The Story of.. Old South Golf Links
Author: Paul deVere
After messing around golf courses (an apt description for the way I play the game) for close to three decades, I have drawn certain conclusions about these places that have the power to make grown men weep (women, not so much). Of the (literally and embarrassingly) hundreds of courses I have played, one of the greatest attributes that stands out for me is the “personality” of the place. A return visit often depends on that personality.
Case in point, Old South Golf Links, Bluffton. I like to think of it as Southern Beaufort County’s “hometown course.” It was designed by a local golf course architect; it is owned by locals (plus relatives and friends), and it is run by locals.
The land it sits on has enough local history that every shot you take on that course probably has a story to go with it. Like the emergency landing strip the FAA got the Ulmer brothers to clear a few decades before #1 hole went in at Old South. It was to be used as an alternative to the new (1967) Hilton Head airport in case the island got fogged in.
Back in 1998, #2 hole was actually used to make an emergency landing. A small plane skidded down the fairway, gouged up the green and settled in the pine trees behind #2. Nobody was hurt. “We had all the media out here taking pictures, and somebody asked if we were going to sue. I said that was an insult. Those people lived because of the golf course,” said Alex Ulmer as we stood on the back porch of the Old South Clubhouse on a crisp December morning. Alex and brother Alan own 51 percent of Old South Golf Links. Alex chuckled. “Maybe that proved we did something right.”
Something right is what Alan and Alex wanted to do with the land they loved. They had been farming it all their lives, running cattle, growing tomatoes, hunting deer. “We wanted the land to remain as natural as possible. The golf course would be part of it but we needed the golf course to survive,” Alex said.
Timing is everything, and about the same time Alan and Alex were looking for acceptable options that would preserve the land, David Staley and his friend Tom Jacoby were “t-ball dads” in 1990. “We were leaning on the fence watching our daughters play t-ball at Barker Field. We’d worked together in real estate at Lighthouse Realty, so we’d known each other approximately 10 years,” Staley said as we talked about Old South at Main Street Realty, the company he founded.
He asked Jacoby what he wanted to do that afternoon. “We both said we wanted to play golf but we couldn’t find any place to play. All the courses were booked. So I said to him, ‘Why don’t we just build our own place?’” The year before, Hilton Head National had opened and was proving to be very successful. “It was obvious to us that the public golf market was alive and well and that people would actually go across the bridge to play golf.”
Staley had experience in developing various types of properties but easily admitted a golf course was not part of his résumé “We’d never built a golf course; we’d never managed a golf course; we didn’t know anything. We just had an idea and depended on personal relationships. It was like a friends and family kind of thing.”
The one thing they did know: They needed land. Special land. Beautiful land. It so happened that Jacoby knew the Ulmer family and the Ulmers had that special, beautiful land. But would they sell?
“A good many years before we built this golf course Charlie Frasier (the “founder of Sea Pines and modern day Hilton Head Island) told us you can’t build a public golf course; it won’t survive. The only way you can succeed is to build a housing development around it. He proceeded to plan a housing development for all our property, from Burnt Church Road and Ulmer Road all the way out to 278. Of course, we turned that down,” Alan Ulmer explained. Alan has an encyclopedic knowledge of great parcels of land that make up Southern Beaufort County and the delightful stories that go with them. When he parses out past land owners, he includes references to “before and after the war.” That would be the war that ended in 1865. When Alan and Alex talk land, it becomes obvious that land is part of their soul.
Turned out the Ulmer brothers wouldn’t sell unless they owned 51 percent of the golf course. “We love the land. We built this golf course because it was about the only way we were going to keep it as natural as possible,” Alex explained, his expression serious. Then Alan grinned and said, “And if it failed we’d just plow it up and plant soybeans.”
Staley, Jacoby and another friend, Jim Ferguson, agreed to the terms. “We all shook hands and off we went,” Staley said. Eventually there would be 34 founding members.
Ferguson and Jacoby raised the funds and Staley got the architect, Clyde Johnston, who had been on Hilton Head since 1980. “I’d worked with David on various Hilton Head Company projects. He asked me if I wanted to part of it. That was the early stage of my career and I had just gone out on my own. Get a golf course in the Hilton Head area? I would have done anything to do the project but, in the end, I just gave them a fair price and a good job,” Johnston said. His “good job” was acknowledged by Golf Digest, naming it one of the “Top Ten New Public Courses” in 1992.
Alex and Alan Ulmer look at the course from behind the Old South Golf Links Clubhouse.
Of course there had to be the person who had to know how to wield a bush hog and get his high top work boots very, very muddy. “My first job here was to take a bush hog and cut the main road in here (from US 278). That was 23 years ago,” general manager Scott Adams said as we sat in his office in Old South’s maintenance building. His first golf related job was to work at Melrose putting in the Nicklaus course. “That’s when I fell in love with the golf business,” he said. Putting in the Old South course was definitely a test of his love.
In the spring of 1991, as the first holes were being shaped, the rain did not cease. “One day, when I was in the construction trailer, you couldn’t see out the window because of all the water. We got six inches that day, all at once. All the bales of hay we had to divert the water were bobbing up and down in the lagoon like marshmallows,” Adams recalled. Everything flooded. During that period of construction, over 40 inches of rain soaked the property. “But we did it,” Adams said. The course opened November 4, 1991.
“We wanted a course that was local and local people could afford to play it. We’ve had a lot of loyal players. People around here know us and know what our philosophy and mindset is,” Alex Ulmer said. I asked him if he had always had an interest in golf. “Golf? Not until they built the course. I thought it was the stupidest thing anybody ever did. Now I love it.”
Far Left:Jim Uremovich, Old South’s Head Professional
Left: Scott Adams, Old South’s General Manager, has been with the company for over 23 years.
While the course is very popular with visitors, keeping Old South “local” is very intentional. “We cater to locals,” said Jim Uremovich, Old South’s head professional. Old South has local rates, a summer league, junior tees and hosts several local tournaments. “I started a pro-am that’s now in its sixth year. I also host the Old South Challenge, a women’s college tournament,” Uremovich said. “This is a fun place to work. And the course is special. Where else can you go, even on Hilton Head, where five holes are on the Intracoastal?”
Uremovich also likes the fact there is history to the place. “Mr. (Alex) Ulmer comes in and I sit down with him and have lunch. He talks about the land when it used to be a farm. That’s another thing that makes Old South unique.”
So is the commitment the Ulmer family has made with their land around Bluffton. Conservation easements adjacent to Old South keep development away from the course. “I think one of the reasons they (Ulmer brothers) did the conversation easement is that they saw all the golfers out there enjoying themselves and they didn’t want to ruin that,” Johnston said. “What an incredible commitment to the land.”
There are more stories to be told. The cows in the fairways in the early days. The wedding that took place last December under the “Grocery Store” oak. Alex Ulmer was the proud father of the bride. Hang out in a restaurant a bit. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cindy or Edison cooking. It will be good. So will the stories.
In the end, it was Johnston who summed up my impression of Old South. “You get a very comfortable feeling there. You just walk in the door and you feel like you belong.”