BLUFFTON, S.C. -- It wasn't all that long ago when cars raced by this undeveloped stretch of the Lowcountry headed for the hot, hip and happening Hilton Head Island.
Those days are long gone, my friends, especially for golfers.
Bluffton can legitimately stand on its own among the top golf destinations in the Southeast, even though it continues to lurk mostly in the shadows of its higher-profile neighbors like Charleston/Kiawah Island and Hilton Head Island.
I spent a week hanging out in Bluffton under mostly sunny skies in November. I only crossed the toll bridge to Hilton Head Island once -- a messy experience where I forgot to pack money to pay the toll and the directions on my GPS turned out to be way off. Never once did I feel regret that I was missing the fine living of the island, its high-end restaurants or the PGA Tour experience of Harbour Town Golf Links.
Nor did I tee it up on Bluffton's best public course, May River Golf Club at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a Jack Nicklaus design from 2004.
Bluffton's mix of courses and restaurants -- and my perfectly comfortable accommodations at the Hampton Inn & Suites Bluffton-Sun City -- were just what this sun-starved Michigander craved. Crescent Pointe Golf Club Head Professional Stephen Neville said when he invites family and friends down, he recommends they stay in Bluffton, too.
'You can spend a whole week (here) and not even go on the Island,' he said. 'There are a lot of local restaurants people don't even know about. It's still growing. Other places in the country are not doing well, but we are still growing. I like that we are halfway between the island and Savannah. You can go in either direction (for a day trip).'
Angelo Cammaruno, a member at Crescent Pointe, said Bluffton used to have the reputation as the place for people who couldn't afford Hilton Head. Not anymore. 'It shouldn't be (that way),' he said. 'It had that stigma.'
The birth of Bluffton golf
Although Rose Hill Golf Club was the first public course in Bluffton in the 1980s, the catalysts for the building boom that lined Fording Island Road with golf course real estate developments were the openings of Hilton Head National Golf Club in 1989 and neighboring Old South Golf Links in 1991.
'We take pride in knowing we made Bluffton more of a golf destination,' Old South Head Professional Jim Uremovich said. 'We are Hilton Head, but we are Bluffton, too.'
Ironically, both Hilton Head National and Old South take pride in not having any real estate intrude on their peaceful settings. Old South climaxes for a stretch of holes on the front nine (6-9) and the back (16-17) skirting the Intracoastal marshes of McKay's Creek with the Calibogue Sound on the horizon.
Eminent domain for construction of the new Bluffton Parkway forced Hilton Head National to shrink from 27 holes to 18 in 2009, but the front nine by Bobby Weed and the back nine by Gary Player still deliver the wonderful conditioning that attracted players in the first place. 'Our biggest sellers are if you don't want 'condo golf' and slow five-hour rounds, your best option is out here in Bluffton,' said Sterlyn Mitchell, the head professional at Hilton Head National.
From there, the courses continued to sprout up farther inland each time along the main drag, also known as Highway 278. Many are exclusive private clubs -- Berkley Hall Golf Club, Colleton River Club and Belfair Plantation. The tourist will still find plenty of action at the semi-private clubs.
Eagle's Pointe Golf Club, one of Davis Love III's first designs, came on board in 1998, followed in 2000 by its tougher sister course, Crescent Pointe, a dynamic Arnold Palmer design that ends up on the banks of the Colleton River. Neville and the members boast they never tire of playing Crescent Pointe.
When I caught up with Peter Brewer on the range at Eagle's Pointe, he mentioned it was the course farthest out from the island he will play. Brewer, a Missouri resident, visits annually for a golf trip.
Just across the street is Rose Hill, with the three courses inside the Sun City Hilton Head community, and the Golf Club at Hilton Head Lakes further west. Hidden Cypress Golf Club by Mark McCumber is considered the best of the three courses inside the sprawling retirement community by Del Webb.
The challenges of an overcrowded market
Rose Hill and Hilton Head Lakes are the best examples of clubs facing challenges in an oversaturated market.
Although Rose Hill is a solid course, it continues to fight the reputation that the place is in poor condition, a problem that plagued the club when it re-opened in 2008. The 27-hole course sat neglected for 2 1/2 years, closed by a previous owner, before the Rose Hill Plantation Property Owner's Association began operating it as an 18-hole club (with two practice holes salvaged from the third nine) built around the mantras of bargain golf and friendly service.
'Rose Hill has always had the worst reputation in the Lowcountry,' Head Professional Ed Sealy III said. 'To me, it's about telling people we are going in the right direction. It's a slow march, but we keep marching.'
Hilton Head Lakes (formerly named Tradition National) sits tucked into a mostly undeveloped community in Hardeeville. Grand towers along the road signal the entrance, symbols of its unfulfilled promise. The golf club, opened in 2007, operates out of a trailer. The course by Tommy Fazio and its 36-acre practice facility, including a par-3 short course, will impress, nonetheless.
'You can make a mistake because of the wide fairways. When you get near or on the greens, that's when you have to focus,' said Bo Madeo, who made the trip from Hilton Head Island to practice and play.
Oldfield Golf Club, a Greg Norman design that opened in 2002 just off of Okatie Highway (170) in Okatie, faces similar hurdles. The private club sits hidden in a development of high-end homes that will take years to fill out. While it looks for more members, Oldfield remains open to limited public play. Risk-reward elements and the Okatie River create a special loop around the back nine.
Golfers should play it while they can. Those who don't will just have to settle for the 200-plus other holes scattered about town. Oh, how will they manage?