Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort provides all the break you'll need
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - I have a theory, 'if you go through hell, you'll need a break on the other side.' Though I'd hardly call playing in the Masters Tournament a 'hellish' experience, there's little doubt it takes a lot out of you (or it must, in all honesty, because I can't speak from personal experience). Many players consider The Masters the most prestigious tournament of the year, and common sense would say whatever comes after it would be a letdown, indeed.
Then why is it that the tournament following The Masters attracts stellar fields, year after year? Wouldn't the week after be the perfect time to kick up your feet and gather strength for the rest of the season?
Not necessarily. It's because the WORLDCOM CLASSIC - The Heritage of Golf, is held at Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort, and this beautiful golf course rates high on the favorites list of many of the game's best players.
Throw in the relaxing atmosphere of Sea Pines Plantation on the southern end of the island, and you've got the perfect setting for your 'cooling off' party after The Masters. This tournament's so popular that many of the best international players who come for the major event the previous week also decide to stay around awhile on American soil to participate.
Harbour Town is more than just a break, and more than a great golf course, however. Like the name suggests, it's also got Heritage on its side. The Heritage list of champions reads from the who's who of golf history-Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Miller and Stewart to name a few. The legends have all been here-that's special in itself.
It's also arguable that Harbour Town's lighthouse is one of the most recognizable landmarks of any annual PGA Tour venue. Certainly there's the island green at the TPC Sawgrass, Augusta National's azaleas and Pebble Beach's closing hole along the cliffs of the Pacific. But somehow, that lighthouse is right there with the others in sight recognition-for this golfer, at least.
So it was quite a thrill to step up to the first tee and play a round aside the shadows of the pros. Harbour Town is member of a rare breed-it plays host to a PGA Tour event, resides comfortably in Golf Digest's World Top 100 courses, and is open to the public. The event won't come cheap, but if you'd like to play a course like few others, this is a good place to start.
Most of the credit for the WORLDCOM's popularity should be given to the layout, a Pete Dye specialty that opened in the fall of 1969, with consultation from none other than the game's best player, Jack Nicklaus. Harbour Town must be responsible, at least in part, for Dye's reputation of crafting extremely challenging golf courses. Dye seems to favor accuracy over length in most cases (sometimes it's accuracy AND length), and is widely known as the father of target golf.
All theories seem to be wrapped up in Harbour Town's layout. It plays to a mere 6,973 yards from the tips (somewhat short for a PGA Tour venue), but its slope of 146 will give some indication of the difficulty. When you look at the course, there are few forced carries off the tee (take out the par threes here), and the greens wouldn't make Augusta National's superintendent blush-they're the smallest on tour, and are relatively flat, even after being redone last year. And many holes contain ample driving room.
But it's a hard, hard golf course. The view from the first tee suggests the challenge to come-a narrow chute of green fairway in between dueling tree lines--and it hardly lets up the rest of the way. As alluded to above, Dye calls for placement, placement, placement. Even if you manage to keep your ball in the fairway, if it's not in the right place, your ensuing shot won't work. Therefore, though some holes may appear wide open, they're probably not. Hit the target here-and in most cases, it'd better be a bulls-eye.
John Farrell, Harbour Town's Head Golf Professional, says it's exactly the target nature that makes the course play so difficult. "You have to be real precise with your iron play to score well here, and you'd better be able to drive it to a certain part of the fairway to set up your next shot. It's a real position golf course that favors accuracy over brawn, and that's why so many tour players like it."
The difficulty is so subtle that you'll mark down a series of doubles in a row and wonder 'what happened?' But then you'll remember you're at Harbour Town Golf Links, and perhaps you won't feel quite as bad... I speak from experience.
Farrell also points out that despite the challenge from the back tees, it's quite friendly from the forward sets. "One of the greatest things about this course is its versatility-I can bring my eighty-year-old father out here, and he can get the same kind of enjoyment from the forward sets as the pros can from playing the Heritage tees. So it's only as difficult as any individual wants it to be."
