Puckered Up: Raised greens only sign of land movement at deluxe May River

     For many of us, it is a luxury for a caddy to tote our bag for 18 holes. Relatively few golf courses make caddies available these days, and those that do are private – some very private. Second, a caddy is an expensive alternative to a golf cart; a good caddy can (and should) command about $100, tip included. But the benefits to walking your way around a golf course are significant. You get to see the entire sweep of a golf course layout, rather than zig zagging from your ball to your cart mate’s ball (or worse, being confined to cart path only, always on par 3s, sometimes on other holes). Walking helps you with perspective and gives you some quiet time to prepare for your shot. But, also, the constant jumping in and out of the golf cart is a rhythm destroyer, especially if you are playing well. And on unfamiliar golf courses, you can save a couple of strokes if someone who knows the greens is helping you read them. I look forward to the once or twice a year I have the privilege of someone carrying my bag, and I can typically count on playing my best with the extra assistance and the gentle pressure not to disappoint someone who is working in your behalf.

        Caddies (or at least forecaddies with carts) are mandatory at May River Golf Club, part of the Palmetto Bluff Inn and resort complex in Bluffton, SC. The South Carolina Golf Rating Panel held an outing there last week, and I made a point of attending (I am a panel member) because May River is ranked #4 in the entire state by the panel and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. The golf course lived up to expectations, and then some.


May River is a terrific golf course, but it would not be quite as terrific without the guidance of one of its well-trained caddies.  All photos by Lyn Young.


        The course is immaculate, as befits a club associate with an Inn with room rates that average more than $500 per night. Palmetto Bluff always ranks near the top in travel- and resort-oriented magazines that consolidate and publish the impressions of their editors and readers. Suffice to say, if you can afford a few days at Palmetto Bluff, do not hesitate. (Golf fees are in the $200s for resort guests, plus caddy fees that run to nearly $100, tip included.) Otherwise, the only ways to play the golf course are as a member -– you must be a property owner to qualify for membership –- or as a guest of a member.

        The design is by Jack Nicklaus who obviously respected the impressive piece of Low Country canvas he was granted, which includes expansive live oak trees a few hundred years old and marshland typical of the area. My foursome chose the “Cedar” tees at 6,513 yards, a rating of 72.8 and slope of 137. After a few holes, you can usually intuit the instructions developers gave to the architect, and at May River, I’d guess those instructions went something like “make it challenging, beautiful and fun.” In my experience, especially as a member of a Nicklaus-designed golf club (Pawleys Plantation), the Golden Bear has no problem with the challenging part, but can be a little inconsistent with the fun part.  But at May River, Nicklaus and his golf design team did nothing to disappoint his patrons or those lucky enough to play the course.


Some approach shots at May River must carry marsh, sand and a false front green.


        The May River layout appears a bit easier than it actually plays. Fairways, for example, seem wide enough from the tee boxes, but fairway bunkers have a way of gobbling slightly errant drives. (I played from bunkers on three of the first four holes, but only because when my caddy advised, “Favor the right side,” I pulled it down the left, and vice versa.) Approach shots either must fly an expanse of marsh –- “thin to win” is not a great strategy at May River –- or skirt the deep Nicklaus bunkers that protect virtually all greens. One especially nice feature of the green complexes at May River is the mown grass areas around the greens; if your ball finds the fairway length grass between bunkers, putting from as far off as 15 yards or so is a viable option (especially to front pin positions). I saw no stray sprays of grass near the greens to interrupt a rolling ball’s progress.

        You can tell that Nicklaus and his design buddies did not push much dirt around May River. We encountered no moguls or even fairway sloping that would distract from the views of the hundreds of years old live oak trees, the May River beyond or the expansive Low Country marsh areas. The only reorientation of the land seems to be around the greens where areas are slightly sunken, giving the greens a puckered feel, and making shots to front positions extremely challenging. All in all, visually speaking, May River is one of cleanest golf courses in my memory.


Fairways and rough are sharply defined at May River, part of the attention to detail over the entire expanse of the golf course.


        Despite the puckering, the greens were fairly receptive to shots -– as in a well-struck 8-iron, say, would stop about 10 feet beyond the pitch mark -– and as smooth and puttable as you will find. It took me a few holes –- and wasted strokes -– to trust my caddy, but once I did, the ball went where he said it would. May River doesn’t accommodate anywhere near the number of rounds of its upscale Bluffton-area neighbors (Colleton River, Belfair, Berkeley Hall), and it shows in how blessedly clean the green surfaces are. (It helps also that the well-trained caddies are there to fix the occasional stray unrepaired ball mark.) I’d say the stimpmeter on the greens probably read 11 or so; anything faster and the sloping, especially from the front of some of the greens, might have turned a fun day into a frustrating one. May River is tough but never unfair, and for a golfer, that spells fun.


        May River Golf Club in Bluffton, SC, was designed by Jack Nicklaus in 2003; Jim Lipe, one of Nicklaus’ senior designers, took the lead. At its longest, May River plays to 7,171 yards with a rating of 75.6 and slope of 141. The Hickory tees run to a total of 6,065 yards, a 70.7 rating and 133 slope. Women’s tees, called Magnolia, are 5,168 yards, rating of 70.3 and slope of 124.

        Home sites at Palmetto Bluff begin in the low $100s and range as high as $2 million. Homes begin around $600,000 and reach as high as $3.5 million. Annual golf club dues at $5,400 are reasonable for the high quality of the golf course; initiation fees are under $100,000. Property owner association dues of $6,400 per year cover all the standard amenities, including pools, fitness center, boat and canoe access, and tennis. Docks are available for those who bring their own boats to Palmetto Bluff.

        If you would like more information on May River and Palmetto Bluff, we can put you in touch with our highly professional real estate agent in the area, who knows the resort and all the other golf communities in the Bluffton and Hilton Head area as well as anyone (he’s lived in the area for decades). Please contact us for an introduction.