Review of the Month December 2020 – Bulls Bay
The Lowcountry. When one considers this geographic descriptor bestowed on the coastal plains of South Carolina, a towering and broad-shouldered hill that climbs 75 feet above sea level is not the first thing to pop into mind. But Bulls Bay Golf Club, whose stately clubhouse and several teeing grounds sit just that high above their surrounds, is not a course that aligns with rational expectations.
With a few notable exceptions, South Carolina golf requires an aerial approach. Bump and runs, overly aggressive tee shots skidding through fairways, and approach shots that must be aimed according to undulations in the greens, not pin placements – these are things you might find on Texas hardpan, the dolomite bedrock of the upper Midwest, or the distant shores of Scotland’s wind-battered linksland. But there they are, fully on display at Bulls Bay, complete with golden autumn hues more reminiscent of Shinnecock Hills on Long Island than Long Cove on Hilton Head.
Mike Strantz’s masterpiece (yes, it’s better than Tobacco Road… though slightly less dramatic) is perhaps the most creative 18 holes within spitting distance of the South Carolina coastline. To be sure, there are “better” courses in the state (Palmetto, Ocean Course, among others), but you’d be hard pressed to find one that requires more imagination and produces more enjoyment than Bulls Bay.
Despite stretching 7,200+ yards from the tips, Bulls Bay is exceptionally playable from its more reasonable teeing grounds. Its spacious and undulating fairways allow balls to release, especially on several holes where hillocks and sloping collars guide and funnel running shots to the putting surface. The greens range in size and character. Under the direction of Alan Black, each putting surface maintains consistent speed and challenges a player to consider breaks from every angle, even when you’ve got a wedge in your hand, not a putter.
Bulls Bay isn’t perfect. There are some quirks that many a modern golfer will find infuriating or unfair: blind approaches, visual deception and plenty of unknowable hazards for players visiting for the first time or two. And for the more traditional architecture nut, the number of forced carries over water may seem excessive, particularly on a couple par 3s that present narrow landing strips perpendicular to the angle of the tee ball (for a low-ball hitter, the only thing more difficult getting over the water is being able to stop your ball before it barrels over the green or into some bunker).
But the variety of golf shots required – or better stated, the variety of golf shots available to the imaginative golfer – make Bulls Bay a course that never plays the same way. The beauty of the grounds also benefits from diversity. The routing bends through marshland, thin forests and dramatic elevation changes, presenting magnificent and expansive views of ruggedly shaped waste areas and a number of bending bodies of water.
In short, Bulls Bay is one of golf’s best-kept secrets. Though its renown has grown in recent years, the vision of founder/owner Joe Rice and the late Mike Strantz, has been given a much-deserved facelift by Alan Black and his grounds crew, and the result is truly something to behold.
Review of the Month December 2020 selected by Editor-in-Chief, Keith Baxter, and sponsored by TaylorMade – click to read more about Bulls Bay. Photos courtesy of Nick Schreiber.