Only natural: Low Country community likes things the way they were

Both beautiful and diabolical, the 17th at Old Tabby forces a straight shot most often into a crooked wind.

Review:  Spring Island community, Spring Island, SC

Executive Summary:

18-hole Old Tabby Links, designed by Ed Seay of Palmer Design studio.  The course does not have a bad hole on it and includes a few memorable ones.  Degree of difficulty increases dramatically as the tees move back.
Full-golf membership is $125,000; dues $11,230 annually (social membership $62,500 and $5,615).
Lots begin in the $200s, homes in the $600s, but more than $1 million is typical.
Top-notch amenities in remote, lush and laid-back community with an emphasis on land preservation and management and its golf, equestrian and tennis amenities.

    Having spent 30 years in corporate communication and marketing, I cringe when I read promotional language like, "Now the torch is being passed to a new generation of owners..." or "the last of the great, private sea islands on the Atlantic coast."  Such extravagant advertising is a reach that almost always exceeds a community's grasp.
    But Spring Island, whose written statement of "philosophy" included the language above, lives up to its own hyperbole.  It is at once active and serene, the quality of its amenities and its remoteness -- yet just 20 minutes from Beaufort -- making it the overall best community I have visited on the east coast, surpassing my previous favorite, Ford Plantation, south of Savannah.

Perfecting the golf course, blade by blade  
    Spring Island residents appear to be fanatical in their dedication to quality in all the community's amenities, and especially the Old Tabby Links golf course.  At the first green during my round there, I saw something Ioldtabby18greenwithmarsh.jpg had never seen on a golf course, workers kneeling on the green pulling out single blades of the poa annua to allow faster growth of the bent grass.  This is about the farthest south you will find any heat-sensitive bent grass greens; Old Tabby overseeds with bent in the fall and then, in the late spring, the championship Bermuda takes over.  Similar attention is lavished on the community's full-service equestrian center, where a stable of horses are available for rent (or you can board your own); its Har-Tru tennis courts; and an upcoming sports complex that will include two additional tennis courts and pro shop, the most up-to-date fitness equipment, and a zero entry pool and lap pool, both heated.  A concierge will do your grocery shopping for you if you feel like cooking more than driving.  And the on-site Mobley Nature Center is a top flight and active museum and educational center at the heart of the community's stewardship of the island's land and natural resources.  One of the top naturalists in the nation runs the programs there.
    If you have to ask how much all this costs, then you probably can't afford it.  But for the record, and for those among us who always seem to make the right bets during the worst economies, here are the essential costs at Spring Island:

  • Full golf initiation fees, $125,000 (80% refundable)
  • Full golf dues, $11,230 annually
  • Property owner dues, $4,175 annually
  • Lots (all re-sales), $200K to $1.75 million
  • Homes, $600K to $6 million

    Golf or social membership (at half the initiation fees and dues of full golf) is not mandatory, but 378 of the 402 property owners have chosen one or the other, most of them the golf membership.  Social members are permitted to play golf once per month in fall and spring and four times a month in summer, which is the off-peak season because of the customary heat and humidity.

