(Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in “State of the Heart, Volume 3: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love,” published by the University of South Carolina Press, 2018.)
My favorite spot in South Carolina juts into what writers call the “watery fingers” of Calibogue Sound.
By the time I get there, a good 120 strokes are penciled by my name on the scorecard. But on the tee box of the 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links in my hometown of Hilton Head Island, trifles like that scatter with the wind.
Brown pelicans with beaks the size of bateaux dive-bomb into a lagoon behind our foursome. Snowy egrets glide over Spartina grass in the salt marsh. A sailboat quietly cuts through waves as Daufuskie Island slumbers across the wide water of Calibogue Sound.. Beyond the golf hole that seems so far away stands a red-and-white striped lighthouse at the mouth of a marina.
“It is designed to be played in four strokes,” Atlanta columnist Furman Bisher wrote after standing in this spot when Harbour Town Golf Links opened in 1969. “Actually, there is only one way to get there when the wind is presiding. You call a cab.”
I’m not thinking about cabs, or golf. I’m thinking this spot was pulled from thin air and pluff mud to tug at my heart, not produce bogeys and birdies.
It’s true that when Arnold Palmer stood at this spot late on a Sunday afternoon in 1969, he hit a golf shot heard ’round the world. It almost went into the marsh, but one of the most popular figures in American life was about to win his first tournament in 14 months. That was Harbour Town’s first professional tournament, now called the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. Arnold Palmer’s win put Hilton Head on the map. It helped tourism eventually outdistance textiles as the state’s top industry.
But as I squint into the clouds, hoping to see an osprey, I tell my friends, “This isn’t a golf hole.”
They look at me funny. The sun warms our faces as we wait our turn to tee off, and my mind wanders.
I think about Hideo Sasaki.
Sasaki had been interned in Arizona during World War II but grew up to pioneer the concept of collaborative, interdisciplinary landscape architecture to include history, culture and the environment. He was a young man when a boyish Southerner in white buck shoes and a fresh Yale Law School degree strode into his office near Harvard University, rolls of maps under his arm. It was Charles E. Fraser.
Fraser’s family had just bought several thousand acres of mucky land they had the audacity to call Sea Pines and think that interesting people would come there to rejuvenate and build homes, gardens and churches. He found a like spirit in Sasaki, who “wanted people to understand the human needs and natural forces that were working in the landscape,” it was said half a century later when he died.
Fraser also found a like spirit in Pete Dye, a former insurance salesman who designed his unusual course with an upstart named Jack Nicklaus. Another soul mate was Robert Marvin of Walterboro, who said landscape architecture is not just planting azaleas.
Peter Walker, who was one of Sasaki’s young associates when the firm was hired to plan Sea Pines, came quickly to the phone when I said two magic words: “Charles Fraser.” Walker was busy at the time doing the landscape design for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero, but decades ago he helped shape Sea Pines.
“Not only was Charlie entrepreneurial, he was theatrical,” Walker told me. “He looked for things that reach out and touch people — whether it was a place, a building, a program, aesthetics — anything people could respond to on an emotional level.”
Enter the Harbour Town Lighthouse. It was ballyhooed in 1969 as the first lighthouse built in South Carolina in 150 years, but it was never a true lighthouse. The light might come on if you’re low on beer, but its role was to give heart to a community where a community did not exist. It was to be a “there” where there was no there.
I think of Charles and Mary Fraser and their two little girls dashing through Europe, scouring for ideas for their marina village at the lighthouse.. They settled on the influences of Portofino. Mary suggested simple, red rocking chairs at Harbour Town where people could relax and people-watch. She brought ideas for a playground from ones she saw in Harlem.
The Frasers spared a large oak as the marina was built, and called it the Liberty Oak. Tourists taking pictures with the lighthouse in the background might be overheard today saying it’s where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant. Charles Fraser asked a young man to play his guitar under the Liberty Oak on summer evenings. Gregg Russell is still doing it more than 40 years later, with yesterday’s children now bringing their own children to the tree.
It’s all about the human spirit.
Gregg tells about the night he said to a kid, “Say, podnah. Looks like you lost a flip flop.” And the kid says: “No, I didn’t! I found one.”
I think about the marina turning into the South’s greatest party on Saturday night during the Heritage. I can see the Gamecock flag whipping in the wind above Joe Rice’s 130-foot yacht, the Rice Quarters, proving that this is still a South Carolina party. His law partner, the late Ron Motley, used to bring his even larger yacht, the Themis, and peons like me would gawk and try to wrap our pea brains around two South Carolina boys winning a $246 billion tobacco settlement for 46 states.
I start humming when I think of the small graveyard behind condominiums lining the 18th fairway. It’s a Gullah cemetery. Its oldest marker is etched by hand for Susan “Ma Sookie” Williams, a midwife born on Hilton Head in 1861. The Braddock’s Point Cemetery is an often-overlooked reminder of how we got to where we are in the Lowcountry, with many voices and many contributors, some still barely recognized.
I want my friends to hear Rosa Lee Chisolm, who was buried more recently in the cemetery. She rowed her boat up and down Broad Creek until she was pushing 80. She sang as she pulled the oars, her life always in tune with the tide, wind, and moon. I said how much I’d love to hear her sing the old spirituals, but her daughter, Elizabeth, laughs when she says her mother’s favorite song was the Ray Charles hit “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” to be with the one you love.
When I met Rosa Lee Chisolm, for some reason she thought I had come to regulate her fishing habits. “Don’t you tell me how many fish I can tek out dat watah,” she boomed. “Only God put fish in dat watah.”
I think of the CBS Sports crew’s glittering images of ‘dat watah,’ beamed around the world during the Heritage to the assuring voice of Jim Nantz.
I think of the men from Cleveland, Ohio, on their 30th annual trip to this spot for a precious week of golf together. They’re sitting on a deck by the 18th fairway watching the pinkish-orange sun slip below Daufuskie Island with one last, glorious shoutout to a day well spent. I can see them when they gather on the 18th green with highballs in one hand and flip phones in the other, sharing this treasured moment with a new widow back home. They scatter some of their lost buddy’s ashes on this special place jutting into the watery fingers of life.
My friends punch me. “David. David. It’s your shot.”
I pull a tee from my pocket.
“This is it,” I say. “This is it. This is why we live here.”