Local courses doing their part to make Hilton Head Island a golf destination

No matter how daunting or trivial, crucial or secondary, troubling public problems are tackled first with acknowledgment of them and then a subsequent healthy debate about how to solve them.

Multiple viewpoints, varying opinions and, ultimately, true solutions generally result from open, intelligent and passionate discussions.

It's heartening then to be witnessing vibrant public (and at times private) discussions regarding the funding for and direction of the marketing of Hilton Head Island as a vacation destination, and more to the point, a golf destination. It's even more encouraging that most, including elected officials, hope-to-be-elected officials, chamber leaders and the local stewards of the Lowcountry golf industry itself, are not only involved in the discussion but appear to be truly engaged in it.

Limited marketing funds, especially when compared to the island's competition, has taken its toll on how, when and where Hilton Head Island is branded to former and potential visitors.

How to spend those limited resources is also a critical part of the discussion, which has been gaining steam recently as leaders look toward 2011 amid increasing demand for marketing dollars in the face of decreasing resources.

In this debate there's really no debating these are challenging times for our island golf industry, which was certainly the bedrock for the growth of Hilton Head Island more than four decades ago and is equally essential to its immediate and long-term growth.

Creeping competition, a difficult economy and more demand for and scrutiny of how to spend public dollars has put pressure on how to best market the golf experience that is Hilton Head Island. As a backdrop to this discussion, I concede that we need to be fiscally responsible during these difficult economic times and that the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee that makes the critical funding decisions has its hands full. Then again, when it comes to funding, public or private, who doesn't have their hands full?

I will also allow that there are other activities and features of our island that need to be promoted; not the least of which are our beaches, our leisure activities, cultural programs and an incredible natural environment. Not every visitor comes to Hilton Head for the same reason and all our attractions need to be promoted efficiently and consistently.

That said, it is crucial that any discussion of marketing the Hilton Head region has golf at its very core. It's also important to note that while we debate the use of public funds to support our golf industry, those trusted with its care have done more than their share to continue the golf legacy that began here in 1969 with the first-ever Heritage Classic.

In fact, anyone truly paying attention the past two decades or so couldn't begin to argue that our public, resort and even private courses have, at the very least, done their share to help in the struggle. From multi-million dollar makeovers to six-figure investments in infrastructure and customer service programs, aggressive marketing campaigns and a commitment to course conditioning that is equally impressive as it is expensive, those charged with leading our golf industry have been doing just that.

Not so sure? Well, consider the following. During the past 12 months alone, Palmetto Dunes has rebuilt the greens at its Fazio course; ditto that this summer at the Country Club of Hilton Head. During that same time frame, Crescent Pointe Golf Club invested significant resources to refurbish its clubhouse and improve course conditioning and Dolphin Head, a private course in Hilton Head Plantation, closed for the entire summer while it re-grassed from tee to green.

Going back a decade or so, Sea Pines shut down Harbour Town Golf Links for a year and spent millions restoring that island landmark. Several years later, it brought designer Pete Dye back to the island to redesign its Sea Marsh course, now called Heron Point. During that same period, Palmetto Dunes spent a hefty sum redoing its Robert Trent Jones Course and invested in customer enjoyment programs such as air-conditioned golf carts and segways.

At the same time, every course, be it the stand-alone Hilton Head or Bluffton facilities or better-funded island resorts, has spent considerable funds year in and out to market their properties via a multitude of outlets. Sure, the majority of these messages are property specific, but I strongly believe that a true high tide can lift all ships.

It's clear those that lead our courses and resorts agree.

"As a destination and as a region, we want every course to be in the best condition and offer the finest experience possible," Chip Pellerin, head golf professional at Country Club of Hilton Head, said recently. "There is a lot of competition out there and we are competing for the same dollar."

In other words, you can spend all the money in the world (or at the very least what we can afford) to attract people to the island, but we better be able to live up to the story once they get here. While not every destination can say so, around here that question is a moot one.

So by no means an easy endeavor, the solution searching is well underway to discover resources and strategies for a better tomorrow. If there is bad news, it's that there are no easy answers or magic money trees. If there is good news, it's that the product we have to sell is second to none and the attention to the issue appears to be at the forefront.

The question that remains is how to compete in a competitive environment without a truly competitive wallet. The answers are yet to come, but the encouraging part is the discussion is well under way and the commitment is unmistakable.

Now it's just a matter of those charged with supporting our golf industry putting forth the same effort of those that are leading it.