Sometimes we play these hard-to-get-on courses for a fee. Sometimes we are extended the courtesy of the course. Sometimes we are expected to write or talk about these golf courses. Sometimes the people who run them are just happy that we found the time to stop by.
Thanks to my job, I have been able to play at Bandon Dunes before the clubhouse was completed. And I have played Augusta National as part of the media lottery allowed on the course the day after the Masters. Both provided great memories.
But there is nothing quite like finding a new golf course that isnt so much well-known as Bandon has come to be and Augusta National always has been. On my way back to my home base of Orlando from the U.S. Womens Open at Pine Needles earlier this week I found one of these hidden gems.
It is rare, in this marketing day and age, to discover a golf course that has clearly paid attention to the important details (regardless of how expensive those details may be) that isnt shouting to the golf world how high up it ought to be on this list or that.
Our ownership is not searching for accolades, says Charlie Kent, the genial Director of Golf at the May River Golf Club near Bluffton, South Carolina. Were not trying to get on lists.
As a result, May River, a classic Lowcountry design framed by palmettos and mature live oaks hung with Spanish moss, isnt overrun by course raters and travel writers.
May River serves as the home course for a high-end community, still developing, just far enough from the occasionally madding crowds of Hilton Head Island. The 20,000 acre sea island known as Palmetto Bluff extends from the headwaters of the May River near the town of Bluffton. It skirts Bull and Daufuskie Islands via the Cooper River to its east, and gives way finally to the ancient freshwater rice fields along its western edge.
Its written history dates all the way back to 1524 when a French expedition, led by Jean Ribaut, came upon a large group of Native Americans living off the land.
If you Google Palmetto Bluff and/or May River, you will find a fair share of magazine and newspaper pieces on the golf course. But its still mostly word of mouth.
If you stay at Palmetto Bluff, you will pay dearly for your lodging; you will get around the property on bicycles supplied to every cottage; and you will have access to May River, a Jack Nicklaus design that meanders gracefully through the environmentally-protected freshwater wetlands that eventually lead out to the Calibogue Sound.
From the tips, May River stretches to 7,171 yards. But it plays longer because of the Lowcountry humidity and the delightfully golfer-friendly paspalum grasses that dont bake out; which means May River rarely plays hard and fast. The course rating from the back tees is 75.4 with a slope of 140. There are three other tee boxes with 18-hole lengths of 6,623 yards, 6,103 yards and 5,223.
In short, anybody can play May River'as long as you are either a member of the club or a guest at the adjoining Inn at Palmetto Bluff. Once you qualify on one of those two scores, procuring a tee time will not be a problem. Kent reports that May River did 6,100 rounds in 2006 and is anticipating 7,000 in 2007.
May River isnt a complete secret. The USGA has visited. And, sources say, there could be a U.S. Junior Amateur or another smaller field USGA event in May Rivers future.
Palmetto Bluff is an Auberge Resort, an outfit that doesnt cut corners on amenities. There is a small but beautiful spa at the Inn. And there is fine dining; a terrific fitness center; a gourmet corner market and a post office. There is also a real estate office in case you want to buy property.
If you have a 1 p.m. tee time, you can probably go off at 12:30, if youre running early, or 1:30, if youre running late. There is an over-all unhurriedness about the place that makes it hard to leave. There is also a full range (stocked with new Pro V1s) and a short-game practice area at the back of the practice facility that is state-of-the-art.
May River has caddies and/or forecaddies. And my round, played with my wife as partner, took three hours. It felt like two. We wished it had been four. Our forecaddie, Ricky, was knowledgeable, friendly, competent and indigenous.
The par-3s are all the kind of scenic Lowcountry short holes you come to expect of this part of the world. The 336-yard (from the back tees) par-4 seventh hole is the kind of demanding short par-4 that Nicklaus has increasingly incorporated into all his recent courses. The back nine features three par-3s, three-par 4s and three par-5s.
May River is typically Nicklausian in that it offers the player room off the tee and tightens your options as you get closer to the green. Another course at Palmetto Bluff, to be designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, is in the planning stages.
If you get the chance, play this golf course. If you are a golf course designer, please visit May River and study what Nicklaus and nature did in this quiet and unspoiled part of the world. They have gotten it quite right.
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