Finally, there are few memories you'll have in your golfing lifetime quite like that of reaching the tee box on the 18th hole, with Harbour Town in the distance and the lighthouse pleasantly acting as an aiming rod for your tee ball. You've arrived, so savor the moment.
I will note the only speck of disappointment we felt at Harbour Town concerned course conditioning. But Farrell says the major reason behind last year's restoration was to upgrade playing conditions year-round, not just during 'tournament' season. In that sense, the course plays somewhat like a brand new layout - but one that'll only improve with time. In the meantime, it's very worth playing for the layout alone.
Picking a few highlight holes is difficult at Harbour Town, because there are so many. The first two holes introduce the challenge, though #2 for the pros would most certainly be considered the round's best birdie chance.
The first is a 410 yard par four (speaking from the back sets of tees, the 'Heritage' tees), arrow straight but very narrow until you reach the landing area. If your tee ball's too far to the left side, you'll experience the tree trouble I talked about earlier, requiring a bailout shot short and right to reach the green.
The second is the easiest par five on the course, playing just 502 yards from the tips. But you'll still need to place your tee ball to the left side of the fairway to maneuver around trees that jut out the entire right side of the hole. If you're too far right, even a potential third shot from the fairway will encounter tree trouble.
The fourth is the first of what Ken Venturi says are the 'best set of par threes on the PGA Tour.' I'd add my humble agreement-I challenge you to find a stronger set of one shotters anywhere. The fourth also introduces a Dye trademark-railroad ties fronting the green astride the water. Beautiful. The hole plays 200 yards from the back tees, presenting a difficult placement shot over water, but with some bailout room short and right.
Seven is another terrific par three, 195 yards in length with a green surrounded by sand and trees fronting both the right and left sides. Again, hit the target.
Nine is probably my favorite short par four of all time (okay, I'm done with the hyperbole), playing just 332 yards but offering any number of ways to play it. If the wind's at your back, it's conceivable that long, long hitters might try for the green. But the prudent play's a long iron off the tee, which will place you in between trees that squeeze the fairway and the green area. A bunker fronts the entire narrow, heart shaped, green, and a pot bunker waits in the center back for anything a tad too strong. The hole plays right in front of the clubhouse-an all around grand experience.
The backside starts with four par fours that will test every bit of your skills-revealing more than you'd probably like. Ten's a 444 yard monster calling for you to judge the wind, avoid a lake on the left side of the dogleg left, then place your second shot precisely on the long and narrow green.
Twelve and 13 are another couple favorites. Twelve has a severe dogleg right, and your tee ball must be a towering blast to have a good angle into the green-with several difficult potential pin placements. Thirteen's a short hole at 373 yards, but driving accuracy's a premium here, again. Like nine, a wide bunker fronts the entire green surface-with cypress planks facing you as you hit your approach.
Fifteen's as true a three-shot par five as they come, playing 571 yards in length with a large stand of trees and a pond guarding the green against those who'd dare to shoot at it in two. Two shots favoring the right side will provide enough room to go at the flag on your third, but a birdie's never a given on this par five.
Seventeen and 18 finish along Calibogue Sound, bringing the wind's full force into play for the round's conclusion. The seventeenth is the final outstanding par three at Harbour Town, playing 185 yards over water to a green fronted by a large bunker that runs the entire length to the left side, but also a couple bunkers right-mandating accurate club selection and steady nerve to avoid trouble.
As stated above, eighteen's a beautiful finishing hole, playing 452 yards, often into a stiff wind. But the fairway's incredibly wide-grip it n' rip it-one of the few opportunities you'll get all day. The second shot's the tough part-a medium iron over wetlands and bunkers to a smallish green. There's a ton of bailout room to the right, but steep mounds will often prevent an easy chip to try and save par at the last.
Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort: The verdict:
When you're done, you probably won't feel as though you've just had a break-but you'll definitely feel exhilarated. Harbour Town is incredibly tough, but extremely memorable. It's a supreme test of golf that puts further distance between us average golfers and the pros-but also gives new appreciation for the best players' skills. One thing's for sure-you'll realize the 'other side' of a devilish experience requires a cooling off period. Lucky for you (and the pros), it comes at Harbour Town Golf Links.