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Hilton Head for less

Let's assume for the moment that you've driven your gas-guzzling SUV to , dropped the kids off at the beach and let the wife out at the Coligny Plaza to shop 'til she drops.
A golfer competes in a tournament at Harbour Town Golf Course on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
A golfer competes in a tournament at Harbour Town Golf Course on Hilton Head Island, S.C.Sc Dept. Of Parks / South Carolina Dept. of Tourism
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Let's assume for the moment that you've driven your gas-guzzling SUV to Hilton Head Island, dropped the kids off at the beach and let the wife out at the Coligny Plaza to shop 'til she drops.

You've got the golf clubs in the trunk and you head straight to Harbor Town Golf Links, shelling out more than $300 by the time you've bought golf balls and a hat with a logo and paid green fees for 18. You all meet back at the resort and, in your head, you tally up the damage: new outfits for the wife, gas bill, golf fees.

Whoa! Time to go looking for some bargains.

Hilton Head ain't cheap. Green fees of $100 on the area's golf courses, particularly on the island itself, are standard. But there are courses that give you both excellent play and true value.

Let's say you want to get settled in and not leave the island for at least a few days. Hilton Head has more than 20 courses and you can play some of them and get your money's worth.

• Heritage Golf Group recently bought three properties totaling 99 holes, including Port Royal Golf and Racquet Club, Shipyard Golf Club and Oyster Reef Golf Club. They are all good bargains, even considering the comparatively high Hilton Head prices.

Oyster Reef has had its ups and downs since opening to acclaim in 1982, but since Heritage took over from American Golf, the course is slowly working its way back into the top echelon of Hilton Head tracks.

Confronted with a course badly in need of improvements, Heritage has put money into renovations - redoing the bunkers, just to name one - and plans to tear down the clubhouse and build a new one in May. "We've put a lot of money into the course, and we plan to do a lot more," Heritage's Lisa Dahlstrom said.

Green fees are $130 in the mornings through May 6 and $100 after that. Summer rates are in the $90 range.

Port Royal is home to three courses, Barony, Robber's Row and Planter's Row. Robber's Row, the first of the three (built in 1966) is considered the most scenic. Designed by Willard Byrd and George Cobb, two names familiar to South Carolina golfers, it went through a complete Pete Dye redesign in the late '90s.

To Dye's credit, he didn't mess much with the ambience. The course still traverses the north part of the island through canopies of old oaks and magnolias. It still features a series of doglegs that will tempt you to cut corners over the tall Carolina pines and oaks.

"Robber's Row is more scenic, Barony is more friendly and Planter's is probably the tightest and most challenging for the low-handicap player," said the plantation's director of golf, Brian Bartolec. "But they all have the same look."

Green fees are $122 in the mornings and $84 from 2-4 p.m. Summer rates are $95 and $68.

Shipyard Golf Club, like most Hilton Head courses, is cut through the Lowcountry island terrain of Carolina pine, flowering magnolias and the classic moss-draped oak trees. It does have more water than many of the other area courses, though not the dramatic marsh and river views others sport.

Built in 1970, the Galleon and Clipper nines are some of the oldest golf on the island; the Brigantine was added in 1982. It all has a fresh, out-of-the-box look and feel, though, with the recent conversion of the greens from Tidwarf Eagle to Champion Bermuda. They have an out-of-the-box look and feel to them.

Green fees are $122 in the mornings and $84 from 2-4 p.m. Summer rates are $95 and $68.

• Located on the north end of the island in the Hilton Head Plantation, the Country Club of Hilton Head can be as tough as it is picturesque, particularly from the back tees. It was a qualifying site for both the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Open, so you know it's not all that leisurely.

But it is a terrific experience, and should get even better when they complete a planned $3.1 million renovation. (As of this writing some holes must be skipped due to ongoing bunker work; they're also redoing some greenside irrigation.)

Green fees are $89 mornings and $112 for advance tee times. In the summer, advance tee time rates drop to $99.

• When the Golden Bear Golf Club opened in 1992, it was generally considered one of the better courses on Hilton Head. Golden Bear has had its share of conditioning problems over the years; in 2004, for example, temporary greens had to be installed, prompting complaints from some golfers who expect Hilton Head courses to be in immaculate condition.

But by last year Golden Bear's greens had come in and the course was in good shape. These days it has a leaner and more open look to it, though the fairways are still tree-lined and relatively tight, uncharacteristic for a Jack Nicklaus course (even if it was Nicklaus' firm and not the man himself who designed it).

Green fees are $109 mornings and $89 afternoons. Summer rates drop to $95.

So now you've experienced some good deals in Hilton Head proper. You're getting a little claustrophobic and want to explore. Take 278 to the mainland, where you'll find some very nice, affordable courses. Unfortunately, one of them Rose Hill, has shut down indefinitely. But several courses in Bluffton offer off-island value.

Crescent Pointe Golf Club is one of those courses that's as fun to play as it is challenging. "Just in terms of pure fun, I'd put Crescent Pointe in the top three in Hilton Head," said Glynn Payne, a local who plays a lot of area tracks. "There are harder courses around, but they aren't as much fun to play."

True, there are harder courses around, like Harbor Town Golf Links, Secession Golf Club and Long Cove Club. But for the average Joe who can't always get on those tracks, Crescent Pointe may be the best alternative. Besides, those courses can get your boxer shorts in a wad with their difficulty.

Green fees are $89 mornings, $72 after 11 a.m. and $62 after 1 p.m. After May 15 rates drop to $72, $58 and $48.

• Davis Love III, a son of the Lowcountry, probably didn't have the wind in mind when he designed Eagle's Pointe Golf Club - the towering pines and oaks around the perimeter should block most of what comes sweeping in from the nearby Atlantic. Love clearly had more of a classic, traditional theme in mind, and that's what you get here.

That, plus playability. The fairways are wide and generous (though not as forgiving as those at nearby Hampton Hall). The Bermuda greens are above average in size, with some good slope and undulation. The result is a course where you can thump it off the tee and, while walking to your distant ball, take time to think about that tricky approach you're facing.

Green fees are $72, $62 after noon. Summer rates, after May 15, are $62.

Hampton Hall, one of the Hilton Head area's newer courses, is already gaining a well-earned reputation as one of the better ones.

It's a Pete Dye design, but you wouldn't know it from the subtle shaping. It's as if the Salvador Dali of course architects had a rare moment of self-restraint.

Hampton Hall has few of the wild characteristics Dye is known for - the railroad-tie bunkers, spectator mounds, island greens, etc. This is an understated, links-like layout with wide and generous fairways, artful bunkering and traditional, though challenging, green complexes. Dye forsook his wild side and stripped down his vision to lean and clean - the master magician going back to his roots.

Hampton Hall is a private course that is allowing outside play until its membership fills out. Green fees are $105 peak season and $75 in summer. Call ahead to book advance tee times.

Island West Golf Club designers Clyde Johnston and Fuzzy Zoeller aimed to create a course that was as fun as possible (imagine that: Fuzzy Zoeller wanting to have fun), and Island West was just that when it opened in 1990.

If you played the course a few years back, you might not be a big fan. It was considered by some to be too easy, and there were occasional complaints about the conditioning.

Now under new ownership and management, Island West is on the rebound, better conditioned and more challenging (the South Carolina Golf Association has upped its slope rating from 129 to 140).

Green fees are $57 until noon, $47 afterward. Summer rates after June 1 are $47 and $37.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.

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