Golf amid pines and 'gators

When golfers yell "Bite!" here, it has a double meaning. Twenty years ago, when Sea Pines Plantation was being devloped resident alligators were bribed with handouts of marsmallows to stick around for "atmosphere." They've come to confuse golf balls with the candy. So should your ball splash into any of the 17 water hazards at the Harbour Town Golf Links here , don't even think of retrieving it!

Their descendants are still here -- as hostesses, maitre d's, front-desk managers -- for all of Hilton Head Island is today a resort with five "plantations" for guests. Together they offer seven hotels and motels, 2,000 rental condos, more than 100 tennis courts (Stan Smith, Rod Laver, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley preside over a good number of them). And there are 13 golf courses, 10 open to the public.

Taking up the whole sole-to-toe part of the "shoe" is Sea Pines Plantation, heart of the action. Visitors finding the Harbour Town course, site of the annual Heritage Classic, too tough for comfort can relax playing Sea Pines' other two: meandering Sea Marsh and easygoing Ocean. Your medium irons get a good workout there.

Golf is not all. Back of the folksy Hilton Head Inn is a dazzling white Atlantic beach. Hard as cement, it's dotted with bikers, joggers, and a skittering sport new to me, sandsailing. There is also swamp winderness hiking, horseback riding, but best of all is the town.

At the pretty-as-a-postcard tiny village of Harbour Town, sit awhile, reclining in a handy rocking chair. Eye the yachts. Have a tall frosty lemonade. Or a tangy slice of Key lime pie. Inhale the heady scent of honeysuckle and jasmine.

'Gators aren't all. Also to be contended with are dense groves of loblolly pines, bevies of bunkers shored up by boards, wicked islands of sand encircling some greens, endlessly long traps along certain fairways.

Finally, on the 17th, you burst out of the forest to find an elevated green rolling off into Calibogue Sound. (Pronounce it "bogey" and you'll have it right). Aiming down the 18th, toward the TV-famous gaily-striped lighthouse, you're downright relieved to have the game come to an end. And you're not too surprised to discover in the rough a small graveyard.

Shaped like a shoe, this island called Hilton Head dangles off the bottom of the Carolina coast, toe pointed toward Savannah, Ga., heel aimed at Charleston, S. C. Discovered by a New England sea captain named Hilton in 1663, it was originally settled as a cotton plantation.

During the Civil War it was a center for blockade running. Confederate ships sought to smuggle goods out, guns in. Union troops established a fort here, and for three long years the two sides had at it -- brother often pitted against brother. When the war was over, the island was left in the hands of freed slaves.

Not that'sm what I like about the South.

Specific information: Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928. Toll-free phone (800) 845-6131. Three course: Sea Marsh, par 72, course ratings 69 and 70, yardage 5,454 women, 6,075 men, 6,355 championship. Ocean: par 72, ratings 69, 70, 71; yardage 5,408; 6,234; 6,622. Harbour Town; par 71, rated 69 regular, 74 championship, Yardage 4,701; 5,763; 6,650. Greens fees are $16 (carts $12) at the Marsh and Ocean; $25 (and $15) at Harbour Town. Three-day golf packages offered all year round. Rates vary widely, according to season.

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