ISLE OF PALMS, S.C. -- Just outside of Charleston lies the Isle of Palms, the setting for dozens of lowcountry novels. The island remains idyllic, despite massive development of rental and resort properties. The most expansive of these properties is Wild Dunes Resort, which is comprised of acres of houses, condos, a hotel, and dozens of other facilities, including two highly regarded golf courses, The Links Course and The Harbor Course.
Both of the Wild Dunes courses are 1980s designs by Tom Fazio. The Links Course, opened in 1980, is Fazio's first solo effort, and the Harbor Course later opened in 1985. Also of note for architecture buffs is that the late, great Mike Strantz was the on-site shaper for Fazio during both projects. He would settle in Charleston around this time and when Hurricane Hugo struck the area and decimated the courses, was called on to rebuild them.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, most of the 18th hole on the Links Course disappeared into the ocean. So the closer was rebuilt as a par 3, the course shrunk from around 6,800 yards to 65,000, and par changed from 72 to 70.
The Links Course recently re-opened once again after a substantial renovation by Fazio's firm. The most obvious improvements are vastly expanded greens and rebuilt white-sand bunkers. These new greens, with their increased undulations and wider variety of pin positions, are still maturing, so they're still quite firm.
Over at The Harbor Course, Head Pro Will Forrest notes that, "The Links Course gets all the attention. The Harbor is sort of a secret." But points out how the 6,359-yard, par-70 Harbor Course has numerous holes with views of the Intracoastal Waterway, including the stretch from holes 9-11, which are right on the water. As such, both The Links and The Harbor Courses are memorable in their own right.
Playing The Links and The Harbor Courses at Wild Dunes Resort
No. 16 on the Harbour Course
I was fortunate to play both courses with several writers who'd played the courses before as well as the head pro at each course. One thing I heard over an over again was how narrow The Harbor Course is, and how The Links Course is considerably more "wide open."
Be prepared, though, if you're a visitor from the Midwest who's used to playing more open tracks: both courses are quite penal for crooked hitters, with lots of hazards and OB on almost every hole, either on the tee, at the green, or, more often, from tee to green.
In addition, because both courses are right at sea level, they play longer than the scorecards suggest. Josh Gabellieri, Lead Assistant Golf Pro at The Links Course, recommended we play from the 6,002-yard white tees, despite the fact that a few players in the groups were single-digit handicappers. "At sea-level, and with the ocean winds, the course plays a lot longer than you think."
Aside from the cramped 351-yard 10th hole – where a combination of overly-rumpled fairway, odd bunkering, and semi-blind landing areas make club choice on the tee basically impossible – there's not a bad hole on The Links Course. The round culminates at the 412-yard 17th and the new185-yard 18th, though, with the waves crashing on the beach and the prevailing ocean winds turning club selection into a crap shoot.
Although The Harbor Course is considered so much tighter, I frankly found it less penal (only lost 2 balls, compared to 6 on The Links). There's a nice mix of long (460 yards) and short (350 yards) par 4s. The long holes have fairly well-defined bail-out areas. (Aside from the 382-yard 6th, where the tee shot from the tips is semi- blind over a marsh.)
Greens on The Harbor Course are scheduled to be expanded by Fazio's Firm, but as of yet are still tiny – difficult to hit and quick as lightning. Forrest's favorite stretch of holes, 9-11 along the Intracoastal, is really lovely and very fun. Course knowledge is critical here, as there are cross-hazards, hidden water, and tricky winds.
In short, both The Links and The Harbor Courses at Wild Dunes Resort are quintessential low-country tracks: fast, firm greens, lush palm trees full of exotic birds, and plenty of water hazards full of gators (do NOT reach into ponds to retrieve balls!). Rates run from $95-$185 (with cart), depending on time of day/week and whether or not you're staying at the resort.
Wild Dunes Resort and Isle of Palms
As noted already, Wild Dunes is an expansive, multi-use resort. The centerpiece is a luxury hotel overlooking the ocean, in which you'll find Coastal Provisions, the resort's premier dining establishment. The restaurant features classic low-country fare with an international flare. Numerous local craft brews are on tap as well, including the award-winning Westbrook White Thai and Coast Kolsch. Both Westbrook Brewing Co. and Coast Brewing Co. are located in Charleston, and both have large, lively tasting rooms where you can sample all their brews.
Isle of Palms may be a tourist destination today, but you can still sense the quaint Low Country atmosphere and history. In fact, it was under a tree by the 14th tee of The Links Course where Edgar Allen Poe sat and wrote many of his now-classic stories. So if you're looking for that famed low-country charm, a getaway replete with golf, food, drink, and miles of sandy beaches awaits at Wild Dunes Resort.