Feature Interview with Joel Zuckerman
Joel Zuckerman is a golf, ski and travel writer based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. His course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in more than 70 publications internationally, including Sports Illustrated, GOLF, Maximum Golf, Washington Golf Monthly, Maxim, Shark.com, PGATour.com, Travel & Leisure Golf, Continental Magazine, Golfweek and Golf International. A native New Englander, Zuckerman also lectures regularly on the game’s greatest venues and destinations, has made appearances on golf-themed television programs, and does occasional radio commentary. He’s recently completed a book on the golf life in Hilton Head and Savannah. Golf in the Lowcountry was released in the spring of 2003. Go to www.vagabondgolfer.com to learn more about Zuckerman’s book and travels.
1. How and when did golf take hold in the Lowcountry?
The Lowcountry means different things to different people. Most folks would consider Charleston to be part of the equation. My new book concerns itself with the Hilton Head-Savannah corridor, but for this question we’ll also mention Charleston. Charleston is a city of ‘firsts’ in many ways, and golf is no exception. Golf history like all history is subject to revisionism, but there’s evidence that the first golf club in the U.S. ( not the first course) was formed in Charleston in 1786. It was called the S.C. Golf Club and they played on the public area of the town green called Harleston Green. Golf might’ve pre-dated that as well though, as there is evidence on a ship’s log dating from 1743 that eight dozen golf clubs and three gross of golf balls were sailing from Scotland to Charleston. The first golf club in Savannah was started just a few years later, in the 1790s.
2. What are some examples of the first courses built?
There are several Donald Ross designs from the late ’20s in Savannah; Bacon Park, Savannah Golf Club and the Wilmington Island Club. Of the three, Savannah Golf Club is the most desirable. Bacon Park is a bedraggled muni, and Wilmington Island has undergone extensive changes over the years, most notably by Willard Byrd in the mid ’60s. Hilton Head’s first golf course was the Ocean Course in Sea Pines Resort, a George Cobb design from the early ’60s. The first course in the Charleston area still existing is the CC of Charleston, a Seth Raynor design from 1923. Yeamans Hall, another Raynor design in Charleston, is two years older than that.
3. How much did Harbour Town’s immediate popularity with the professional golfers at the Heritage help drive the golf course construction boom on Hilton Head Island?
One factor that can’t be overlooked is that Arnold Palmer won the first event. Even though he was more than five years removed from his final Major at that time, he was still at the zenith of his popularity. That initial event, the Sea Pines Classic, dispelled many false assumptions. It was thought you couldn’t successfully stage a PGA Tour event on a brand new course, located more than 20 miles from a major city, or in the south during football season, or over a holiday weekend. Palmer won in South Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend on a small resort island far from a major metropolitan area on a course just recently completed. It opened a lot of people’s eyes rather quickly.
4. Rolling topography is not a term associated with the Low Country. What are the most successful ways that architects have created interest from flat sites?
The area has specimen trees that are just incredible, and the beauty of the hardwoods lend much of the appeal to golf in this area. At Greg Norman’s design Oldfield Plantation, some of these massive trees have canopies that are 30,000 square feet. While some of the best courses are minimalist designs, earth moving is not totally uncommon. At Berkeley Hall, Tom Fazio concocted a par 3 with a tee box fifty feet above sea level, the highest point in the county. That’s an extreme example to be sure, but some of our better courses have rolling contours or containment mounding that were created by machine. Other than that, it’s a combination of marshland, native grasses and lagoons that keep things interesting.
5. You state that the majority of memorable golf in the area is private, in direct contrast to nearby Myrtle Beach, for example. However, how then do you account for Hilton Head’s on-going popularity as a golf destination?
I think that much of Hilton Head’s appeal stems from the fact that it’s a sun-and-fun destination as much as a golf destination. If golf is your single focus there is plenty of opportunity to play 36 a day. But Hilton Head’s appeal is also about the wide, flat beaches of the island, the roller-blading, biking, fishing, the zoning and building restrictions that keep the island mellow and far removed from honky-tonk status. Those are all appeals as well. Let’s face it—Myrtle Beach has 5 times as many golf courses, but much of its appeal has to do with the nightlife element. Many a foursome can’t wait to get out of their own house so they can spend every night in the Doll House. But both of these South Carolina destinations have succeeded because, each in their own way, they offer much to do outside the confines of the courses themselves.
