HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Talk about timing. Just days after Atlantic Dunes -- the final piece of The Sea Pines Resort's golf puzzle, about a decade and untold millions of dollars in the making -- Hurricane Matthew slammed into the island.
During our visit to Sea Pines a month after Matthew, there was certainly plenty of evidence of the storm damage when driving along the narrow, pine-framed roadways of the island: countless tree stumps piled up beside the road, the occasional blue tarp on rooftops, and the near-constant hum of chainsaws.
It became apparent fast that in order to get the resort operational again, it was all hands on deck around Sea Pines.
"People took unconventional roles and embraced them," said John Farrell, head professional at Sea Pines, who noted caddies took on a "no pine cone left behind" attitude to cleaning up the golf courses.
"You learn about the character of the ownership, the senior management, the employee and community response."
Evidence that Sea Pines has been able to get things done has abounded as the golf product was entirely transformed over the past decade. Few resorts in the U.S. have invested in their golf product to the degree that Sea Pines has in that span: Two brand new clubhouses, a beach club, total revamps of Sea Marsh and The Ocean Course into Heron Point by Pete Dye and Atlantic Dunes, respectively. They also added a new golf academy, and upkeep to Harbour Town, including a full re-grassing and some minor design edits.
So it came as no surprise that Atlantic Dunes opened right on schedule and ready for fall golf season.
Sea Pines' Atlantic Dunes golf course: What's new?
The Ocean Course at Sea Pines opened in 1962, making it Hilton Head's first golf course. The task for designer Davis Love III, who is certainly familiar with Sea Pines having won five RBC Heritage championships at Harbour Town, was to reimagine the oldest course on the island and make it relevant once again in a crowded island golf scene.
"The people that have played there in the past are going to feel like it's just wide open and free," Love said in this resort video during construction. "I think it's going to be a lot friendlier than it was before, the greens are a lot more interesting, and it's going to look more like an ocean-style course."
Atlantic Dunes withstood its first test from Mother Nature in flying colors, re-opening less than a month after Matthew. In fact, tree work performed during the rebuild, done in part to create a "bigger ballpark" feel for players compared to more tactical Harbour Town, lessened the storm's impact. Only 11 trees were lost compared to Harbour Town's nearly 500.
The biggest differences catch the eye almost immediately: a more gentle, rolling shape to the grounds. Tee boxes aren't rigid and defined but instead flow from one to the other and onto the fairway. Greens are much larger -- double the size of Heron Point and Harbour Town in some cases -- and have far more hole locations on them.
Few golf courses in the Southeast can hang with the climax of Harbour Town, which ramps up when you turn the corner at the dogleg, par-4 16th and see the Calibogue Sound. But Atlantic Dunes' finish has a cool closing stretch in its own right. The 15th hole is a long par 3 that plays uphill to an infinity green site that sits overlooking the beach and Atlantic Ocean, perhaps the most demanding of any par 3 on property. With no trees framing the backdrop, it makes for not only great views, but also likely the most wind-impacted shot of the round.
The 16th tee, steps away, and surrounded with exposed sand and palms and a wee breeze, is a sharp dogleg right played steps from the beach.
But upon turning the corner in the fairway, there's a straightaway view of fairway through the 18th green. After zigzagging through shadowy corridors most of the loop, the long, "green mile" view, a more-than-1,000-yard, beautiful straightaway, is a memorable sight - but the long, par-4 18th is a tough finish.
While iconic Harbour Town still has the edge in prestige, Heron Point and Atlantic's Plantation Clubhouse is as good as (and in some areas even better than) the Harbour Town clubhouse. Be sure to stick around for a drink or a meal, and the locker room, while not sized to host a full PGA Tour field, is still fully equipped.
The total golf transformation at Sea Pines has achieved its goal to provide a total high-end destination experience in every facet that will appeal to discerning golfers. All three courses are easily walkable (caddies are available) and employ similar turf grass (Atlantic Dunes, however, did not over-seed for the 2016-17 winter season).
Atlantic Dunes and Heron Point will have a similar fee structure (dynamically priced due to seasonality and demand). The Inn golf package, $379/per night, per person high-season includes a round on all three Sea Pines courses as well as other perks like transportation to the new beach club, bag storage, breakfast or lunch at the Harbour Town clubhouse, free replays and access to the practice facilities.
Or, to put another way: "We just had a group come in from Wall Street," Farrell said. "And they told us 'we don't have to leave the property anymore' to play golf."
Atlantic Dunes, designed by Davis Love III, completes the total golf overhaul @theseapinesresort on Hilton Head Island. The course is a little more open and player-friendly compared to the resort's two Pete Dye designs, and has perhaps the best par 3 on property: #livingthegreen #hiltonheadisland @golfadvisor