Rees Jones has completed a renovation of the Ocean Winds course, originally designed by Willard Byrd in 1973, at Seabrook Island Club, near Charleston, South Carolina.
“When it was built it was regarded as one of the best courses in the state,” said Jones. “It’s like two courses in one; you have the live oaks on the front nine, and the saltwater marshes and long views, then dunes holes on the back nine. It’s a very diverse site that enabled Byrd to really use the natural features effectively.”
Jones, with lead designer Bryce Swanson, began the project with a full assessment of the course. “We identified what we considered to be some problems,” says Jones. “The live oaks are spectacular in how they frame the holes but present some issues with overhang. While you can trim them, you can’t remove them. So we had to look at the shade issues.”
“A lot of our changes focused on playability,” said Swanson, in a video about the renovation available on the club’s website. “The original architect had elevated greens, with bunkers in front, so it made it really hard to access the surface for people – it only allowed them to fly the ball onto the green.”
The design team also wanted to address crowned fairways, which had originally been created that way to help with drainage but often punished players by kicking balls away from the line of play.
Another significant aspect of the renovation was bunkering. With hazards to be rebuilt using new technology, Jones and Swanson had the opportunity to review placement. “We could make them smaller and more playable and locate them where they don’t hurt the average golfer, yet they challenge the better player,” said Jones. “We eliminated a lot of the bunkers in front of greens so you have shot options for the ground game or the aerial game, which is especially important when the wind is blowing on a coastal site.”
The aesthetic of the bunkers was updated to give them a more windswept look, too. “Bunkers in the windswept areas of the world, especially in the British Isles, often have an irregular line, so this was appropriate for this coastal site,” said Jones.
Green surfaces were renovated and the seventeenth and eighteenth greens were relocated. “On the eighteenth, we moved the green for better access and to make it fairer, and on the seventeenth it was relocated so you didn’t have a tree impeding your shot, and to bring it closer to the saltwater marsh,” said Jones. “The saltwater marsh is really dramatic on the back nine and I think that we brought that into play. It’s really a wonderful finish. Fifteen is a par three and we did a lot of changes on the tees there.”
“We wanted to make the golf hole look like it was dropped in the middle of the marsh,” said Sean Hardwick, the club’s director of golf course maintenance, of the fifteenth. “We took a lot of the grasses that were already growing along the side of the marsh and ran them through the teeing surfaces and put the pods of the tees in the middle of them.”
The course has six sets of tees, all named after birds, from the 4,674-yard Heron to the 6,802-yard Hawk tees. “Every tee box presents a different course,” said Chick Vladuchick, the chair of the club’s master plan committee. “So rather than having one Ocean Winds course, we have five or six or seven.
“We talk about golf clubs being fitted to a player – well a golf course can be fitted to the capability of the player, and I think that’s really exciting.”
“Seabrook Island Club is a community of very active golfers,” says Jones. “What we, as architects, have to do is to design for the clientele. We shouldn’t be building golf courses for the critics, we should be building them for the people that actually play them.”
Following the success of the Ocean Winds renovation, the club is expected to turn attention to its Crooked Oaks course, originally laid out in the 1980s by Jones’s father Robert Trent Jones.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.