6. Does the dearth of true water holes on Hilton Head highlight the fact that property sales were placed ahead of the golf as Hilton Head was developed?
I’m not positive that’s a totally accurate assessment. Under the guidance of the late Charles Fraser, the development of Hilton Head was first and foremost done with environmental concerns in mind. The island is bereft of neon, garish signage, and anything that could remotely be described as ‘honky-tonk,’ a totally different situation than at nearby Myrtle Beach, for example. There are some water views on the island, but few that are up close. Many are long looks at the water, creeks and inlets, at places like Wexford and Long Cove .
7. Has that changed? If so, what are some examples of where golf has been placed first and the architect has been given the choice property with which to work?
Well the water views are still at an absolute minimum, but Berkeley Hall is an excellent example of ‘core’ golf courses, where many prime lots were sacrificed so the courses could be routed in an uninterrupted fashion. Here you can stroll onto the first tee and depart the 18th green without having to deal with roadways, street crossings or other typical housing development infrastructure. There’s no housing at Secession whatsoever, and just cottages at Chechessee Creek, so the property was definitely earmarked towards golf. Unfortunately on the resort end of things-the Palmetto Dunes, Sea Pines and Palmetto Halls of the area, is where the housing market might’ve served to compromise the integrity of the best routing options. This neck of the woods, along with Florida, is practically where the term ‘golf course real estate’ was coined.
8. What’s your eclectic all Lowcountry course, being faithful to each hole’s number and not selecting more than one hole from any course.
This is a tough one because so many area courses end in a crescendo. I could practically fulfill 18 holes just by selecting numbers 16-18 on half a dozen courses.
#1 at Belfair West– This is one of the prettiest designs in the Lowcountry, and that’s saying something. It’s a straightaway, medium length par 4, but the fairway is beautifully framed by parallel bunkering imbued with love grass and native fescues.
#2 at Colleton River-Dye Course. This is a straightforward par 3 with as many sand pockets as a golf ball has dimples; many the size and depth of a kid’s wading pool. It’s a visual novelty.
#3 at Secession Club-Long par 4 dogleg left with prevailing wind in the face, marsh down the left, and bisecting the fairway for the approach shot.
#4 at Savannah Harbor—-a strong par 5 that heads away from the cityscape, and towards the serene marsh and river at the eastern edge of the property
#5 at Berkeley Hall-South. This is a challenging par 3 with water left and front to a rolling green. The reason I mention it is because of the adjacent restroom, believe it or not. It needs to be seen to be believed—it’s nicer than half the 19th holes I’ve been in!
#6 at Old Tabby Links. This is a strong par 3 with a tabby wall fortifying the green. Water left and long, sand front and right, more than 200 yards from the Palmer tees.
#7 at Long Cove—a beautifully straightforward par 4; one of the strongest holes on an excellent course
#8 at Berkeley Hall North-This downhill par 3 has a tee shot towering fifty feet above sea level, the highest point in Beaufort County, and it doesn’t really appear contrived.
#9 at Crescent Point. An all-or-nothing par 3 of some 200 yards over acres of wetlands.
#10 at Palmetto GC at The Landings—a long and narrow par 5 where serrated bunkers menace anyone trying to reach the green in two.
#11 at Marshwood GC at The Landings—a dogleg left par 4 with a bunker on the corner, and an approach to a sloping green set in front of the Romerly Marsh.
#12 at Chechessee Creek—This is the only forced carry on the course; a short par 4 of about 350 yards, but the tee shot must carry about 200. The green is fronted by a nasty pot bunker.
#13 at Ford Plantation. A 450 yard par 4 with water right and marshland left to a small, well protected green.
#14 at Country Club of Hilton Head-a medium par 3 to an elevated green where the tee shot must clear marsh and then bunker.s
#15 at Haig Point. A par 5 pointing towards Calibogue Sound, where each shot is to a progressively narrower target.
