Sea Pines Resort's Harbour Town Golf Links offers glimpse into game's history
"Pine Valley in a swamp, St. Andrews with Spanish Moss ..."
- Legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins on Harbour Town Golf Links
HILTON HEAD, S.C. - A hazy, hangdog sun rises over the marsh on a soupy summer morning. It is 80 degrees outside before the first drop of coffee even hits the cup. Still, the island is buzzing with activity already; kids in the pool, parents laying deckside reading mystery novels, and golfers in khaki shorts and pearly white shoes lined up at the first tee.
The summer months are family months here on the island that developer Charles Fraser built. The beaches, tennis courts and boutique shops are teeming with families from nearby Georgia and North Carolina, and as far away as New York and Canada. But take a drive west on U.S. Highway 278 through mercurial Bluffton, back towards the mainland, and it becomes obvious that this isn't the high time for golf.
A makeshift sign hangs from the marquee at the entry of one course, altering passers by to a $39 round of golf it offers after 2 p.m. An "all-you-can-play after noon" advertisement is posted outside at one daily fee course, but from the road, the fairways appear to be empty. Even back on the island, prices are slashed. Palmetto Hall and Palmetto Dunes, two of Hilton Head's premier resort facilities, offer rounds at their world-class golf tracks for under $100. Shipyard and Port Royal are veritable steals this time of year.
But out on the southeastern tip of the island, nestled against the Calibogue sound sits the one course that will not succumb to summer discounts: Harbour Town Golf Links. Three hundred and sixty five days a year, rain or shine, hell or high water, this Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus designed masterpiece commands a healthy price tag that includes all the range balls you can hit, a cart if you want it, and a 4.5 hour glimpse back in time to a historical, about-face in the history of golf course architecture.
The year was 1967 and Lowcountry land mogul Charles Elbert Fraser was dozens of houses and two golf courses deep in his pioneering masterplaned community, Sea Pines Resort. George Cobb had recently designed the resort's Sea Marsh and Ocean Courses, and Fraser was quick with a commission for the veteran architect to craft Sea Pine's third and final course smack dab in the middle of 400 acres of lanky pine trees, sandy soil, and coastal lagoons.
This was the course, Fraser reasoned, that would lure the PGA Tour to Sea Pines and put Hilton Head on the golfing map.
Cobb had most of the course routed when a young Jack Nicklaus, who was chomping at the bit to get into the course design business, approached Fraser about doing the course. Fraser was too emotionally invested in the Sea Pines project to hand the keys to his crown jewel over to a rookie course designer, but he did listen when the Golden Bear dropped the name Pete Dye, a Midwestern insurance salesman turned golf course architect who was the hottest name in the business.
Nicklaus was as sold on Dye as he was on the high fade. Only problem was that Fraser, born and raised in the South, didn't know Dye from Adam and knew nothing of his seminal work at Crooked Stick in Indiana. But Robert Trent Jones, the Pablo Picasso of golf course architecture in the 1950's and 60's, was busy designing a new course down the road at Palmetto Dunes. Fraser decided to take a chance on Dye, and the story goes that once Dye spied Jones' traditional layout at "PD," he immediately set out to build a golf course that flew in the face of conventional design wisdom.
"It was a leap of faith for Mr. Fraser, but he gave Pete a blank slate and turned him loose," says David Warren, Sea Pines marketing director. "He wanted to give Pete the rope he needed to build a one-of-a-kind championship golf course."
Ironically, hiring the lesser known Dye actually turned out to be one the best marketing moves in the history of modern golf course design.
One of Dye's first changes to Cobb's routing was to take the 18th hole out along the Calibogue Sound instead of running it back to the clubhouse. The always-opportunistic Fraser jumped on the chance to punctuate the dramatic finishing hole by constructing a red and white lighthouse at the nearby Hilton Head marina.
"That lighthouse is Hilton Head for most of America," Warren says. "It is a trademark now, and it is what the world sees during the Heritage of Golf (PGA Tour event) every year."
