If you draw a blank when someone tells you they are heading for Fripp Island, South Carolina, you probably aren’t alone. Take for instance Rand McNally’s cartographers. They seem quite unaware that there is a road, albeit only one, leading to this remote barrier island. It is with some irony then that such an overlooked little remove, about two hours down the coast from Charleston, features a golf course that has put Davis Love III squarely on the map as a course designer.
His Ocean Creek course is one of two superb layouts on this small island resort, which seems to float among the low country marshes. The island’s original course, Ocean Point, occasionally rubs shoulders with crashing Atlantic waves. Though Love’s layout is spectacular, it is also prettier and subtler. An ancient coastal forest of cypress, mangrove and long-leaf pine towers along fairways and above holes. Not too long ago, this pristine setting stood in for Vietnam during the filming of Forrest Gump.
For travelers put off by the conspicuous commercialism of neighboring Hilton Head, Fripp Island Resort presents an intriguing alternative. The resort’s GM Ansley Cohen says, “We’re perfect for people who are nostalgic for the Hilton Head of the 1970s. Our guests and residents have discovered that the island’s relaxed pace isn’t permanently gone, it’s just moved up the coast a bit.”
The climate at Fripp Island is identical to Hilton Head, the golf equally superb and it is extremely family friendly. All that’s missing is the traffic. This is because most residents choose golf carts as their mode of transportation to get around the island.
Many of the spacious and smartly furnished rental villas practically dip their toes in the Atlantic, their patios are so close to the high water mark. Or they gaze out on the golf courses. Full kitchens and baths add to the high standard of comfort. And it doesn’t hurt their PR that Fripp Island is synonymous with the first course designed by one of the PGA tour’s most successful and admired players.
Most impressive about Love’s superbly-conceived Ocean Creek layout is that he intuitively understands the native landscape and works with it, often to dramatic effect, where other more high-profile architects could easily have veered toward self-conscious ostentation.
A good example is the 17th hole, a straight out par 4. The first thing that catches your eye from the tee box is the rolling fairway, and it carries your gaze to the green, 394 yards out from the middle tee. But as you survey the landscape to pinpoint a target for your drive, a surprising little observation is inevitable. None of the trees beyond the green is the least bit distinct. This is because these trees are on the other side of a miles-wide marsh, invisible from the tee box, but implied by the tight fairway, slightly inclined green and fuzzy outlines of the trees far beyond.
Earlier in the round, Love paints picturesque holes with regularity. The second is a short par 4 of 369 yards that plays through a chute over densely vegetated wetlands. The tee shot demands to be hit straight as an arrow, with tall Southern Pines growing out of the swamp, aligned tightly with the outer edges of the tee box. Water guards three quarters of the green, including the front.
The par 4 eleventh is intimidating for two reasons. Firstly, and more innocently, water comes at you from the left and right. The cart path, in effect, divides the two lakes en route to the fairway. The real danger, however, arises on the far edge of the water hazard to the right, though not in the form of a bad lie, poor stance or plugged ball.
On this particular day, in the thrall of this challenging and beautiful course, we had long since forgotten the admonition delivered by the starter. And then . . . the splash. From across the fairway, I looked up to see what made such a noise, only to see my partner immediately beside that spot. Any sun that he had gotten that day quickly had drained from his face. He looked like he’d seen a ghost; or rather, thought he was on the verge of becoming one.
No fish, turtle or frog, he quickly reasoned, displaces that much water when leaving the bank of a pond. After he collected his wits, only one mystery remained. Judging by its abrupt departure, we wondered if the alligator was now nervously telling its friends about the two-legged creature heading right at it with a long, glinting blade in his hands. Ironically enough, perhaps it was the gator that was convinced it would be the victim of a horrible slice!
