Course: My second round in Hilton Head was to be one of the highlights of this season; the illustrious Harbour Town Golf Links, Pete Dye’s gem in the lowlands (with design consulting by Jack Nicklaus). H Town is the yearly PGA tour stop for the RBC Heritage, which is played the week after the Masters and the winner dons not a green jacket, but a plaid one. It is ranked 42nd in the top 100 U.S. Courses by Golf Magazine and 81st in the top 100 courses in the world, also by Golf Magazine. Built in 1969 in Dye’s early stages as an architect, it was the second course where Dye heavily consulted with Nicklaus (with the first being The Golf Club in Ohio). Dye had visited Scotland in 1963 and the style of those courses, including pot bunkers, bulkheads, large undulating greens and blind shots, influenced his designs from there on out. Through the years, Harbour Town has maintained its status as a well known, highly regarded, classic course.
So what exactly makes Harbour Town so great? It’s not the spectacular views, as most of the course meanders among trees and houses, with only the famous Eighteenth along the water. The land is mostly flat, so there are no high points or dramatic par 3’s, like you’d get at Pebble Beach or Chambers Bay. If you ever watch the RBC Heritage, you’ll hear the announcers throw out the term, “shot maker’s course” about a billion times. Although correct, it could mean you have to shape shots, or simply execute them well, to score here. What I came away with from my round here is that Harbour Town is great because it is a very, very well designed course. Every hazard and obstruction is beautifully placed on each hole to make you think and work on every shot. Although the course demands to be played a certain way, by no means is it unforgiving. It allows opportunities for recovery, but strikes a wonderful balance of protecting par and rewarding birdie while keeping bogey and double bogey in play with a couple bad shots. I enjoyed the round because of how much it made you think and strategize.
Harbour Town is known as a difficult course, but I found it more forgiving than I expected. The fairways seem narrow, but are much wider than they look and there is a lot of room in the trees and beyond so you can punch back in the fairway. The greens are very small and greenside hazards are plentiful and diverse, so approach shots are tough for sure. At the same time, landing off green provides you a lot of chances to scramble, so a sharp short game is necessary. I didn’t find putting all that tough, but I was also chipping pretty well, per my strategy for the round. But the greens are so small and I believe Dye provides a small reprieve with the greens, so I’d say they’re generally they are not overly difficult. I’ll also say I found the course a lot more scenic than I thought I would. The enormous oak trees and Spanish moss made for beautiful surroundings that we don’t see too much up in the Philadelphia area.
I had read a lot about the course before my round to find out what to expect. Based on what I read, I planned on relying on my short game a lot by laying up for shorter approach shots and keeping it as straight as possible. I showed up at the range a good time before my round and worked a lot on my short game, chipping, pitch shots, as well as my 3W, as I thought driver might be too erratic on most holes. It was one of the better warm up sessions I’ve had and I was as prepared as I possibly could be for a round of golf. With my only goal to make a decent showing here, I met up with the forecaddie and the three gentlemen I would be playing with.
The forecaddie is required for anyone using a cart. The course is CPO, so the arrangement is very similar to the Coeur D’Alene Resort course. The course is not charted for GPS, so you are are relying on the forecaddie, a yardage book, or range finder, for distances. As I do not have a range finder and am terrible with yardage books, I had to rely on my forecaddie for distances, which will be discussed a little later. At any rate, with the forecaddie on the First fairway giving us the green light to tee off, I began my round at my first course in the world’s top 100.
The First is a 392 par 4 (from the Blues). By the way, the tee system here is excellent, giving everyone an opportunity to play the course. Alice Dye is a big proponent of Ladies’ tees being just as inventive and alluring as Men’s tees, which I believe is seen here. The hole is straightaway, but favors going up the right side to avoid some encroaching trees on your approach. Trees line the entire hole on both sides and it’s a nice muted example of what to expect throughout the round.
The Second is a 495 yard par 5. It’s a dog leg right with cross bunkers at the turn, but a larger waste bunker area along the right side of the hole. The term, “waste bunker” actually originated here. There were bunkers that were literally in reclaimed sewage areas that were referred to as waste bunkers and it ended up sticking from then on to describe a lot of different large bunkers.