And it was the PGA Tour, or at least Fraser and local golf writer Charles Price's insatiable desire to host a Tour event, which drove Harbour Town's construction schedule. The PGA had committed to an event in Hilton Head in 1968, but it was postponed in order to facilitate the completion of Dye's work. Over the next 11 months, Dye, with Nicklaus as his player consultant, single handedly changed the direction of golf course design by building a shotmakers' menagerie of small greens, pot bunkers, narrow fairways, railroad tie bulkheads, and sandy waste areas.
"These were shocking design elements at the time," Warren says. "The greens are still the smallest on the PGA Tour, and this is still rated as the players' favorite event."
It wasn't always that way. In fact, during the inaugural playing of the Heritage Classic in 1969, a majority of touring pro's proclaimed their hatred for Harbour Town. But two golfers salvaged the course's reputation, and perhaps the entire island's golfing future, by smothering Dye's diabolical creation with praise. First round leader Jim Colbert fired a 69 and proclaimed to the media on hand that the course was to be mentioned in the same breath as Pine Valley. Arnold Palmer, who went on to win the tournament that Sunday, lauded Harbour Town as the return of the "thinking man's course."
By 1970, the deal was done: Fraser and Price had their PGA Tour event, Sea Pines had the final jewel in its golf course crown, and Hilton Head had taken its place in the collective golfing conscious of America.
Harbour Town Golf Links today
When Warren and the Sea Pines brass decided it was time to bring Dye back to Harbour Town to remodel the greens and tee boxes, they quickly became reacquainted with Dye's 'from the hip' design techniques.
"Pete did the entire course on cocktail napkins, as he was prone to doing," Warren says laughing. "We actually had to go back over old brochures and photos that people had taken with the course in the background just to see what the course was like after it opened."
Dye eventually gathered enough evidence on the original design to undertake the project. A number of putting surfaces had actually shrunk over the years due to a lack of sunlight, especially on the par 4 eighth hole. Dye had never liked the hole anyway, according to Warren, so he enlarged the entire green and changed the angle of approach. From there, Dye and his crew re-cut the bunkers, fortified the fairway and greenside mounding, and re-did the greens with TifEagle Bermuda grass. The course re-opened in January 2001 in plenty of time for the playing of the WorldCom Classic - the Heritage of Golf.
"The course got high marks from the players," Warren says. "We didn't want to make wholesale changes to a golf course they had come to love, so I think they appreciated that."
By design, the course still plays to less than 7,000 yards from the Heritage tees, and average golfers will find the layout particularly manageable from the white tees, where it plays to a spindly 6,040 yards. One thing you can also be sure of with most Dye designs: Pete's wife Alice, a heck of a amateur golfer in her own right, makes sure the courses are challenging and fair from the women's tees, and Harbour Town Golf Links (just over 5,200 yards from the green tees) is no exception.
Harbour Town Golf Links: Notebook
Go Ask Alice: Perplexed by the hole's routing and under the gun to complete the course on schedule for the PGA Tour, Dye turned the design of Harbour Town Golf Links' 13th hole over to Alice. Stealing a page out of her husband's book, she laid out the entire hole on a cocktail napkin, handed it off to the construction crew, and oversaw the building of what would turn out to be one of Harbour Town's best par 4's.
Golden Bear on site: Nicklaus visited Harbour Town 23 times in 11 months during its construction - amazing considering he was keeping a full schedule of PGA Tour events that year. And he wasn't just coming down for Mai Tai's by the pool. The Golden Bear actually hit shots off the bare, sand fairways and tee boxes of each hole to help Dye determine the shot values. Nicklaus was consulted on the 2000 redesign, but never returned to the site of his first design consultation job.
Harbour Town is not alone at Sea Pines Resort
They don't get an inkling of the press that Harbour Town Golf Links does, but there are two other solid golf courses at Sea Pines Resort available for public consumption. The Sea Pines Ocean Course, a George Cobb design, was the first golf course in Hilton Head. It was redesigned in 1995 by Mark McCumber and is known for its 15th hole, which plays down to the cusp of the ocean. The Heron Point Course at Sea Pines takes on the moniker of "resort course" due to its player friendly nature. Sea Marsh is also popular with junior golfers due to an additional set of "mini marsh" tees that Sea Pines placed in front of the women's tees.
April 15, 2004