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While it's certainly true that the first shots of the Civil War took place here (Confederate batteries opened fire on Union-controlled Fort Sumter out in Charleston Harbor on April 10, 1861), it very well could be that the first golf shots in America were taken here as well. As the story goes, a ship's log was once discovered that clearly showed a supply of golf balls and clubs had arrived in South Carolina from Scotland sometime in the 1740s. Since Charleston was the fourth largest port in the colonies at that time (behind only Boston, New York and Philadelphia), the chances are very good that this is where the equipment was off-loaded. Who ordered the clubs and balls - and where he put them to use - is lost in history. Apparently, though, somebody was grippin' it and rippin' it in South Carolina more than forty years before John Reid (generally recognized as the "father of American golf") first teed it up in Yonkers, New York, in early 1888 - the year that's widely accepted as the birth date of golf in this country. Why that place and that year gets the nod is a bit puzzling since even the United States Golf Association agrees that the first golf club to be established in America was the South Carolina Golf Club, which organized in Charleston in 1786 and whose members played some form of golf in a public park called Harleston Green. Perhaps it's because the SCGC ceased to exist after 1811, while the Yonkers club (eventually known as St. Andrew's Golf Club) has continued on in one place or another since its formation in late 1888. No matter. What's really important is the fact that not only does the Charleston area offer a number of gorgeous golf courses, it's one of the most beautiful, interesting, historic, charming and fun places on the planet. That is, if you like that sort of thing.
Don't know if the following is a first, but it sure sounds like it. At Charleston's Shadowmoss Plantation Golf Club, visiting golfers are guaranteed that they will enjoy their experience (the course, the conditioning and the club's staff) or else they can ask for their money back and get it - no questions asked. Whether that's an example of supreme confidence or the ultimate in southern hospitality is hard to say. But who cares, right? Designed by Russell Breeden and opened in 1971, Shadowmoss Plantation is a lovely Lowcountry layout that measures 6,701 yards from the tips. Choose your tees wisely, however (four others are available), because water is in play on ten of the 18 holes. (No, sorry; you can't get your money back if you clank a few into the H20. That's your fault, not theirs.)
If you like guarantees, here's another one: your choice of excellent restaurants in Charleston is practically endless. For lunch, try the Blossom Café on East Bay Street or Gaulart & Maliclet on Broad Street. For dinner, you cannot go wrong with either Circa 1886 on Wentworth, High Cotton and Magnolias on East Bay, Peninsula Grill on North Market, or Carolinas on Exchange Street. For a pop or two and a lot of fun, check out the Blind Tiger Pub on Broad.
Also guaranteed is the fact that Rivertowne Country Club in Mt. Pleasant (north side of Charleston Harbor) is one very challenging golf course. From the back tees, Rivertowne has a course rating of 74.9 and a slope rating of 147. What that means, folks, is that it's a tough tract from the tips (7,200 yards). But then, what else would you expect from "The King"? Yep, Rivertowne is an Arnold Palmer "Signature Course" - the first to be built in the Charleston area. Golf Digest gave it 4½ out of 5 stars after it opened in 2001, and in 2004 the state's Golf Course Owners Association named it South Carolina's "Course of the Year." Not surprisingly, Rivertowne's course- and slope-rating numbers are quite a bit lower if you play from one of the four other tees here, but that doesn't mean the course gets quite a bit easier. As the name implies, water is a common sight and forced carries are numerous. In fact, there's water on 13 of the 18 holes and all four par threes have trouble between the tees and the greens. The wind will also be a factor at this golf course, not just on the more open front nine but on the back nine, too, wandering as it does along the Wando River and Horlbeck Creek. As Mr. Palmer put it, "Rivertowne is as distinctive and memorable as Charleston itself."
Equally memorable - but less demanding - are three other fine choices in Mt. Pleasant: Charleston National, Dunes West and Patriots Point. Charleston National is a Rees Jones design that opened in 1989 and it's the only Jones layout in the area that's available to the public. Carved out of the surrounding marshland and in part along the intracoastal waterway, Charleston National (7,084 yards from the back tees) is Lowcountry golf at its best: playable, enjoyable and affordable. Much more linksy in style - at least on the front 9 - is Dunes West, an Arthur Hills design that opened in 1991. Built on the site of Lexington Plantation, Dunes West is set amid bermuda grass-covered dunes and 200-year-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss. At 6,859 yards from the tips, Dunes West is not terribly lengthy by today's standards. The incoming nine, however, is considerably longer than the outgoing nine, and if the wind is up the black markers may prove to be very difficult for the average player. Oh, and don't forget to take a good look at the 18th hole here and notice how it resembles a famous par four down the coast to the south: the 18th at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island.