Of course, I ended up in one on this one, you know, just to check it out for my review, not because I pushed my second shot. After I hit it, a ranger was driving by and told me you can ground your clubs in the waste bunkers. If there aren’t rakes, it’s a waste bunker and ground away. Would have been nice to know before my shot; maybe I should have come out here with a caddie to tell me things like this. Oh wait, I did and he tells us about the waste bunkers on the Third green. I could tell this guy is really mailing it in already.
The Second green, from the right side of the hole. I love this photo only because one of the guys in our foursome is hitting out of the waste bunker, not grounding his club, and the forecaddie is already on the green, 15 yards away, and doesn’t tell him he could ground his club. I think the guy ended up in the bunker 5 yards in front of him, but then pulled off a nice sand shot.
The Third is a 411 par 4. Thus far, the course is stretching its legs and giving you enough to handle without killing you. It’s a good way to get you into a challenging round. The hole dog legs left and there are waste bunkers on the right, with more bunkers on the right of the green. A great designed hole, you need to stay right to line up a good line to the green, which is tucked in to the left, without going too far right into the waste bunkers. And trying to avoid the bunkers by going too far left takes the green out of play by trees. With the smaller greens and hazards surrounding the greens, the best line for approach shots is highly valued here, which dictates your tee shot. So in sum, stay right, but not too far right, and make sure you get your distance correct with the approach shot or you have a tough scramble ahead of you.
A little longer second shot. Note the bunkers on the right and the trees jutting out on the right and yielding on the left
The Fourth is the first par 3 at 187 yards. All of the par 3’s here involve creative use of water hazards and the Fourth is no exception. What looks like a burn or canal crosses the hole from a 5:00 angle to an 11:00, then gets wider, surrounding the green on the front and the left. This effectively eliminates hitting it short or left. And going right isn’t any better, with trees, bunkers and the green running away to the water makes any chip from that side tough. A draw is probably the best shot, so that the balls runs towards the hole once it lands and leaves you with a preferred uphill putt.
The Fifth is a 511 yard par 5 that dog legs left, then has the green tucked in to the right of the fairway. One of the wider fairways on the course and the second and third shots are fraught with the possibility of going into one of the many bunkers or hitting one of the various trees on your way to the green, which is tiny. After a great drive, the forecaddie gave me invaluable insight that the green was “250 yards away.” Thanks! Hey, in case I come up short, how far are the bunkers in front of the green, how far is it to the area to the left, which looks like a good place to lay up? How far to those trees encroaching on the right side in case I want to hit short of them? No luck getting any of that info. Regardless, I parred the hole, despite the forcaddie’s efforts. By the way, the hazards I mentioned are what make the course great. I had so many options on that second shot to ensure the best approach shot, but had to think through all of them.
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory
The Sixth is a 404 yard par 4. The hole curves right to the green, with a waste area on the left and bunker on the right near the tee landing area. You must get your tee shot out there to get a good look at the green. The trees on this hole do a great job of reducing the playable landing areas for both shots to force precision and the dog leg forces a longer approach shot, unless you can power fade it around the trees from the tee.
Moving down the fairway. That single tree narrows the preferred tee landing area even more
The Seventh is a 172 yard par 3. A large bunker wraps around the entire front and sides of the green while water is in front of the bunkers to collect thinned or chunked shots. Anything too far left or right ends up in bunkers and in trees. The miss here is probably long. I loved the assortment of trees on this hole.
The Eighth is a 435 yard par 4. Now we have a dog leg left with a generous tee landing area with pine straw encroaching the fairways before the trees. The green is tucked into a nook with water on the left and rough on the right. It’s the number 1 handicapped hole, which is likely due to the green complex and approach shot.
I loved the oak tree hanging out next to the Eighth tee
At the dog leg, looking at the distant green
The Ninth is a 322 yard par 4. I felt this was one of the tougher holes on the course, as the fairway was one of the narrowest and you had to go up the right side, with the left side essentially dead, as the green is set on the left and there are trees blocking any type of shot from that side of the fairway to the green. Then you have the irregular shaped green, where putting can be very difficult if you’re on the far side of the green from the pin. I liked this hole a lot and think its one of the more extreme examples of Harbour Town’s design themes.
