The religion that is Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Harbour Town Golf Links is not a golf course. It is a church with 18 holes and a congregation that proselytizes at every opportunity.

Harbour Town Golf Links - 18th hole
Harbour Town's final hole offers marsh and sand carries for the risk-takers, and a wide fairway for the wimps.
Harbour Town Golf Links - 18th holeHarbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort - hole 9Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort - hole 11 bunkersHarbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort - hole 15Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort - hole 5

Bob Gidd of Toronto has played some impressive golf courses – St. Andrews, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, and he's a member of St. George's, home to the 2010 Canadian Open. But Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort is his favorite.

"The layout is one of the best," Gidd said. "It's tight, and you have to make the shots. And you have to putt like crazy. It's in very good condition almost all of the time. It's a shotmaker's course."

When asked about his other favorites in the area, Gidd listed some top-notch private golf courses.

"I don't know," he said. "There's Harbour Town and then the others. All of the courses around here are good, but Harbour Town is a very special golf course.

No. 14 through 18, he said, ranks as "the best stretch you'll find anywhere."

His wife, Sally, is new to the game, and she loves the golf course, too.

The first time Sally played Harbour Town, she said she was nervous that it would be impossible to manage. But each hole offers an alternative, easier route to the green. It might require extra distance on holes that are already long, but the opportunity exists to shoot a clean round without much heartbreak.

The addition of forecaddies about three years ago accentuated the mystique of Harbour Town.

Staff pro Ben Hoover said the service provides many benefits: It adds value added for the customer; moves play on the popular golf course, which sees about 37,000 rounds per year; and pleases the PGA Tour by keeping carts off the grass to preserve the grounds for the annual Heritage tournament.

"It's a happy medium between course conditions and the number of rounds," Hoover said.

A round can wrap easily in about four hours, thanks to the forecaddies' assistance in pointing out targets, finding errant drives, tending the pin and advising players on green reads. They certainly shaves some strokes, too.

And I'm pretty sure visitors the world over have displayed photos from Harbour Town - run-of-the-mill golfers crouched over putts with caddies leaning in to assist. Everyone here is a pro for a day.

The Harbour Town caddies won't appear intimidating for long, if at all.

"We have some interesting characters out there to put people at ease," Hoover said.

Simply, the caddies cater to the golfer. Clean your own clubs and wipe mud from your ball? The horror!

Like the great golf courses of the world, Harbour Town remains ageless as it enters its fifth decade. Pete Dye returned in 2000 to tweak the layout, shuffling some trees and modifying bunkers. And over the years, the golf course has added lightning rods to key trees after a storm zapped the critical, middle-of-the-fairway landmark on the 16th.

Harbour Town: What's all the fuss about?

Harbour Town Golf Links starts with a tame but tight first hole, a tree-lined par 4 with a tiny, 24-yard-deep green. On the second hole, the subtle dangers turn more overt. Yes, it's easy to miss the bunker on the left, but then you note the strategic trees that block any shot not placed perfectly. On the third hole, bunkers become more obnoxious at the green, with a huge trap short and left and a sea of bunkers further right and back.

Trees and sand begin to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Then comes water on the par-3 fourth. It's wet all the way from the back tees, but the front tees offer some safety on the right side.

No. 4 is a stunning hole, part of the prettiest group of par 3s anywhere. You won't forget the trees in the Sahara of bunkers or the branches that hang over the seventh green - or the dramatic, railroad-tie-lined lagoon that wraps around the 14th hole.

Where are the flames and explosions?

The fifth hole, a par 5, presents an exercise in precision despite the open vista. The hole is out of room by the time you try to get to the offset green, guarded on the right by trees and a huge bunker to the left. The creativity of the bunkering alone deserves praise.

The front wraps with a brutally tricky par 4. The window for your drive opens only a smidgeon because of trees, and your approach shot advances down to a most creative green. Its kidney shape wraps to the back around a trio of pot bunkers, and a large bunker arches around the front. If you land in sand, it's a challenge even to stay on the tiny putting surface. And that's not to mention the possibility of some downright evil pin placements.

Breaking down the back nine at Harbour Town

By the time you get to Harbour Town's 13th hole, you're really starting to hate trees. The 10th and 11th holes are bowling lanes, with concerns more aerial than terrestrial. Yes, the greens are tiny, we get it. Stupid bunkers, damned trees, you might mutter.

Then there is No. 13, the most remarkable hole I've played. Alice Dye designed it - in a really bad mood, one must assume.

A bunker juts from the left side of a slight dogleg left. Try to clear it and tree branches above will knock tee shots to the ground. Say you place your drive perfectly at right-center past the corner. Big deal. Now you have to get on the green. (Cue maniacal Alice Dye laughter.)

The comma-shaped green is elevated with railroad ties as sides and fronted by an enormous, Mickey Mouse-ear-shaped bunker. I think I'm safe in saying that straight-up sand shots are not most people's preference.

I've never been so proud of a double bogey. I adore that hole.

I also loved No. 15, a par 5 on which a good score requires the placement of each shot within the dimensions of a small tablecloth. So much trouble awaits at the green that it's difficult to decipher. Settle on a shot and try to shut out the cacophony of perils.

The golf course saves its signature hole for last, the par 5 No. 18 that offers marsh and sand carries for the risk-takers and a wide fairway for the wimps. The tiny green, framed by the Calibogue Sound and an often-present fleet of sailboats, makes for a nerve-wracking approach. In the background sits one of golf's most famous landmarks, the red-and-white-striped lighthouse.

From there, it's an unexpected cart ride through a residential area to the clubhouse. I suggest a beverage on the patio, overlooking the dastardly ninth green while you digest the experience.

And perhaps, offer a prayer of thanks to the golf gods for a course like Harbour Town.

Lisa AllenLisa Allen, Contributor

Lisa Allen is a golf, travel and business writer based in Beaufort, S.C. She has edited newspapers, magazines and books in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @LAllenSC.

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