October 2012

Hilton Head National

Author: David Tobias

Robert Redford and Brad Pitt don’t run through Hilton Head National Golf Club—and neither does a river. Nor does a road, though over the past several months you might have thought so. The extended Bluffton Parkway did slice off a chunk of the Hilton Head National property, reducing the golf course’s 27 holes down to 18. The road’s route actually only affected three holes, but c’mon, you can’t play golf on 15 holes without messing up an international handicap system. So the choice was either to move a lot of dirt and re-work all 27 or back down to 18 and refresh those to make them consistent in design. The decision was really quite easy.

One of the three nines is gone, but the distinctive par three that fronts on Highway 278 remains. Although it’s unplayable and difficult to get to, it will serve as a kind of three-dimensional billboard for this iconic course.

As sometimes happens, in the grand scheme of things, the Bluffton Parkway skirting the club on its eastern side may have been a good thing. There’s still plenty of space between roadway and golf course to maintain a golf experience that is unlike almost any other in the Lowcountry, and the Hilton Head National ambiance remains untouched. The course now has two entry points and a brand new, more elegant sense of arrival. Still, the only noises you hear when on this golf course are hawks and animals in the woods, because the course was built well back into the forest in 1989. And there’s not a single house on it.

Hilton Head National is a remarkably successful golf course in the midst of an overall down industry. Some of that is luck, but a lot of it is just plain good planning and a willingness—okay, call it determination—on the part of management and ownership to adhere to two non-negotiable principles that have guided its growth: exceptional quality course conditions and smiling, welcoming faces at the bag drop, the pro shop and in the restaurant. That’s perhaps why the course has an enormous number of repeat visitors each year, an amazingly loyal local following and occupies a consistent spot atop the regional ratings.

The idea for this course started at 2 a.m. in Las Vegas in 1988. You can imagine what that was like. A bunch of guys—actually just two, Bill Palmer and Jim McGlothlin—decided they were going to build an 18-hole public golf course on Hilton Head Island. In those days, there were plenty of private clubs and some that were “kind of” open to the public, but there were no pure public golf courses in the area.

They decided they needed a name architect, which also was somewhat of a new concept at the time. They hired Gary Player’s company to design the course so they could hang the Gary Player Signature shingle out on Highway 278 for all to see.
Even the concept of “national” was new. There was Augusta National, of course, and a few “National” airports but no one had claimed a Hilton Head National. Palmer, now president of Scratch Golf, the management company for the course, and McGlothlin the company’s owner, had been in the golf business for a while (their company built and owned Slammer and Squire and King and Bear courses at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida) and both were surprised that no one had used the name before.

These days, in the age of search engine marketing and optimization, it makes them look even more brilliant in the rear view mirror. Hilton Head National pops to the top of almost any Hilton Head Island golf keyword search.

When it all started, both Palmer and McGlothlin decided they would insist upon a few absolutes for this golf course—ways of doing business that would set them apart from encroaching competition. “From the very beginning, our theory and way of doing business was that we always wanted the golf course in perfect shape,” Palmer said. “I never knew when Mr. McGlothlin was going to show up, and whoever was the superintendent didn’t know when I was going to play golf. So we have always had it in great shape, and that helped us get by a lot of humps and hurdles.”

It also ultimately created an exceptional reputation. One of the secrets to success has been that the course has had the same superintendent since the very beginning. Blake Carlyle, who took only a brief hiatus, crossing the bridge to work for Sea Pines for a year or two, helped build the course. Since his return, he has been responsible for that non-negotiable impeccable condition of the course.

Focus on golf has been the overriding key to success, according to Palmer. “This is a golf course,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. All we’re selling is golf here. We’ve got a golf course, and that’s it. We do have a grill; we’re open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, and we have a pro shop that’s fully stocked. But when we work with local hotels, on the island and off, we tell them we only want their customer for a day. We don’t compete as a place to stay. When resorts or hotels send us their business, we’re going to sell them golf. We might want to sell them a hotdog and a cold beer, but we’re not trying to steal their customer.”

As far as competing with resort golf or private clubs, that’s also not an issue, according to Palmer, even though a day at Hilton Head National closely resembles a high-end private resort experience, but at an affordable daily fee rate. “The idea is that our guests become members of our club for a day,” Palmer said. “They’re welcomed as they would be if this was their own private club. They have full use of the facilities; they’ll be greeted with a smile, and they’re guaranteed an exceptional day of golf.”

A lofty promise, but when someone named Palmer in the golf business guarantees all that and exceptional golf, you can pretty much take it to the bank.

Hilton Head National Golf Club is located at 60 Hilton Head National Drive, Bluffton. For more information, call (843) 842-5900 or visit golfhiltonheadnational.com.

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