Arnie does it right
    A total of 240 homes are either built or under construction on Spring Island, which shares a gate with Callawassie Island (see my Callawassie review here) but is separated from Callawassie by a bridge.  All lots on Spring Island are re-sales,oldtabby17homeandegrets.jpg developers Chaffin & Light having turned the community and club over to residents almost 10 years ago.  Jim Chaffin, though, still maintains his primary residence on the island, a sign that the handover was harmonious and that Mr. Chaffin, who can choose among lush communities he has developed across the nation, has excellent taste.  Almost all homes surpass the $1 million listing price, but three are currently available in the $600s, smaller and of less architectural interest than the more indigenous looking larger homes.  Currently available lots begin at $250,000 (1.75 acres with golf view) and range as high as $1.75 million (7.2 acres with marsh and river views).  Costs to build can range anywhere from the $200s per square foot to $400 for authentic Low Country design and accoutrements.
    Director of Sales and Marketing Jim Early was my host for the day.  Before our round on the Old Tabby Links, I had my anxieties.  Most Arnold Palmer designed courses I have played have been a bit overwrought, with over-sized bunkers and unnecessary changes in elevation and, overall, much land pushed around.  But Arnie, god bless him, made a perfect strategic decision at Old Tabby; he sent his more classically oriented partner, the late Ed Seay, to do the work.  Anyone lucky enough to play the course owes Arnie and Mr. Seay a debt of gratitude.  This is Low Country golf the way it should be, incorporating marsh, live oaks, stands of pines and salt marsh ponds into the design in a way that seems natural, not fussy at all.  In that regard, Old Tabby, which is named for the oyster shell construction of the plantation house ruins adjacent to the 9th green, reflects the understated sophistication of the rest of the community.
    The par 4 1st hole shows the stuff the rest of the course is made of, with trees lining both sides of the fairway, a few strategically placed fairway bunkers, and a green slightly elevated and accessible only to those enteringoldtabby1fromtee.jpg through the narrow front door.  This is where I encountered the workers on their knees, picking at the unwanted blades of grass.  The green seemed in great shape for a mid-March day, smooth and green enough for my tastes.  The par 4 2nd adds water to the mix, all down the right side, a lone big tree and a string of bunkers down the left making a bailout off the tee no sure thing.  Short par 3s on good golf courses are almost always all-carry affairs, and #3 at Old Tabby, just 120 yards from the Member tees (total just over 6,000 yards), does not disappoint.  Water, a steep bank at the green and bushy saw grass plantings on the bank make it imperative to land your wedge shot on the putting surface and take your chances with a potentially long and undulating putt.  The 4th is the first par 5, 500 yards from the Member tees; a good tee shot will make you think about rolling one up the throat to the elevated green, but the sand and water left, and a menacing tree short and right of the green, will make you think again.  After a short par 4, the 6th presents yet another target-shot par 3, this time to a green totally surrounded by water and sand.  The lake covers the front left half of the green and runs all the way around the back; bunkers cover the entire right front and right sides.  I would not want to play the hole when the greens are firm and not holding shots.

Fine design amid the ruins
    The front nine finishes with two par 4s and a par 5.  The 7th and 8th are pretty much mirror image doglegs, one left and one right around groves of trees to slightly elevated and well-bunkered greens.  The 9th comes back to the marsh and the tabby ruins of the former plantation house (click here for an earlier story on the ruins).  Number 9 presents a reasonable birdie opportunity if you place your tee shot down the left side, but not too far (bunkers) or too long down the middle (water).  A well placed lay-up leaves a sand or lob wedge which you can loft against the wide sky over the marsh that forms the backdrop to the green.
    The back nine at Old Tabby opens with a stunning par 4, one of my favorite holes of the round.  The water inoldtabby15islandgreen.jpg front of the tee and bunkers just beyond are nothing more than visuals, unless you chilly dip your tee shot.  Although the fairway is generous, menacing big-lipped bunkers guard the far right side of the fairway, and water on the left extends all the way to the side of the green, where it pinches across the front toward the large bunker that guards the right front.  Any shot in the bunkers will almost certainly mean double-bogey or worse, the water as easy to reach as the green.  The false front on the green does not make things easier.  The 500-yard 12th features a live oak that guards the right side of the fairway in the area of most lay-up shots, and a pond guards the left side of the green, a wall of tabby shells containing the putting surface.  The next par 5, the 15th, presents a signature island green, again bolstered all the way around by a tabby wall.
    Everything seems almost preliminary to the par 3 17th, one of golf's stunning one-shot holes, perfectly framed by water right and left and the long and wide marsh behind.  The thin strip of grass that leads to the green is like an arrow pointing the way, but if the wind is kicking up, your trajectory will be anything but straight.  As if the surrounding hazards are not distraction enough, the pond on the left is home to dozens of egrets that turn the trees a bright shade of white and to a family of alligators that hangs out (literally and figuratively) on a wooden pallet in the middle of the water.  Old Tabby has many great holes, but the 17th is indisputably the "signature" hole.
    After #17, the finishing hole is a rather mild par 4, the entranceway to the green one of the most accessible of the day.   Designer Seay probably thought that, after the 17th, Old Tabby's golfers would want to decompress.  Those having the financial wherewithal will not find a better community in which to do the same.


Workers on Old Tabby's first green hand pick poa annua to let the course's bent grass spring forth.

Old Tabby Links
Designed by Ed Seay and Arnold Palmer
Opened in 1992
Palmer tees, 7,004 yards, rating 73.5, slope 142
Back tees, 6,581, 71.6, 135
Composite tees, 6,275, 69.6, 127
Member tees, 6,020, 68.5, 113
Ladies, 5663, 73.3, 137


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