Approach shot territory
A look at the green from the clubhouse porch. It’s boomerang shaped and you can see just how blocked out the left side of the fairway is.
I found the front nine to be a very solid set of holes. They don’t have the fame or sex appeal of the back nine, but are very well designed and provided a strategic challenge. I was surprised at how well I was hitting my driver and how much room the landing areas were, which helped with my approach shots. The course allows you to make recovery shots and rewards great short game work, all of which were quite effective throughout. There was not a weak or mediocre hole in the bunch. I’d rank them 9, 5, 8, 4, 2, 3, 7, 6, 1.
The back nine starts with the 421 yard Tenth. The fairway is generous, especially to the right, but there is water on the left coming into play off the tee. There are trees that block you out if you’re too far over on the right, forcing the water to become more relevant than you’d prefer. The green allows the old bump and run approach, so short is better over left or right.
At the turn, with the green ahead
The Eleventh is a 413 yard par 4, the second of four par 4’s in a row to start off the back nine. Things starts to narrow, as the trees constrict the fairways, especially here. It’s a dog leg left, while the trees again ensure that you stay as close to the inside of the dog leg as possible for a nice approach shot.
Approach shot territory
A look at the spectacular trees and Spanish moss you see throughout the course.
The Twelfth is a 404 yard par 4. This one is a dog leg right with a slightly wider fairway, lined with trees and pine straw. The green is tucked in to the left side of the hole and is one of the more interesting green complexes on the course, and that I’ve seen. The green boomerangs around a trench bunker, so even landing on one side of the green doesn’t necessarily mean you have a direct putt to the hole. The green is also so small that unless your approach shot is extremely surgical, you’re probably scrambling. Very well done.
Second shot territory
The green complex
Looking back at the fairway from the green
The Thirteenth is a 354 yard par 4. The fairway descends gently and to the left to a green complex that’s even better than the Twelfth. Essentially, the entire front of the green is surrounded by an enormous bunker that’s accentuated even more by railroad ties. And then you notice the encroaching trees, tightening up the lines. It’s a pretty intimidating approach shot. After a botched lay up attempt, I finally stuck my gap wedge to the green and avoided the bunkers and trees. Another terrific world class hole.
Approach shot territory. Scary stuff
A close up of the bunker
The Fourteenth breaks up the string of par 4’s with the first par 3 of the back nine. It’s a 165 yard par 3 and is slated as the easiest hole on the course. Water cuts from the left front of the green to the right side of the green, but the green is large enough and has bail out room on the left, so it should be a relatively good opportunity to score well unless you really mis hit the tee shot.
The Fifteenth is a 541 yard par 5. It’s a long dog leg left with trees, waste areas and pine straw peeking out on both sides of the fairway at various points. The green is interesting in its own right, as there are a couple mounds in front and smaller narrow bunkers short left and right of the green. Hugging the outside of the turn will give you a better look at the green and the right side in general seems to be safer with a little bit of bail out room towards the green. And even if you end up in the trees on the right (like me), you still have a decent chance of punching out to the green. It’s a nice refresher hole before taking on the last three.
Second shot territory, with waste land creeping in to the fairway here
Approach shot territory, pine straw lurking
In the trees, and waste land, just to the right of the green
The Sixteenth is a 395 yard par 4. I found it to be a tough hole, mainly because the dog leg makes for a longer second shot to a curved green with bunkers on either side. And if your tee shot is off fairway, you’re in some nasty rough. This is something that’s worth noting; Harbour Town features many difference blends of grass in the fairways, greens and rough, so it’s tough to find consistency with turf interaction. I found the off fairway grass on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth a mixture of fluffiness and very grabby if you had to hit against the grain. Yet another way the course is set up to keep you on edge. As for the rest of the hole, there is a bunker along most of the left side of the hole to punish those approach shots that might take an aggressive line to the pin.
