By: Andy DeKeuster
In 1993 Robert Cupp came to Hilton Head Island with a computer and a radical idea. Golf World’s freshly minted “Architect of the Year” wanted to build a golf course that no one had ever seen before using a method that had never been attempted. Utilizing a CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) program that could only plot in straight lines, he produced a layout – the Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall Plantation Club – that is not only unique to the world of golf, but helped change the art and science of course design forever.
Earning his Masters in Fine Arts through the U.S. Army in Alaska, Cupp’s foray into course architecture began at the Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Fla., where he built nine holes. Shortly thereafter he designed the Costa del Sol Golf Club which sits kitty-corner to Trump National Doral. His next big step came when he was introduced to the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who was getting ready to form his own golf course design company. According to Ron Whitten’s touching tribute in Golf Digest, Nicklaus almost immediately offered Cupp the job, a position he would retain until 1985 when he broke away to establish his own business.
After designing a handful of award-winning layouts, Cupp came to Hilton Head Island where he created perhaps his most stunning work of art. To be sure, the Robert Cupp Course at Palmetto Hall isn’t your typical golf course. Traditional green complexes were replaced with geometric shapes (it’s hip to be square), while rolling fairways and gentle undulations were exchanged for sharp angles, pyramid mounds and pointy bunkers. Golf purists might shudder at the thought of bucking centuries of design standards; Whitten was among them when he wrote a less-than-complimentary article titled “One Big Computer Glitch” about his friend’s latest creation (check out Cupp’s heated response). But it doesn’t take long before golfers appreciate the innovative experience. A treat for the eyes and test for one’s skills, the unique layout offers sightlines and visuals that many have never seen before. Take for example the par-4 13th featuring a square green flanked by a pair of square bunkers. Or the par-4 14th with a grouping of sand traps that look more like Tetris pieces than hazards. From a player’s standpoint, the layout is refreshingly new and exciting. Even Whitten admitted his approval during a final meeting with Cupp: “That day we laughed about the butt-chewing, and I had to admit I’d lost the battle, for Palmetto Hall Plantation still exists today in all its geometric glory. I for one hope they never change it.”
Fear not, they never will.
Robert Cupp passed away on August 19 at the age of 76. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Amy-Cupp, their two children, Sengens and Foster Amy-Cupp and his children, Robert E. Cupp Jr., Caren Cupp, Laura Cupp and his seven grandchildren. An accomplished artist (Cupp illustrated Ted Williams’ instructional book, “The Science of Hitting”), writer (he co-authored “Golf’s Grand Design”) and dear friend to all who knew him, Cupp will be sorely missed.
If you’d like to experience one of the most iconic courses on Hilton Head Island, visit https://www.hiltonheadisland.org/golf/golf-courses/ or call 1-800-234-6318. Part of the Heritage Golf Collection, golfers can tee it up for $69 in the mornings and $49 in the afternoon.