The 15th hole at Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III sits near the Atlantic Ocean.

Only one bridge connects Hilton Head Island with the South Carolina mainland. The seclusion provides serenity and safety, concepts with elevated meaning since March 2020.

The number of denizens slightly exceeds 40,000 and the island encompasses 42 square miles. The math becomes more favorable for anybody with an interest in roaming golf courses for pleasure or maintaining them for income. Twenty-four courses supporting 402 holes inhabit the island.

Long Cove Club
© The Sea Pines Resort / Rob Tipton (Previous page) Guy Cipriano (above)

Courses range from daily-fee layouts to gated residential communities boasting sprawling homes with spacious docks for giant yachts. Golf represents a modern island pursuit. Hilton Head’s first course opened in 1962. It’s unlikely the island will receive another course in the near future. Strict zoning requirements and regulations protect Hilton Head from overdevelopment.

Working an industry job on Hilton Head represents a desirable gig. Consider the case of Brook Sentell, the superintendent at Heron Point by Pete Dye and Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III at Sea Pines Resort. Sentell spent five years as an assistant superintendent at Long Cove Club, another one of Dye’s delightful Hilton Head designs, moved to the western North Carolina mountains and then spent four years as the superintendent at Diamondhead Country Club on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. He returned to the island in October 2015 to lead the maintenance efforts on two high-end resort courses. Sea Pines is also home to Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage and a course that propelled Hilton Head and Dye into new golf stratospheres. Heron Point and Atlantic Dunes start from different points on the Sea Pines property than Harbour Town, which has its own crew led by veteran superintendent Jonathan Wright.

With clear blue skies hovering above and blue waves gently touching white sand in front of him, Sentell absorbs the scene behind the Atlantic Dunes 15th green on a comfortable morning this past spring. “This is what gets me up,” he says. The par 3, coincidentally, is just one of two Hilton Head golf holes along the Atlantic Ocean.

Heron Point
© The Sea Pines Resort / Rob Tipton

Beaches and breaking waves are only a small part of Sentell’s job. Like his peers on the Mississippi coast or in the North Carolina mountains, Sentell encounters myriad challenges. Expectations are high at Sea Pines, where peak-season green fees for Heron Point and Atlantic Dunes exceed $150. “The details matter,” Sentell says. “If something slipped up in Mississippi, it wasn’t a huge deal. Here it’s, ‘Why aren’t the cart paths edged? Why aren’t the heads edged?’”

Sentell oversees a team of around 45 employees, and they are tested by more than detail-oriented work. Freshwater is scarce on the island and courses share treated water. The more people on the island, the more water available to golf courses. The halting of travel following initial COVID-19 outbreaks required even more diligent water management.

“A lot of people don’t think about this, but when you have a lot of people on the island, people are using bathrooms, showers and stuff like that,” Sentell says. “You have access to water going to the plant. Come the pandemic, the influx of people wasn’t here like you usually have in March and April (2020), so the water wasn’t there. We weren’t restricted, but we were asked to watch, and we had to let (local water officials) know how much we were using.”

© the Sea Pines Resort / Rob Tipton

The noise of water whirling in bathrooms is one of the best sounds in Hilton Head turf maintenance. “As long as the toilets are flushing, everything is good,” says Chris Neff, director of greens and grounds at Wexford. The three courses at Sea Pines and Wexford are among the courses receiving water from the South Island Public Service District. Neff or a member of his team communicates daily with the agency regarding their water needs. Average daily allotments range from 350,000 to 400,000 gallons. Besides rainfall — the island averages slightly under 50 inches per year — all water dispersed on Hilton Head golf courses is reused. “What if they didn’t have these golf courses to get rid of this water?” Neff says.

The question is rhetorical, because toilets have been flushing at jarring rates since South Carolina reopened for travel last summer. Communities such as Wexford, a 525-acre development with a lock system leading to the Intracoastal Waterway, transitioned from seasonal settings to year-round properties offering a soothing release for homeowners and visitors from more populated areas. “I have never seen the island as busy as it has been the last two years,” says Neff, who moved to Hilton Head in 2014 after 12 years as superintendent at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Florida.

