Hilton Head Golf History - Charles Fraser

This year, Hilton Head will raise its glass to toast Charles Fraser, the recognized founding father of the modern resort island. The year, 2006, marks the 50th Anniversary of Sea Pines Resort. Known for years as Sea Pines Plantation, the resort serves as a textbook case of progressive land-use planning and eco-sensitive development.

More than any other single individual, Fraser made Hilton Head what it is today. The impact of his wise-growth philosophy on the island is incalculable. Timothy Guidera of the Savannah Morning News may have summed it up best when he wrote, "If Hilton Head Island had its own currency, Charles Fraser's picture would be on it."

Fraser was the son of a timber baron who saw Hilton Head's forest for the trees and the dollars they would bring in. Joseph B. Fraser headed a Hinesville, Georgia, timber company that had considerable land holdings on the island which they harvested for timber.

Charles also saw the forest for the trees but in a different way. Far ahead of his time, Fraser, anticipating a boom in travel and golf, saw Hilton Head's potential as a great travel resort and residential oasis. He had a radical idea at the time. To turn this run-down outback island into a world class travel/golf resort and a residential oasis required the preservation of the island's rich natural heritage and wise use growth. In the early 1950s, he persuaded his father to sell him and his newly formed partnership 5,300 timber-rich acres at the island's south end. That was the genesis of Sea Pines.

Living and practicing law in Augusta, Georgia, Fraser quit his law practice and moved to Hilton Head to begin to launch his dream. Working long into many nights, he crafted a masterplan for the resort based on the principles he had learned at Yale Law School, notably the use of private deed covenants to implement comprehensive land-use development. As Margaret Greer, author of "The Sands of Time: A History of Hilton Head Island," notes, "[Fraser] believed that his concept could only be implemented if the developer controlled every aspect of planning from street locations to the design of individual houses."

The Sea Pines Company formed in 1956, and the project began in earnest with the building of roads and other infrastructure. Oceanfront lots started at $5,300 but jumped quickly as the development took shape. Harbour Town was built, modeled on a Mediterranean village marked by narrow streets and emphasis on pedestrian traffic.

The lighthouse was completed in 1969, the same year of the first Heritage tournament. Though he was not a golfer, Fraser had long felt that the best way to promote Sea Pines was through golf. The Ocean Course and its sister course, Sea Marsh, were the first of several courses to be built at Sea Pines, but it was to be a while before Hilton Head was to host a PGA Tour event. Fraser was convinced a PGA event would give a tremendous boost to the island. He was absolutely right, as tournament attendance grew from 5,000 that first year to well over 100,000.

In 1968, Fraser called Jack Nicklaus and asked if he'd be interested in designing a Tour quality course at Sea Pines. Nicklaus was interested and called his friend Pete Dye, and shortly the two were hired. While Nicklaus lent his ideas on a few holes, Harbour Town GolfLinks was primarily Dye's creation. With its supremely narrow fairways, huge waste bunkers, tiny greens, and railroad ties, Harbour Town was a dramatic departure from traditional course architecture. At first, the course got a cold reception but gradually Tour players warmed to it. Today the Heritage is one of the most popular events on Tour and the top drawing event on Hilton Head's calendar.

Fraser sold has stake in Sea Pines in the 1983 but continued to live on Hilton Head, serving on the island's council and on the boards of other developments. His planning principles have long been the template for development on the entire island as well as other destinations.

Fraser, who had developed Kiawah and Amelia islands, among other projects, was exploring land in the Turks-Caicos area of the Caribbean in December 2002 when his boat exploded. Fraser died at the age of 73 but not before leaving a huge legacy to the masterplanning profession and Hilton Head to which he devoted his life.

A Great Moment in Hilton Head History: In 1969, Arnold Palmer ended a 14-month winless streak with a victory at the inaugural Heritage Classic at Sea Pines Plantation. Shortly after his win, Palmer was recognized as "Athlete of the Decade." His Heritage Classic win brought instant national recognition to the newly opened Harbour Town GolfLinks and established Hilton Head firmly in the list of the world's top golf destinations. *

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