Isolated from the many other courses laid out along the South Carolina coast, the Arnold Palmer-designed Old Tabby Links course lies at the centre of an exclusive residential complex that has received many plaudits since it first opened in 1993.
The anticipation mounts leaving Hilton Head behind, driving past huge expanses of marshland to Callawassie Island, then on through dense woodland over the bridge to Spring Island, where the golf course finally comes into view.
The front nine at Old Tabby Links are routed through oak woods before the landscape changes dramatically on the back nine, with holes 10 to 15 laid out on what were once quail hunting pastures, followed by the last three holes that open out past marshes leading to the Chechessee River.
Many consider the 9th hole – where the Tabby Ruins lie to the right of the fairway, across a large pond – as one of the best risk reward par fives in the Palmetto State while the par three 17th is regarded as one of the 18 best holes that the great Arnie has ever created. Sited on a narrow peninsula, the green is guarded by a natural, spring-fed pond on the left and a deep bunker front right with the salt marshes of the Chechessee River to the rear.
Brandon Johnson, Senior Golf Course Architect with Arnold Palmer Design oversaw the renovation of this course starting in 2012 to date, as recently as two years ago some additional visualization bunkers were added most notably on hole # 7 - formerly a banana-shaped hole without visual reference. The design attribute is Arnold Palmer. This course shows the folly of “Professional Golfers as Golf Course Architects”; their designs are wholly dependent on associate architects who rarely get credit. Ed Seay gets much credit here, but Brandon Johnson is mostly responsible for the current course.
I don’t do a hole-by-hole list of 1-18 despite having a memory to so allow, I find that tedious to read in courses I have not yet played, so I don’t offer that. I’ll prefer a few highlights and overall course ethos examination in my reviews, of which I hope to add many this summer. This is a player’s course, it is required to possess a very wide variety of shots, so it’s not a boring smash and grab and it’s not at all unfair.
The first nine at this course is more closed in borderline claustrophobic in spots due to treed corridors typical of the low country. The second is built on more sandy land that formerly was used as a cotton plantation. Plantation (now a dirty word in 2020) but respecting history as it occurred, there is evidence of the manor house, the mill, long ago planted avenues of live oak trees and the obvious post-agricultural nature of the second nine. I play here quite a bit and I prefer the second nine, but it would be fallacious to say the first nine is not great golf grounds as well.
The course finishes on a beautiful waterfront with 16 green, 17 (The visual signature offering of real estate ads) par 3 and the 18th - all with long views of Port Royal Sound past the Colleton River. The Port Royal Sound is historically important in the US Civil war of the mid-19th century. Other than this finish the course is landlocked on the spectacular Spring Island. It is not unfair to call this a true nature preserve. Architecturally significant homes are gently placed, and it is noted that the club membership bought all the building lots that would have allowed homes visible behind greensites to preserve the golf grounds.
Taken from the club’s website:
Since 1999, Old Tabby Links has been involved with the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf (ACSP) an initiative that protects the environment while working to pursue the natural heritage of the game of golf. Because of rigorous standards, only 784 courses hold the designation worldwide. Spring Island is extremely proud of our designation. During his recent site visit, Frank LaVardera with Audubon International said, “Spring Island sets a great example of what an ACSP Certified Course should look like.”
One accesses OTL by a long causeway and residential drive past the Chechessee Creek Club, onto Callawassie Island where there are 27 holes separate from the other two courses mentioned. It is a very long drive (1:15-1:45 from Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island), so be aware if you can arrange a game here, it is well worth that drive.
A wide variety of differing Par 4 holes make a strong backbone with the domed green on the first, the water all on the right second to the beautiful18th with a clever bit of shaping in the surrounds and of the putting surface itself. Many holes are visually attractive, some are clever including everyone’s favourite kind of Par 4 lately the “Potentially driveable 11th. #1 and #16, side by side in the routing go opposite directions but share multiple teeing grounds and angles, the 16 having a large contoured Island green that is not at all gimmicky.
Par 3 holes range from the PW 3rd to the frightening 16th tilting waterside. Water or wetlands is in play on the quartet, although green contours can help feed the ball to seemingly impossible pin locations. Strategic Par 3’s indeed, the lot of them.
The four Par 5 holes to make a standard Par 72 total range from a cart before the horse design #4, to dead straight and slight double dogleg. I particularly admire the 12th, strategically dictated by a very large oak on the right mid-fairway to a green hard to the water, but again with appropriate ground contours. I will disagree with the “risk-reward” nature of #9 given on the splash page for this club, this I believe being the very first visitor’s review. It is straightforward and fairly easily reachable with clever green being the foil.
Holes of note: and their par x(x)
5 (4) another potentially driveable setup
11 (4) described
This course is visually stunning, highlighting and inseverable from nature. It is strategic and stimulating and is lost on this site’s list of Best in South Carolina behind at least six courses inferior to it. It suffers from lack of exposure, that exposure is unlikely to change soon.
The hole shown is #17 - I'll add some additional photos from my collection.
I'm torn between 4.5 and 5 balls, however I am conservative in my voting.