From the veranda of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff’s bar, the lights of Hilton Head Island seem more distant than 20 minutes by boat. Just down the May River and across the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Hilton Head is home to more than 20 golf courses, nearly 70 hotels, and the traffic jams and tourist traps that accompany such conveniences. But here, at Palmetto Bluff, a handful of country cottages, shops, and homes surround a single, and singularly enjoyable, new course: Jack Nicklaus’ May River Golf Club.
Part of a 20,000-acre development in Bluffton, S.C., May River opened last summer in conjunction with the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a 50-cottage, riverfront resort that includes a spa set on its own island. While the cottages and the community’s homes—despite their Carolina Lowcountry–style verandas and hipped metal roofs—seem a tad too shiny and new for this Southern swampland, nothing about the May River Golf Club appears out of place. Nicklaus treaded lightly on the maritime forest in which he weaved the course, working within the contours of the terrain and leaving the majority of the forest’s wetlands and trees untouched. To preserve the area’s untamed appearance, Nicklaus kept the entire course devoid of signage; bronze markers, sunken flush to the fairways, provide distance details, as do the mandatory caddies for those who choose to walk. Even the tee boxes at May River mix well with their surroundings: Magnolia, hickory, cedar, and oak markers substitute for the standard red, white, blue, and gold.
From any position, May River is a playable course, albeit one plagued with peril. Nicklaus imported enough sand from Ohio to fill five acres of bunkers, and he tooled his greens to resemble the razor-backed surfaces at Pinehurst No. 2. As at Pinehurst, approach shots are better off short than long, and hooks, slices, and other roundabout routes are rarely options.
The trouble begins on the par-3 sixth hole, which, in betrayal of its ranking as the number-17 handicap, requires a carry over a marsh filled with the golf balls of all who have come up short in the few months this course has been open. An inlet of the May River snakes throughout the fairway and around the shallow green of the seventh hole, and the par-4 ninth, the course’s number-one handicap, stretches for 447 yards before ending at the Southern barn–style clubhouse.
Much of May River’s beauty, however, is reserved for the back nine. The par-5 10th hole fans out to a wide fairway from the tee, but an inlet forces a layup on the second swing. A giant loblolly pine, estimated to be more than a century old, dominates the middle of the fairway before the green, which, when finally reached, affords the course’s first view of the May River. After turning away briefly, the track returns to the river on the 167-yard, par-3 14th hole. An alligator-inhabited water hazard is the highlight of the par-5 15th, and the course ends with three long holes, most notably the 550-yard 18th, where a 250-year-old oak marks the left end of the fairway and attracts the shots of those trying to avoid the water on the right.
Adding to the natural beauty of the May River Golf Club is its lack of human occupants. The course is open only to club members, who must own property at Palmetto Bluff, and guests of the inn. Eventually, once more lots have been sold and homes built, a steady stream of golfers may fill the course. But in the meantime, even on a weekend, you likely will never wait to tee off, and other than your caddie and an alligator or two, you may not see another soul on the course.
May River Golf Club