#16 at Colleton River-Nicklaus. A jaw-dropping par 4 with a green almost completely surrounded by sand.
#17 at Melrose. A windblown par 4 adjacent to the Calibogue Sound where the green juts into the water.
#18 at Harbour Town, of course. Not only a superb par 4, but the target on both the tee shot and approach, the lighthouse, is THE symbol of Lowcountry golf.
9. Please compare and contrast the design merits of Harbour Town to that of Dye’s other nearby work, Long Cove.
The greens at Long Cove are notably larger for one. When you’re on the green at Harbour Town you have some sort of reasonable chance at birdie, but at Long Cove you might have a sixty footer with different breaks. Harbour Town is tighter, as you can be in the fairway and still not have a clear route to the green. Long Cove is less visually intimidating off the tee. While Long Cove’s water views are midway through the back nine, holes twelve through fourteen, it’s Harbour Town that concludes in the more spectacular fashion, holes sixteen through eighteen.
10. Long Cove recently re-opened after Dye performed some work there. What exactly did he do?
There was no routing or terrain changes. The entire irrigation system was rebuilt and new cart paths put in. About 100 yards in length was added, and all eighteen greens were re-grassed to Tif-Eagle. The greens had shrunk some, so they were restored to their original size. The first hole had a new tee built, the 2nd tee was enlarged. The sixth tee was enlarged. The eighth had a new tee added about thirty yards longer. The ninth hole had fairway bunkers changed from 100 yards in. A green side bunker on twelve was deepened and moved just slightly closer to the putting surface. A new tee on #13 about 25 yards further back
11. What are your thoughts on the design at Secession Golf Club?
I think Secession is one of the most unique courses in this area. There was very little earth moved in this Bruce Devlin design, and there are two primary features that make the course difficult—-a windswept, flattish parcel of land and omnipresent marshland on almost every hole. There are definite parallels between Secession and a British Links course. The turf is kept quite firm, the wind will often wreak havoc with shots, and the greens are mostly open in front, allowing run-up shots as a real option. The marshland is Secession’s answer to the ‘rub of the green’ as well. It’s almost impossible to negotiate 18 holes here without at least one or two visits to the marsh. In some cases you can walk well off the fairway and find your ball sitting up beautifully, on dry reeds, perfectly playable. Other times you’ll miss the fairway by a few yards and the ball will be lost or unplayable, buried in the muck. It’s a fine test of the game, but the membership,
clubhouse and professional staff are world-class. Because of the caddie-only requirement, the club attracts a disproportionate number of excellent players. Two thirds of the 750 members are single digit players, and 150 are 3s or lower. If the course was the equal of the club environment it would be an unbelievable golf experience. As it is, it’s very, very good.
12. Did you discover any little known gems in the area?
The most underrated public access course is probably Melrose, by Jack Nicklaus. It’s a rugged and rustic track with almost no parallel fairways and a dynamite waterside finishing trio out on Daufuskie Island. On the private side, Arnold Palmer’s Old Tabby Links is little known but much admired. It’s a very exclusive, big money development on Spring Island. Not many folks know about it, which is the way the members like it, I’m sure.
13. What courses encourage walking or is it all cart ball golf?
Walking has made a resurgence in the area in recent years, I’m happy to say. The bellwether is of course Secession, where walking with a caddie is mandatory. Chechessee Creek is eminently walkable and has a caddie program. Oldfield Plantation’s members often use ‘speed carts’, those fancy pullcarts, to get around. Berkeley Hall offers caddies or forecaddies, and I was shocked to hear from the Long Cove superintendent that about 40% of their play is ambulatory. Notice that every course mentioned is private, though.
14. How would you compare the design efforts of Nicklaus and Dye at their two courses at Colleton River?
In a single sentence, Nicklaus produced a traditional test, while Dye’s is more avant-garde. Several island greens on the Nicklaus. The Dye Course, particularly on the back nine, is more of a wide open, links style course. Wind is a bigger factor on the Dye. Lots of mounding on the Dye, with about 250 bunkers in total, while Nicklaus has less than a 100. Centipede grass at the Dye Course makes chipping consistently a problem, and the greens have significantly more undulation than at the Nicklaus. Generally speaking, shorter and straighter hitters do score better at the Nicklaus Course, while longer and more erratic players won’t be in quite as much trouble on the Dye. It’s a really nice combination of facilities. I should add that of all the premium golf available in this area, my single favorite course is Colleton’s Nicklaus.
