RiverTowne Bridges Gap in Charleston Golf

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

MT. PLEASANT, S.C. -- Charleston was once one of America’s only walled cities, and it is hard to blame the Holy City’s founders for wanting to keep the outside out. Three hundred and thirty years ago, the black rivers, endless marshes and sticky coastal bogs that are so appealing to today’s Lowcountry visitor were intimidating sights for English settlers used to rolling hills and quaint dales.

Perhaps if the local gentry of colonial “Charles Town” had a golf course as menacingly wonderful as RiverTowne Country Club, they would have agreed to tolerate, or even embrace their mysterious surroundings.

No doubt, this new Palmer Course Design offering in Mt. Pleasant would have had the locals rounding up their meager wooden clubs, gathering up a crop of serviceable pellets, and braving the ever present threat of an attack by the pirate Black Beard just to test their “action” against the best public commodity to hit Charleston since fried pickles.

“There are so many great private courses around here and I really think RiverTowne gives the traveling golfer and the local golfer a taste of that level of golf course,” says Doug Schmidt, President of Charleston Golf Partners. “We are all excited because we need to get visitors thinking about bringing their golf clubs.”

Charleston golf officials breathed a collective sigh of relief when RiverTowne opened in the fall of 2001. For years, one of America’s greatest cities had struggled to market itself as a true golf destination, despite the presence of nationally recognized resorts like Kiawah, Wild Dunes and Seabrook.

Daily fee facilities like Dunes West, Charleston National and Crowfield had garnered local and national attention, but the region still lagged behind Hilton Head, Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach in the upscale, semiprivate course category.

But faster than you can say, “She Crab Soup,” RiverTowne swept into town and was immediately hit with an “Honorable Mention” in Golf Magazine’s “Top Ten Courses You Can Play” for 2001. And in the years to come, as the layout presents itself to more and more golfers and critics, director of golf Chad Leonard believes the course could make its mark as one of the best public access tracks in the state.

“We positioned ourselves to be the treat of the town without having to go to one of the resorts to play,” says Leonard. “It is one of the best courses to play in Charleston, yet it is located in a neighborhood with other daily fee golf courses. So we are giving locals the opportunity to play a resort course without having to drive to Kiawah or Wild Dunes.”

In fact, RiverTowne is just a 15-minute drive from downtown Charleston, but any semblance of civilization disappears along with your first tee shot on the par four, dogleg right opening hole. The remainder of the front nine – right down to the par five, No. 1 handicap ninth hole -- plays through the open expanses of the river basin.

The back nine snakes around the marshes of the Wando River and Horlbeck Creek, and holes like the par four 13th should ultimately secure RiverTowne a prominent spot on the national golfing map. Project architects Harrison Minchew and Ed Seay artfully routed the hole through thick strands of hardwoods and ended it 422 yards later with a green perched on the edge of the marsh.

Like so many of the holes at RiverTowne, the approach on No. 13’s two-tiered green is the most crucial shot you’ll face.

“The bunkers here are so well positioned around the greens, and the marsh tends to sit just beyond the putting surfaces,” Leonard says. “Its hard to discount the value of a good tee shot, but the approach shots here are the key because if you don’t hit it in the right part of the green, you are looking at a long undulating putt. But that is the way it should be on a good golf course. You should have to be a good iron player to score.”

But at RiverTowne, knowing thy irons is only half the battle. Knowing the right tees to play from, possessing a couple shot shapes, and taking a genuine interest in the yardage guide and the GPS system on the carts are just as important as sticking approach shots.

“Players ask for advice and I tell them to study the holes,” Leonard says. “Not everything is out in front of you on this course. For example, my favorite hole is (the par five) No. 9. There’s water in play on two shots and you cannot grip it and rip it. Some players don’t like this the first couple of times, but once you learn this course, you warm up to certain holes.”

Unlike his contemporary, Jack Nicklaus, Palmer the golf course architect never warmed up to the towering, left to right shot shape that marks the design of so many of the Golden Bear’s courses. If anything, the King preferred a lower, right to left draw that would run as far as the day is long.

Whether Seay and Minchew took Palmer’s preferences to heart, or if the limitations of designing a golf course on a sliver of coastal land dictated the routing to a large extent, RiverTowne’s layout is a hotbed of sweeping dogleg lefts, a smattering of dogleg rights, and four of the best par three’s this side of the Ashley River.

“The par threes are challenging and breathtaking,” Leonard says. “They are just awesome. All have forced carries over the marsh, protected greens, and wind that comes into play on a daily basis.”

And RiverTowne wastes little time in flaunting its wares. The par three second hole is the longest one-shotter on the course, playing to 213 yards from the back tees. The green slopes from front to back and a bunker the size of Charleston Harbor protects the front left.

The 8th and the 17th holes are RiverTowne’s true carry holes. The former requires an 80 (women’s tees) to 152 (championship tees) over the marshes of Horlbeck Creek and the latter stretches to 185 from the back tees and is all carry to a horizontal green that’s just 24 yards deep.

“It is a more challenging golf course than most you’ll find in Charleston, and the initial reaction from the players is that they love it,” Leonard says. “We are really looking at making the top 100 on Golf Digest and Golf Magazine’s lists, and I think once the word gets out, we’ll be on our way.”

Where to Stay

The Sheraton North Charleston is a full service hotel just 20 minutes way via Interstate 526. The Sheraton offers a full range of golf packages in conjunction with Charleston Golf Partners. Golfers also enjoy the Sheraton’s golf themed bar and restaurant, an all-you-can eat breakfast, and shuttle service into downtown.

Where to Eat

The Boathouse at Beach Inlet (843.886.8000) churns out some of the best seafood and steaks in town while coming off as something like neighborhood pub. There’s an outdoor bar upstairs, equipped with the obligatory acoustic guitar player, ice cold long neck beers, and “you must be kidding me” views of Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

Downstairs is a cozy dining room with white paneled walls, dark wood tables and chairs, and a wine list to go nose-to-nose with any fancy joint downtown. The Boathouse was a recipient of Wine Spectator’s 2001 Award of Excellence, and sports a list of nearly 50 reds, 40 whites and 10 sparkling wines.


Conditions: 4 (out of 5)
Scenery: 4.5
Par 3’s: 4.5
Par 4’s: 4
Par 5’s: 3
Service: 4
Practice Facilities: 3
Club House/Pro Shop: 2.5 (temp)
Pace of Play: 4
Value: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3.7

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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