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Palmetto Dunes: Hilton Head's worthy alternative

Palmetto Dunes
Courtesy of Palmetto Dunes
The 16th hole at the Arthur Hills course at Palmetto Dunes Resort.

Everybody exhale. The Masters is over and it's time to breathe again. For a combination of upscale ambiance and laid-back, red-Solo-cup fun, there's no better place to unwind than Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Obviously, you can't play Harbour Town this week, unless you've got a PGA Tour card, and it will be pretty busy elsewhere in Sea Pines Plantation, with the RBC Heritage in full swing. So let me recommend a worthy alternative 10 minutes down Highway 278: Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. It may not have the lighthouse and the Tour pros, but it's pretty special in its own right.

I first played tennis at Palmetto Dunes in 1976, but it took me until 1994 to sample the golf. It was worth the wait. Nowhere will you find three more varied courses under one roof.

Palmetto Dunes' Robert Trent Jones Oceanfront course ($99-$159; 866-380-1778, palmettodunes.com) is the resort's original and one of the island's oldest, dating to 1969. Credit to Jones' former top lieutenant, Roger Rulewich, who spruced up the entire course in 2002, notably restoring the grandeur to the par-5 10th, to provide reach-out-and-practically-touch-it access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Mind you, none of the other holes offer such seaside splendor, but you'll surely enjoy them, thanks to a network of lagoons that influences play on 11 of the 18. Your family will also enjoy the round, as the Jones serves up a 2,625-yard set of kids tees, with special junior rates. True, I'll never completely warm up to the five consecutive front-nine holes that run parallel to noisy Highway 278, but as a whole package, the Jones is a must-play.

A different animal entirely is the George Fazio course ($65-$125; 866-380-1778, palmettodunes.com), a 1974 product by Uncle George, with help from nephew Tom. If the Jones was the fun, resort-y course, the Fazio was intended to be the stern, U.S. Open-style examination. It succeeded.

Hewn from a small, 119-acre site, the Fazio is home to a parade of narrow, yet beefy, boldly-bunkered par-4s, man-made waterways, canals and a routing the USGA would love, with only two par 5s and a rigid par of 70 for its 6,873 yards.

Most memorable is the 230-yard, par-3 17th, a monster in its day, with a forced carry over both water and sand. These days, 230 isn't what it used to be, but it's still a scorecard wrecker. If you want to find out how much control you have in your bag, the Fazio is that kind of test. Just sharpen your sand wedge before you go.

A wildly divergent third golf experience at Palmetto Dunes is the Arthur Hills course ($95-$135; 866-380-1778, palmettodunes.com). Opened in 1986, the Hills is short by contemporary standards, at 6,651 yards, but the setting is pure Lowcountry and so are the challenges.

Heavily wooded with pines, oaks and its namesake palmettos, the Hills also weaves through natural sand dunes and lagoons, all in splendid isolation -- except for the abundant wildlife, including alligators. There are many more opportunities to lose golf balls on the hazard-laced Hills layout, but don't be stupid when it comes to retrieving them. Alligators can move at a shockingly quick clip in short distances -- leave your ball where it is if there's a chance you may be eaten.

College players used to feast here -- Stanford's Tiger Woods played the Hills in 1995 and 1996 and a few years before that, Arizona State's Phil Mickelson drove the green at the dogleg-left, 380-yard, par-4 17th, a hole criss-crossed by a lagoon left of the fairway and short of the green. "Impossible" has never been part of Lefty's vocabulary, then or now.

Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort delivers an excellent, mid-Island location, superb hotels with beach access, quality dining options and private homes and villas tucked in the trees. It may lack a PGA Tour event, but as Lowcountry luxury goes, it's got everything else.

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