Big things come in small packages on the 259-yard par 4 fourth. This intriguing concoction, with impenetrable woods on the left and a pond on the right, could accurately be dubbed “the Bowl Hole.” Just before the green, the fairway dips down into a huge swale, necessitating a lot of steam on a bump and run play. The green also echoes this effect. Only the back left corner, which held the pin on this day, matches the plane of the front edge of the green. The remainder drops so much that after a heavy rain it might be tempting to place a diving board above it.
An interesting par 3 is the 146-yard fifteenth. Here again, Love proves adept at incorporating optical illusions into his design. A slanting mound of earth behind a creek blocks the green from view, revealing only the top half of the flag stick. Confounding perception even further are a pair of tall pines, which from the tee box appear to spring up behind the mound, but are actually way out of harm’s way, behind the green. A clever and disconcerting set of illusions complicate what otherwise is a pretty routine hole.
Then there’s the finishing hole, where things really get weird. It’s almost as if after 17 holes of sophisticated obedience to orthodoxy, Love decided to let his hair grow a bit. This 500-yard par 5 starts out over wetlands and doglegs to the right. But the two segments of the fairway are, get this, on separate levels and at oblique angles to each other. So, if your second shot comes from the right side, you are forced to hit up and over a bunker-pocked slope to reach the next stretch of fairway. Should you navigate this portion of the hole successfully, hold that exhale. The green is 35 yards deep and so undulant you feel as if the Atlantic is swelling beneath your feet. A provocative hole to end a terrific golf course.
There are several restaurants to choose from on the island, the most notable being The Beach Club Restaurant. A relaxed, casual atmosphere pervades the dining room. As is the norm around Fripp Island, the menu is contemporary, while the prices seem happily stuck in the 1980s. Particularly good this night was the filet of beef with peppercorns over risotto. Cheesecake in a strawberry mousse was an otherworldly pleasure for dessert.
Golf the next day takes you from the beautiful and serene Ocean Creek to the sometimes majestic, sometimes scruffy Ocean Point. The layout boasts two powerhouse holes of inordinate aesthetic quality. At the dogleg par-4 ninth, there is water to the left (a pond) and major water beyond the bend in the fairway (an ocean). The elevated tee box drinks it all in and the view is breathtaking. The offshore wind can be enormously tricky on this one, in your face on the tee and at your back on approach. The opening to the green is quite narrow, with two traps severely restricting the angle to the flag when the pin is up. This beautiful and demanding hole could be played all day without a trace of boredom.
The 18th also vies for signature hole honors. Off an elevated woodlands tee into a beautiful rolling fairway with a green seemingly out at sea, this 486-yard par 5 finishing hole is pure golf bliss. On approach, there is water left and right and the sand trap guarding the left side of the green has a lip that crests as formidably as the waves breaking just beyond.
As difficult as Ocean Point is, oddly enough it is a wonderful course for introducing the game to the young’uns. This, thanks to its designation as a “Wee Links” course. Tee boxes are unobtrusively set up on every hole from par 3 distance, enabling kids to learn to play around the green without having to launch the ball to get there.
Such attention to cultivating a family-friendly environment is typical of the resort. A whole slate of activities caters to kids interests. There are tennis clinics and swim lessons, bicycle rentals and canoe tours. A fossil-finding expedition to the beach might even put the kids in the mood for the shell crafts program. For teens there is a bowling alley, movie theater and volleyball courts.
Be certain, on departure day, to save some time for a sublime urban hike. Charleston is simultaneously one of the country’s most soberly historical cities as well as one of the most vividly colorful. The city’s beautiful residences encompass an encyclopedia of architectural styles. And yet it is quite easy to lose track that you are in a realm of wood frames and cobblestone. Flowers spring out of window boxes and fill sidewalk urns. Sneak a peek down an alley way and you might catch a glimpse of leafy vines caressing the sides of pastel-colored Victorians.
Check your watch. Have some time for a bite before your flight? By all means head for East Bay Street. Many of the top restaurants in a great restaurant town are along here and serve casual lunches.