15. What prompted you to write Golf in the Lowcountry?
The flip, one sentence answer is this: I wanted to write a book without actually having to write a book. To elaborate further, I had amassed a voluminous amount of material in writing my weekly column for the Carolina Morning News over time; course reviews and personality profiles in particular. I also had many essays collected from working for Washington Golf Monthly, Georgia Golf News, and other outlets. I knew there was no book like the one I envisioned available, and that with about one million visitors annually, I could write a regional book that would be commercially viable. It doesn’t have to sell in Massachusetts or Michigan, for example, because golfers from Massachusetts and Michigan beat a path to our door.
16. How is Chechessee Creek different to some of the other golf courses built in the past decade in the Lowcountry?
Crenshaw and Coore built something of a throwback course, a real minimalist design. There’s no artifice, and the day the course opened it looked like it had been sitting there for fifty years. It’s a pleasure to play for golfers of all levels. The fairways are wide, there’s almost nowhere on the course to lose a ball in a hazard, so less skilled players won’t be intimidated. But the bite is on and around the pushed up greens, so strong players hoping to score well have to be exacting in their approaches, or be deft chipping and pitching. It’s really one of the most enjoyable courses in the area, and the fact that a normal day might only be 6 or 8 foursomes in total makes it even better. You can leisurely play 36 holes as a twosome with a caddie in six hours time, including a light lunch between rounds.
17. What are the best examples of residential courses where the houses don’t intrude on the play and the courses remain walkable?
Secession Club most certainly, as there’s no housing at all. Chechessee Creek about the same. On the real estate front, Berkeley Hall is the forerunner, as their two Fazio courses are ‘core’ courses, with all housing and infrastructure on the perimeter of the courses. Public access examples would include Eagle’s Pointe, a Davis Love III design that doesn’t have an abundance of housing. Also the Club at Savannah Harbor. It’s a unique golf experience, as the course plays in the shadow of downtown Savannah, practically under the Savannah River Bridge. But many of the holes are isolated, far from the usual distractions one normally associates with a resort course in an urban area.
18. This is a golf architecture web site and as such, it attracts those that have a keen interest in golf course architecture. Is the Low Country a worthy destination for those with such an interest? If so, please detail the ideal six day golf trip to the Low Country for a group of golf architecture students/fans.
The answer to that question is predicated on one single factor—how much access an architecture aficionado has to the high end private courses. In all honesty I wouldn’t be quick to recommend the area if the only courses available were public access and resort. Certainly Harbour Town Golf Links is worth a visit, with its twisting playing corridors, tiny greens and notable bunkering. The design was a radical departure from what was being built at that time in the late ’60s. Also Jack Nicklaus’ Melrose Course on Daufuskie Island is interesting. The feeling of remove is palpable, and the finishing holes by the water are wonderful. Beyond those two examples, I would have to focus on the private sector to truly make a pilgrimage to the area worthwhile. Close by Melrose is an absolute gem by Rees Jones called Haig Point. The course winds from inland hardwoods out to the water, then back again and out to the water once more. Long Cove is another Dye design on Hilton Head that is the equal of Harbour Town in many opinions. The Nicklaus Course at Colleton River is my favorite in the area. It’s a traditional, championship test with at least a dozen excellent holes, and the final five are just lovely. Both Chechessee Creek and Secession are must-sees as well, particularly because they are both so understated in their design philosophy. Lastly, the Ford Plantation, south of Savannah, is a little-seen Dye design with radically different nines. The front is traditional routed through corridors of hardwood, while the back nine was reclaimed from Henry Ford’s former lettuce field. It’s treeless, windswept, and full of odd mounding. It’s pretty unique. That’s eight courses in total; two public access and six private—That should be enough for even the more ambitious architecture buffs!