Tourism along the South Carolina coast

Hilton Head golf courses hope to tee up new success

The (Hilton Head) Island PacketMay 17, 2013 

A group of golfers play No. 18 at Harbour Town Golf Course at Hilton Head Island Wednesday, April 14, 2011. The course which was the first design for Jack Nicklaus in collaboration with Pete Dye, is one of The State's 18 Classic Courses in South Carolina. Harbour Town annually plays host to the PGA Tour's Heritage Tournament.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Southern Beaufort County’s golf industry has taken its licks from the Great Recession. During the economic downturn, the number of rounds played declined, and some courses were put on the market, eyed for other uses.

Golfers who were cash-strapped couldn’t afford to play as often or pay as much for a round. The number of rounds played between 2006 and 2011 declined by about 20 percent, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

And, as in much of the rest of the country, there were indications that the market was over-saturated with newly built golf courses, particularly those tied to real estate. Currently, about 100 courses a year are being closed and redeveloped for other uses, according to Mike Hughes, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, a Charleston-based trade group.

Locally, Old Carolina Golf Club in Bluffton built an apartment complex in 2006 on land that once was occupied by several holes and a driving range. More recently – just this past March, in fact – the Heritage Golf Group sold holes 2 through 16, comprising 102 acres, of the Planter’s Row Golf Course in Port Royal Plantation to the Town of Hilton Head Island. There wasn’t enough demand to keep the course active, according to Gary Dee, executive vice president of the Heritage group. The town says it has no plans for the property.

And the owners of Hilton Head National in Bluffton recently requested a zoning change that would allow housing, hotels and commercial development on land that is now an 18-hole course.

Bleak as the landscape appears, some believe the bad times have run their course – last year, for the first time in six years, the number of rounds played began inching upward.

And some believe that if the business model is tweaked sufficiently, sound footing is just a 9-iron away.

Sea Pines Country Club’s golf course, originally designed by Arnold Palmer and Frank Duane and renovated by local architect Clyde Johnston in 2001, long had been open only to the community’s residents.

But residents recently voted to allow non-residents to be invited to join the club. The aim was to bring in new members, who will have exclusive access to play the club’s course.

The change had been considered for years, according to Greg Clark, chief operating officer at the country club.

“If you can increase your membership, it just stands to reason that you are going to see gains in revenue and improvement to the bottom line,” Clark said.

Long before Sea Pines Country Club made the change, other clubs had done the same thing. Indeed, open membership is now more the rule than the exception, according to Cary Corbitt, president of the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association and director of sports and operations at Sea Pines.

Only a handful of clubs in the area – among them Wexford Plantation and Long Cove Club on Hilton Head and Colleton River Plantation Club in Bluffton – still restrict membership to property owners.

Changes in Hilton Head Island itself helped bring about the new membership rules, Clark said. As the island matured over the years, it became “more of a town than a series of developments” and it grew a sense of community that extended beyond plantation gates, he said.

Opening the club’s membership to non-residents “goes hand in hand” with that evolution, he said.

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