state, I decided this year to vote purely on “playability” and the fun factor, rather than design quality alone. And for that reason, I relegated the Ocean Course to number two because the experience can be daunting, depending on the wind. And frankly, as one ages – I am now 71 – a layout like Pete Dye’s by the ocean can feel unrelentingly brutal. Still, it is impossible to ignore just how dramatic and visually delightful – and intimidating – it is.
My top course this time around is Secession near Beaufort, SC which, in terms of location, is not that much different from the Ocean Course given the prevailing winds that whip in from the Atlantic, although in Secession’s case, a scenic bit of marshland separates the course from the water. The private Secession course is certainly challenging and scenic, but the overall experience is loaded with a kind of atmosphere the more public Ocean Course does not enjoy. To relax with a post-round libation and cigar on the sprawling deck behind the clubhouse, overlooking the expansive marsh as the ocean light dims, is an experience you don’t forget.
The Jack Nicklaus course at Colleton River in Bluffton fills my third slot almost entirely based on its greens, the fastest I have played in the last 10 years. If you watch a lot of golf on television, especially the big tournaments like The Master’s, the commentators often grouse about the speed of the greens. Give me fast greens any day of the week because for me, and I suspect for many of my fellow golfers, our putting strokes go to pot the farther back we take the clubhead. Fast greens force a shorter backstroke and, thus, a better chance at hitting the ball on the projected line. The greens at Colleton River, which is also home to a Pete Dye course, were running at 13+ on the stimpmeter when I played them but were as true as any I have ever enjoyed. They were fast but not furious.
The layout at May River, also in Bluffton and also designed by Nicklaus, feels like a golf course that has been sculpted rather than laid out. Because the course sports a lot of sand and some scrub trees, it feels a bit wild in a Pine Valley “barrens” kind of way -- or somewhat like Bulls Bay in Awendaw, just north of Charleston, which landed at #5 on my list because it is a quintessential marsh course, using the tidelands as both framing and hazard and capturing all the best elements of the imagination of the late Mike Strantz, whose small collection of courses provide more fun than any other designer’s.
My 6th favorite course in South Carolina is another Strantz gem, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in Pawleys Island, the darling of visiting golfers and the best of the 90 courses on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach. It is certainly more “refined” than Strantz’s other courses, but the huge greens, wide fairways, and imaginative placement of trees, sand and water are unmistakably his.
Rounding out my top 10 are Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island, the Cassique Course at Kiawah Island, and the Cliffs at Mountain Park in Travelers Rest, just outside Greenville and, I just realized as I wrote this sentence, the only layout on my list not on the coast. Of my top 10 classic courses, only three are on the coast.