Neff’s responsibilities are split between the golf course and expansive common areas that include a 37-acre harbor. The crew responsible for the golf course wears blue shirts, the crew maintaining common areas wears red shirts. A high-end development created for exclusivity and limited play, Wexford supported more than 20,000 rounds in 2020. Activity on the course failed to slow in the first half of this year. Members drive their own carts on zoysiagrass fairways installed in 2011. Handling the increased wear will factor into Neff’s decisions for 2022 and beyond.

“The biggest change for us is that if we’re doing 100 rounds, there’s 100 golf carts out on the course,” Neff says. “This course wasn’t built for 21,000 rounds. It was built for 10,000 to 15,000 rounds and you can drive wherever you want.”

Wexford’s immediate neighbor is Long Cove Club, where Ashley Davis landed as superintendent on Feb. 3, 2003. Hilton Head’s population has swelled by 5,000 residents in the last 18 years and Davis insists golf has never stalled on the island since his arrival. “It has been a busy golf destination since I got here,” he says.

But the dynamic appears to be shifting. Davis and other Hilton Head veterans are noticing more homes being occupied year-round. Sitting in an office filled with turf books, binders and professional certificates on a spring afternoon, Davis uses the example of grabbing lunch earlier that day to describe how the island is beginning to change. “Today it took me 30 minutes to get out of the property and back,” he says. “When I got back, my lunch break was over. I hadn’t even eaten my food yet. It’s starting to get busier around here.”

Tactically, Davis plans on altering Long Cove’s fertility program to help Bermudagrass fairways handle a seemingly permanent increase in cart traffic. Unlike the three courses at Sea Pines, Long Cove doesn’t overseed fairways. Cart stakes, ropes and signs are frequently moved to ensure wear is properly dispersed. “We’re going to have to change,” Davis says. “I definitely learned I didn’t have my fertility up high enough going into the winter. We tried our best to keep people from driving on all the shadier golf holes.”

Decreases in shade illustrate another change impacting Hilton Head golf maintenance and management: major storms are a more frequent occurrence. Hurricane Matthew caused serious damage in 2016, Hurricane Irma interrupted the 2017 season, Hurricane Florence grazed Hilton Head in 2018, and Hurricane Dorian produced uneasiness in 2019.

Remember the spot Sentell relishes on Atlantic Dunes? Tidal activity produced by Matthew and Irma reached the dunes behind the 15th green. Matthew arrived the same October weekend Atlantic Dunes was scheduled to reopen following its massive and transformative renovation. The storm submerged multiple holes and delayed the course’s highly anticipated debut until late November 2016. Motivating crews to repair damage caused by devastating storms is part of working as a superintendent on Hilton Head.

“It was a big blow,” Sentell says of Matthew’s timing. “But it’s like any other team in golf, we came out, knocked it out, did what we had to do and got the course opened.”

The impact of Matthew still lingers on Hilton Head. The hurricane caused a subsequent pine beetle invasion. Heron Point lost trees in each of the first four years after Matthew because of the invasive pest, according to Sentell. “You can see one of these trees one day and then it’s just toast,” he says. “That’s how quickly the pine beetle takes off.” Wright, who has worked at Harbour Town since 1998, says the island’s most famed course has lost 500 trees since 2015 because of storms and the pine beetle.

The surviving loblolly pines and live oaks are towering reminders of Hilton Head’s lure. The island has 12 miles of beaches and varied waterways, but even the most active humans need escapes from the sun. Hilton Head averages 215 sunny days per year and average daily high temperatures surpass 60 degrees in all 12 months. That’s enough nice weather to ensure golf will remain an integral piece of the island lifestyle.

“Think about what people are coming down here for,” Neff says. “They are coming here to be on the beach, to be on the water and to play golf.”

Wexford
© Guy Cipriano

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.