Ask Mike Clemons what he likes about living in one of the most isolated communities in South Carolina — and playing the hardest-to-get-to golf course in the state — and the 58-year-old laughs a youngster’s laugh.
Clemons, from Ohio, owned an electronics specialty company with stores nationwide until six years ago, when he sold his business and came to South Carolina looking for his dream retirement home. He and his wife considered Hilton Head Island, but “there (are) too many people there for us. You’ve got 1,000 people on bikes there. I wanted to relax.”
At Haig Point, a self-sustaining community of about 260 homes clustered around a world-class golf course and located on this sea island — accessible only by ferry or water taxi from Hilton Head — Clemons, the Haig Point Club’s golf committee chairman, found all the relaxation, and privacy, anyone could want.
And he loves it.
“I tell my friends (up North), ‘I fish, I clam, I crab and I play golf almost every day,’ ” he said, chuckling. “I’m out of the house by 7 (a.m.), and I come back at 7 (p.m.). It’s like living at summer camp.”
If so, it’s a camp for golfers — accomplished golfers for the most part. When the Rees Jones Signature course opened in 1986, it earned spots in “Top 100 Modern Courses” (Golfweek), “America’s 100 Greatest Courses” (Golf Digest) and “Top 100 in the World” (Golf Digest and Golf Magazine).
And since a Jones-directed renovation in 2007, Haig Point — increased from 7,150 to 7,380 yards — has garnered a second generation of recognition, including “Best New Remodels” (No. 3, Golf Digest) and “Top 100 Residential Courses” (Golfweek, 2007).
Said director of golf Jason Cherry: “Maybe 98 percent of (renovated) courses, their USGA rating goes down. We actually went up; it’s more difficult now.”
One thing has not changed: the difficulty of getting here.
For nine years, Capt. Tom Kaye has skippered the Haig Point I, one of three ferries that make 25 daily runs from 6:30 a.m. to 11:40 p.m. between Hilton Head and Daufuskie. “We’ll take about 500 passengers (residents, guests and workers) to and from the island on any given day,” he said. “That’s fewer than it used to be.”
That’s partly because there are fewer golf courses. While private Haig Point remains, The Melrose Club and Bloody Point Club are shuttered, victims of a slumping resort economy and the isolation factor.
Why has Haig Point succeeded while the others failed? Part of the answer goes to the origins of this iconoclastic retreat, located across Calibogue Sound from one of the world’s busiest resorts.
Author Pat Conroy’s 1970s non-fiction book, “The Water is Wide,” told how Daufuskie Island was home to descendents of freed slaves who created their own culture. In Conroy’s book (and the subsequent movie “Conrack”), he described the island’s poor black residents’ unique dialect, Gullah, which has largely disappeared here; most Gullah speakers now live on St. Helen’s Island near Beaufort.
That isolation began to change in 1984, when International Paper bought Haig Point’s 1,050 acres from owner Charles Cauthen and commissioned Jones to build a course for company employees.
“Haig Point has always been a private community,” said general manager Randall J. Page. “We have 450-500 (members) who are committed to the club, 300 of them fully invested. If we tried to change to a resort model, it would be a failure.”
The club relies on its well-to-do members, who pay $17,488 a year, to sustain it. “They’ll prop up the club to keep it as is,” Page said. “Some say to me if we push it to $35,000 a year, that’s OK with them.”
Clemons is typical. He carries a 3.3 handicap (he likes to point out he was a 1.3 at his former club, Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Club in Ohio) and relishes Haig Point’s severe test. But he insists it can be played by high-handicappers as well.
“It’s a lot of golf course, but we have four sets of tees, so it can play difficult or entertaining,” he said. “When my dad, who’s 81, comes here, we can play and have an enjoyable time,” varying tees and even courses.
That brings up a unique feature of Haig Point: It has 20 holes. “Everyone thinks that’s a misprint,” Cherry said. At the par-3 eighth and 17th holes, players choose between the Calibogue holes over water and/or marsh, or the Haig holes, which offer more room for error). For less skilled players, there also is the nine-hole, 3,575-yard Osprey Course.
Even from its 6,220-yard member tees, the Calibogue course is a handful. In his renovation, Jones removed mounding from fairways and “flashed” the course’s 61 bunkers in a style favored by legendary golf architect A.J. Tillinghast, making them more visible from the tee but also more dangerous.
“It looks like Rees’ work on U.S. Open courses now,” Cherry said. “(The bunkers) are more strategically placed. You can’t play without being in at least 3-4 bunkers.”
Ask Jim Furyk, who played Haig Point with his father, a friend of a Pennsylvania member, during the run-up to the Heritage tournament. Cherry said Furyk shot 1-over 73 with a triple-bogey 6 at the eighth hole, needing two shots out of a bunker.
With those challenges also comes beauty. Playing Haig Point, Calibogue Sound comes into view on nine holes. “You can see the Harbour Town lighthouse (in the distance) seven or eight times here,” Cherry said. “At Harbour Town, you see it once.”
When golf is done, Clemons and friends return to a life with “no cars (golf carts only), no noise, no pollution or crowds. I never envisioned such a place existed, let alone that I would live in it.”
That charm has its price. Of 723 residential lots in Haig Point, only 260 have homes on them. “We had a rush of activity when we first opened,” Page said, “but that population is aging. We need fresh blood.”
Thus, Haig Point is promoting its lifestyle by inviting national and regional course raters to visit and spread the word. The club also stages the annual Rees Jones Collegiate.
“We need more press,” Page said. “Ten years ago, (members) shied away from that, but now they realize they need (new residents).”
Not too many, though: “If I had 50 more members,” Page said, “I’d be set.”
Chances are Clemons will never deal with the lights and sounds and crowds he found unacceptable on Hilton Head. “I don’t leave for a month at a time,” he said. “I have more friends at Haig Point than any house I’ve lived in. Here, your neighbors become like family; we have dinner with someone 2-3 nights a week. It’s a community unlike I’ve ever been involved in.”
Some might find that claustrophobic, the inability to jump in a car and get away anytime unsettling. But as Cherry said, everything is relative.
“I worked for 15 years in Raleigh, and every day I spent 30 minutes on the beltway, white-knuckling, seeing wrecks,” he said. “Here, I have a 15-minute ride, on a boat, watching TV. It’s a lot less stressful.”
Who said isolation is a bad thing?