There was no electricity until 1950. And the first integrated school didn’t open until 1974.
Hilton Head Island, S.C., which was home to agrarian humans a thousand years before Ramses ruled Egypt, didn’t officially enter the modern age until after Nixon resigned. Before that, it was a seasonal farming village for Native Americans; then a colonial outpost (Capt. William Hilton took great pride in naming the headland island after himself as he sailed from Barbados into Port Royal Sound); then a series of long-strand cotton plantations; then a base for Union soldiers during the Civil War and American Marines during World Wars I and II.
Now, there are 24 golf courses (40 if you count those in nearby Bluffton, S.C.) and 366 restaurants on the 12-mile-by-four-mile strip of land north of Savannah, Ga., and south of Charleston, S.C. None of them are more than 60 years old.
The candy-cane lighthouse at Harbour Town, the most iconic image on the island, has never worked. It’s always been a tourist attraction with 114 spiraling steps leading a large portion of the island’s three million annual visitors up 90 feet to the see Calibogue Sound and Daufuskie Island in the distance.
Jack Nicklaus worked with an upstart architect named Pete Dye to create Harbour Town Golf Links, even though the land on which the course sat would not qualify as linksland in the traditional sense.
It’s not the only lighthouse on the island, though, nor was it the first. Tucked in a thicket of pine trees near one of the greens on the back nine at Palmetto Hall (a residential area near what natives refer to as mid-island) and lost to all but the most avid history hunter, stands Leamington Lighthouse, built in 1878 on the old Leamington Plantation to guide ships into the sound. That lighthouse worked for almost a hundred years. In fact, in the 1940s, U.S. Marines stood up Camp McDougal around the Leamington Lighthouse where they watched the Atlantic for German U-boats.
After the war, the island went back to its agrarian roots. In 1953, the year Ben Hogan won his last Masters, Hilton Head had 500 residents, more than 90 percent of them descendants of slaves freed by the Union troops who occupied the island seven months after the first shots at Fort Sumter.
The residents called themselves the Geechee people, with their own language called Gullah, a mixture of African and southern slave dialect that remains indecipherable to most non-natives. The neighboring island, Daufuskie, still only accessible by boat or helicopter, was a Gullah word. It is the first key island in the South Carolina chain. If you imagine an old Geechee native saying “the first key,” you see where Daufuskie got its name.
The bridge in 1956 changed everything. A developer named Charles Fraser started at the southern end of the island, building Sea Pines, the gated community where Harbour Town is located. Jack Nicklaus worked with an upstart architect named Pete Dye to create Harbour Town Golf Links, even though the land on which the course sat would not qualify as linksland in the traditional sense. As late as 1990, some Geechee residents claimed to have once picked okra and watermelon from fields where the 17th and 18th holes now sit.
Arnold Palmer hit the first shot at Harbour Town in 1969. A colonial-clad resident fired a signal cannon as Arnie made contact. It was louder than the King expected and he almost fell down as he stepped out of his corkscrew finish. Four days later, Palmer won the inaugural Heritage Classic, shooting 1-under par and beating Bert Yancey and Dick Crawford by three shots.
The island grew and the natives receded. Highway 278, once as narrow as a cart path through a canopy of yawning oaks, became just another four-lane in Resortville USA. Fraser continued to build. Bobby Ginn moved in and then out. Hilton. Hyatt. Marriott. They all came. Developers, oblivious to the social implications, divvied up the island into large parcels they called “plantations.” It remained so into the new millennium.
In 1989, the Tour Championship (then called the Nabisco Championship) was played at Harbour Town. Curtis Strange stayed on his boat near the lighthouse that week. Tom Kite beat Payne Stewart in a playoff.
Earlier in the week, Greg Norman, who also stayed on his boat, got into an argument with another yachtsman about who had the fastest craft. So, they took them into Calibogue Sound and raced. One of the bartenders at a tavern called The Quarterdeck underneath the lighthouse acted as bookie as hundreds of dollars and scores of beers were bet on the outcome.
Norman had the fastest boat. By far.
That Saturday night, with Stewart and Kite set to battle it out the next day, an egret sat motionless in the fall sunset beside the 18th green, just as the species had for centuries. A few miles away, at a small brick building in the middle of the island, an old Geechee named Harold cooked his famous Double Special, two hamburger patties with a fried egg and homemade mustard in between. Harold’s place sat no more than 30 people and was almost always packed. As he put the bulging burger on the counter, Harold asked one guest if he’d been to the golf course, which in Gullah, was indistinguishable from Gulf Coast – both came out “guffcoos.”
The patron said he had, indeed, been at the tournament and then casually asked Harold how business was going. “Good, always good,” the old man said. “’Til da day they build a guffcoos right here,” he said, pointing to his own concrete floor. “Then I guess they run me away … like ever’body else.”
The Beach Pounders, a U.S. Coast Guard mounted beach patrol, trains on Hilton Head Island during World War II. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
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