The PGA tour came to Hilton Head Island, S.C., last week for its annual four-day infomercial on the charms of this exclusive strip of real estate. The WorldCom Classic, won by Justin Leonard, was played on the beautiful Harbour Town Golf Links alongside the sparkling Atlantic in chamber-of-commerce weather. Hilton Head couldn't have looked more appealing—an adult playground of yachts and kayaks, fueled by cold beer and spicy seafood served with a dash of Southern hospitality. Television viewers were left with the impression that the Hilton Head area would be a nice place to live, and therein lies the root of a problem that threatens to engulf the region.
Hilton Head is only the most visible part of Beaufort County, the heart of the Low Country made famous by Pat Conroy novels and countless movies, including Forrest Gump. The island's annual star turn on network TV during the WorldCom Classic has helped turn it into more than simply a destination for golf-mad vacationers. The lighthouse framing the home hole at Harbour Town has also served as a beacon for the well-to-do dreaming of relocating or retiring to a house on a golf course by the seashore. "We call it the second Yankee invasion," says Roger Pinckney XI, a writer and community activist whose family—which includes two signers of the U.S. Constitution—has lived in the area since the 1760s. "The Low Country is on the verge of becoming one endless gated golf course community."
Until 1956 Hilton Head was accessible only by ferry and had a population in the hundreds, mostly Gullah blacks, whose West African-rooted culture had thrived in the Low Country since the time of slavery. In the 46 years since the J. Wilton Graves Bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland, about 45,000 residents have colonized the 12-mile-long island, building more than 40 golf courses along the way. With practically every inch of Hilton Head now spoken for, those seeking to replicate the lifestyle enjoyed there have spilled into the rest of Beaufort County, creating a culture clash between the moneyed new arrivals and the small-town ruralists they are displacing.
Last week Beaufort County's latest high-end golf community, Berkeley Hall, was showcased for a select few. There are 404 building lots on the 860-acre property, with homesites starting at $209,500 and going up to $1.5 million for a river view. (Land ownership comes with golf privileges; 366 nonproperty memberships are also being sold, for $100,000 each.) Berkeley Hall is near the town of Bluffton (pop. 1,233), seven miles west of Hilton Head on U.S. 278, the main road that runs through the island and southern Beaufort County. Berkeley Hall is as close to Savannah as it is to Harbour Town, but that has done nothing to lessen the importance of its golf. The 36 gorgeous holes sculpted by Tom Fazio at Berkeley Hall (at a cost of $27 million) have created such a buzz that Tour players Rich Beem, Russ Cochran, Rocco Mediate and Loren Roberts stopped by to tour the grounds last week, while Sergio Garc�a dropped in for a photo shoot. Garc�a enthused that the tee boxes were more perfectly manicured than Augusta National's, while his father, Victor, was so entranced by the practice facilities that he spent much of the week using them to tune up his game.
Berkeley Hall's driving range has its own bar and lounge to go along with a six-acre short-game practice area and an air-conditioned indoor learning center with video cameras and computers. Outside, the members pound Pro V1s while stationed in front of oversized fans. "We don't want our people to sweat," says Duke Delcher, the 1997 U.S. Walker Cupper who is a sales executive for the development.
Until recently this kind of swank living in such a humble setting seemed as unlikely as Donald Trump's building his next skyscraper in Queens. That changed in 1990 when Colleton River Plantation—395 homesites sprinkled around a course designed by Jack Nicklaus two miles west of Hilton Head—threw open its doors. "The tremendous success of Colleton changed the entire landscape," says Delcher. "Before that, if you were on this side of the bridge, you didn't exist." A second 18, designed by Pete Dye, was added at Colleton six years later, along with 300 attendant homesites.
In 1995-96 Colleton's visionary developer, John Reed, opened Belfair Plantation right next door. This was an even more up-market community, built around 36 Fazio-designed holes. Belfair's runaway success solidified the formula for development on the U.S. 278 corridor: brand-name golf used as the carrot to sell pricey real estate. Before the 1990s were over, two more developments went in along 278—The Crescent and Eagle's Pointe—as well as a sprawling retirement community, Sun City. All of these properties have courses at their cores.
All this golf-related building was part of a trend in the go-go '90s. The number of course openings nationally mirrored the bull market Dow Jones as well as Tiger Woods's Q rating. In 1990 fewer than 300 new courses opened in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation. The numbers steadily climbed in the early '90s, reaching 468 new courses in 1995 and a record 524 in 2000. Then came the decline. Only 377 courses opened last year, and the NGF projects that just 325 will come to market in 2002. Yet Beaufort County has remained immune as this golf glut has depressed sales and prices nationwide. Berkeley Hall began peddling lots and memberships in October 2000, when its courses were still piles of dirt. (Today construction is beginning on the 44,000-square-foot clubhouse and a separate, 15,000-square-foot fitness center.) Even with the slowdown after Sept. 11, sales at Berkeley Hall are far ahead of the most optimistic projections, with 280 homesites having already been snapped up—in a recent 31-day period 29 lots were sold—as well as 220 golf-only memberships. The success of Berkeley Hall has encouraged Reed to pull the trigger on his next project, across U.S. 278 from Berkeley Hall. There, on a 3,500-acre parcel known as Buckwalter, he plans to build two, possibly three, communities (with as many as 4,000 houses) and at least another 54 holes.
Says Reed, "We've been successful because we're not just selling golf, but community, too. As a country we're getting back to the basics in life—back to family, back to nature, back to the Lord. We try to encourage this by utilizing traditional architecture, incorporating gathering spots into our communities, hiring very friendly staff. We want it to feel like going back to Grandma's house, where everything was safe and good."
Some locals see a darker side to the sales pitch. "The traditional Southern lifestyle is being marketed, but it is a euphemism for something else entirely," says Hilton Head resident Emory Campbell, the executive director emeritus of the Penn Center, a cultural preservation center and museum that dates back to Reconstruction. "Most of these gated communities are called plantations. There is a certain audience that hears that word, and it excites them." These recent arrivals have been, says Campbell, "devastating for the indigenous population and culture."