Based on its name, it would be easy to think that Patriots Point was built on the site of a famous Revolutionary War or Civil War battlefield. It wasn't. It does, however, sit on one of the most spectacular pieces of property in the entire area. Located on a secluded peninsula mere miles from town, this lovely layout offers the true flavor of a Scottish links and some sensational views of the harbor, Fort Sumter and Charleston. Originally designed by William Byrd in 1984, Patriots Point was remodeled and updated by architect Bob Spence in 1997. The Links at Stono Ferry, on the other hand (in nearby Hollywood), was built on the site of a famous Revolutionary War battlefield. Well, okay, it was less a battle and more of a skirmish between the Brits and rebelling colonists. And okay, it isn't famous. The confrontation did take place, however (June 20, 1779), and historians agree that it happened in the area of the 12th, 13th, and 14th holes. Two hundred and ten years later (1989) a new kind of battle began at Stono Ferry - one between golfer and course - and it's still going on. The work of Florida-based architect Ron Garl, Stono Ferry is both pretty and playable. Its front nine is framed by majestic pines and waste bunker-bordered fairways; the back nine meanders along the banks of the intracoastal waterway.
Near the mouth of Charleston Harbor, a short distance from Ft. Moultrie (site of the first American victory over the British Navy on June 28, 1776), is a beautiful barrier island called the Isle of Palms. Here you'll find two of the best golf courses on the east coast - or any coast, for that matter - and both are at Wild Dunes Resort. The original layout at the resort (the Links Course) was the first solo effort by renowned architect Tom Fazio, and it put the designer (and Wild Dunes) on the golfing map. Opened in 1980, the Links is a gorgeous par-72 tract that measures 6,722 yards from the back tees. As you would expect, however, the winds off the ocean can be very strong and the course can play much longer than its yardage (especially the final four holes, which play along the Atlantic and a series of dunes). The same is true at the equally attractive Harbor Course, also a Fazio design that debuted in 1986. Much shorter at only 6,440 yards from the tips (a par 70 with six par 3s), the Harbor Course can play much bigger if the wind is up. When that happens, avoiding the saltwater marshes, lagoons and intracoastal waterway can become a real challenge. Avoiding a great time at Wild Dunes will also be difficult. Among the resort's many amenities are four restaurants, two lounges, 17 tennis courts, accommodations for over 440 guests, and two miles of pearly white beaches.
Thirty minutes to the north of Charleston - in the towns of Goose Creek and Summerville - are four other fine layouts that you should think about when you're in the area. The one in Goose Creek is Crowfield Golf & Country Club, named for a once-thriving plantation that dates back to the 1730s. The ruins of the plantation, in fact - and 20 acres of elaborate gardens, fishponds and canals - are still visible alongside the golf course. The work of architects Tom Jackson and Bob Spence, Crowfield features numerous doglegs, plenty of bunkers, several ponds, and more than its share of mounds - both alongside the fairways and around the greens. From the tips, Crowfield measures a healthy 6,964 yards (four other tees are available).
Despite the City of Summerville's long-ago history as a health restorer (the scent of the surrounding pine forest was reputed to cure respiratory diseases), it's not the place to visit these days if your game is ailing; the golf courses there are quite testing. Legend Oaks Plantation, for example, is a Scott Pool design that was once described as "looks like Augusta but plays like Pinehurst No.2." The course winds its way through and around majestic 250-year-old oak trees and measures out at 6,974 yards from the tips. Pine Forest Country Club is a good test, too, sturdy enough to be the annual home of the Lowcountry Amateur Championship each August. Like the South Carolina Golf Association (which runs the event), Golf Digest thinks highly of the layout as well. The publication gave it a four-star rating and called it "the hidden gem of Charleston." Recently remodeled by Bob Spence, Pine Forest features wide, tree-lined fairways, ponds and streams fronting tees and greens, long waste bunkers and challenging putting surfaces. From the furthest of its five tees, Pine Forest measures a healthy 6,905 yards.
One of the newest courses in the Summerville/Charleston area is Wescott Plantation, a Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry design that opened in 1999. Built on the site of the antebellum Oak Forest Plantation, this 27-hole facility was specifically created to be fun, affordable and fast-playing. On each of the three nines here - Oak Forest, Burn Kill and Black Robin - the par fours and par fives are void of forced carries. Better to keep you moving, lads and lassies, than have you waste time looking for golf balls. Sorry to say that's not the case on the par threes, where you'll find more than a few trouble areas between the tees and greens. How hard you want your golf at Wescott Plantation will depend on which combination of 18 holes you choose. From the back tees, Black Robin/Burn Kill is the toughest at 7,210 yards and a course/slope rating of 74.5/138. Oak Forest/Burn Kill comes in at 7,197 yards and a difficulty of 74.1/135. For the "easiest" of the three, choose Black Robin/Oak Forest at 7,113 yards and ratings of 73.8/130. Fortunately, four other tees are available on each nine.
So listen. The next time you think of Charleston don't just think about history, southern hospitality, great food, sensational sights and fun in the sun. Think about exceptional golf, too. Obviously, whoever ordered those clubs and balls nearly 300 years ago beat you to it. But unlike that unknown golfer, it's still here.