At the dog leg, looking back to the tee area
Approach shot territory
The Seventeenth is the last par 3 at 174 yards. Water yet again is in a large area on one side of the green, then cuts at a diagonal angle across the hole in front of the green, which we saw in some variation on all of the par 3’s. There is a large bunker right after the water that basically runs in the same pattern as the water; wide on the left, then narrows as it wraps around the front of the green. There is bail out room to the right, but the deep yet narrow green is a pretty nice landing area. You also start to come out of the trees and next to the bay, so wind can be a factor on this hole and the Eighteenth.
The Eighteenth is a par 4 at 444 yards. It’s the most well known hole and gets the most television time during the RBC Heritage. The forecaddie pointed out it also has the widest tee landing area of all courses on tour (yet he had a tough time telling me the yardage to said famous widest landing area). The bay is to the left of the hole while trees line the right side as you make your way to the green and the famous red and white lighthouse. The bay also creeps in to the fairway on the left, so if you land to the left of the widest tee landing area on the PGA tour, you’ll have to carry the marshland for your approach. A few bunkers are staggered on the left side starting about 150 yards from the green and continuing until you reach the green. It’s holes like these that are special to play. As you’re walking up the hole, you can’t help of all the history and players that have come before, some walking the very same path as you with championships on the line. It’s one of the things I enjoy about golf; we all have the chance to play the same courses as the pros and try our best to emulate their game. At any rate, it’s a great finishing hole to what I found to be an outstanding test of golf.
The Eighteenth (from atop the lighthouse)
The Eighteenth tee
A look at the marshland and bay from the tee
Walking down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking at the bay from the green
The back nine featured some very interesting green complexes that presented challenging and intimidating tee shots. Harbour Town is generally well known because of the back nine and it did not disappoint. I found it to be strategic, placing a value on shot selection, the approach shots in particular, without being over penal. I’d rank them 13, 18, 12, 17, 15, 14, 16, 11, 10.
Generally, I enjoyed Harbour Town a lot. My score was o.k., not as high as I anticipated, but I felt I left a lot of strokes out there due to my irons bailing on me a little. The course is a lot more playable than I expected, but make no mistake that there’s no way you can get away with anything here. It’s one of the best designed courses I’ve played, as every feature does exactly what it was intended without appearing contrived. Pete Dye once said, “Golf isn’t supposed to be easy,” and I think he has a reputation of creating overly difficult courses, but I feel that’s a misconception about his courses. They are indeed playable and above all, make you think. As can be seen with the pine straw and ample room under and past the trees at Harbour Town, Dye gives you an opportunity to recover from mis hits, again emphasizing strategy and though above penalizing. Harbour Town is a very well done example of Dye’s design philosophy, which is why it will remain so highly regarded as course design evolves.
Gripes: No question about it, the forecaddie was the sore spot for me during the round. First off, let me be clear I’m not blaming him for any shot I hit, or my score. That I can blame on my defective clubs. What irritated me was the lack of attention, or even desire, to assist in giving yardages or reads. You’re playing one of the more strategic courses in the country without a GPS and as my first time playing here, I some times needed to know how far it was to clear dog legs, trees or bunkers, but the forecaddie either wasn’t around or couldn’t provide that information. His reads, when he did them, consisted of simply pointing to a spot and saying, “aim here.” Once we got to the Fifteenth, all he kept talking about was that he was going to be able to get in a round himself when we were finished. When we reached the Eighteenth, he told us driver was too much club for us, but couldn’t tell us what yardage to play to off the tee. I know others have had similar experiences with the forecaddies here as well and quite honestly, with the very steep green fee here, it’s pretty much a black eye for the course. When I play here again, I’ll either bring a range finder or spring for a personal caddie to avoid the forecaddie altogether. And maybe it won’t be such an issue now that I’ve played the course. At any rate, the forecaddie sucked and took away a little from my enjoyment of the round.
Otherwise, be prepared to spend money here. Everything is expensive.
Bar/Grill: Very nice. In fact, my family ate there for dinner. The food is great and wine selection is even good.
Clubhouse: Decent sized with a good selection. Definitely not over the top.
Practice area: Grass range, putting area and chipping area with unlimited balls. What you would expect.
Getting there: It’s in the Sea Pines resort. If you’re a non guest, you have to pay $5 to get into the resort to the course. Generally, it is located on the far side of the Island.