Harbour Town Golf Links
Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head, SC
United States of America

Its Lowcountry vibe and low profile features have insured that Harbour Town’s allure remains as strong today as in 1969 when Arnold Palmer won the inaugural PGA Tour event played here.

The story of Harbour Town can’t be told enough as there are so many important takeaways. There is the vision of Charles Fraser and how he believed golf and homes could coexist and the manner in which he went about doing so. There is the collaboration between Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye that both changed the trajectory of modern architecture while inspiring a host of future would-be architects. Their architecture embodied what later became known as minimalism (i.e. moving dirt only where needed to create good golf). There is the reintroduction of variety in regards to hazards – their shapes, sizes and where they fall within the holes. Additionally, possessing greens nearly half the size of other greens built in that era, Harbour Town became a game changer with its emphasis on each green site posing interesting and diverse questions. Indeed, the author contends that Harbour Town and Sand Hills are the two defining events in golf course architecture in North America since World War II. That thesis is explored throughout this profile.

The story starts with visionary Charles Fraser. At the mere age of 26, he formed the Sea Island Company for the express purpose of building low density housing on the southern end of Hilton Head Island. Given its beaches and unspoiled charms derived from live oaks and scented pines,  he was convinced that people would like both to vacation and retire to this idyllic island. At that time in the mid-1950s, a scant 500 people lived on Hilton Head but Fraser readily saw its immense appeal. He started selling lots in 1956 and by the mid-1960s with things going well, he approached the PGA about hosting an event on Hilton Head. With that commitment secured, he then approached the game’s hottest star Jack Nicklaus to build what he hoped would be a world-class course. Nicklaus was intrigued but also at the height of his considerable playing powers. His schedule was full so he brought in his fellow Buckeye and friend Pete Dye to drive the course’s construction. Nicklaus did so in part because Dye had recently used him in the creation of The Golf Club outside of Columbus, Ohio where Nicklaus hit a number of shots as holes unfolded there. Fraser remarked ‘I have never heard of this fellow Dye.’ Nicklaus responded, ‘Don’t worry, you will. Trust me.’ 

Nicklaus, Donald O’Quinn, Charles Fraser and Pete Dye at Harbour Town, pre-construction (photo courtesy of the Nicklaus Archives).

Fraser’s Sea Pines Company controlled the southern 5,280 acres of the 25,000 acres that make up Hilton Head. Dye got to work late in 1967 and Nicklaus made a whopping 23 visits throughout the project. The build was relatively quick, taking just fourteen months. The course hosted its PGA event on schedule in November, 1969. Drexel Heritage Furniture was the sponsor and if a player made a hole-in-one on seventeen, he received a suite of furniture. Certainly different times!

What the professionals encountered was unlike anything they had played. Instead of large rolling greens bunkered left and right and a course in the 7,000 yard range, they played a 6,655 yarder with oddly configured greens that measured between 3,500 to 4,625 yard square feet. The greens didn’t possess severe breaks nor was their challenge predicated upon speed. The longest par three measured under 190 yards and two of the three par fives were reachable in two. Five par fours measured under 400 yards. The high to low point of the property was six feet so topography was hardly the underpinning of the test either. There was no real reason to believe that something extraordinary would emerge. Yet it did. How?!

Clearly, the interaction between Nicklaus and Dye proved invaluable throughout the construction but something occurred four years prior that was also crucial: Pete Dye went to Scotland in hopes of qualifying for the 1963 British Amateur Championship at St. Andrews. This was the first time that either he or his wife Alice had been. As he writes in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, ‘Thirsty for new concepts, Alice and I studied and photographed  as we played and began a library of ideas and concepts for future course designs.’ All told they visited thirty courses but he makes note that ‘five of them presented spectacular images that would substantially influence the design of every single golf course we would build in the future.’  Those were Turnberry, Prestwick, Carnoustie, Royal Dornoch and The Old Course at St. Andrews.

In regards to Prestwick, he makes several revealing statements in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker. Naturally, he was struck by the use of sleepers or railroad ties, noting, ‘ I was fascinated by their ability to add a striking, demanding dimension to the course by not only providing  a means to  control erosion but also presenting the golfer with a highly visible obstacle.’ He sums up Prestwick thusly: ‘ Prestwick is a delightful test that features its famous railroad ties, pot bunkers, multicolored heather, seaside bent grass, cavernous bunkers, blind holes, narrow sloping fairways, and the menacing Pow Burn ( a winding weaving creek). Adding to the challenge is a prevailing wind that one day may be a zephyr and the next a tempest. Despite its difficulty, Prestwick plays to just 6,544 yards, and I was amazed that this short course could present such a formidable challenge.’ 

What else did he encounter there? Tees suppressed to the ground, bunkers of varied shapes and sizes, central hazards, greens of all shapes and sizes, and putting surfaces that slope away from the player. What does Harbour Town feature? Tees suppressed to the ground, bunkers of varied shapes and sizes, central hazards, greens of all shapes and sizes, and putting surfaces that slope away from the player. By Dye’s own admission, such similarities aren’t a coincidence and the Dyes’ Scotland 1963 adventure clearly marks another example whereby Americans traveled to Scotland and were later able to translate what they saw there on this side of the pond.

Features from Prestwick found at Harbour Town: uncomplicated tees at grade like here at the 3rd …

… bunkers of varied shapes (and elevations!) like these four at 11 …

… and sizes like this one at 13 with its railroad ties.

Additionally, there are greens of all shapes (photo courtesy of PJ Koenig Golf Photography) …

… and sizes like the 4,610 square foot one at 12 (photo courtesy of Sky Realty).

Plenty of architects have pushed the design envelope, sometimes to great original effect and other times not, such as when they introduce waterfalls or other man-made contrivances that go against the simple but profound pleasure of hitting your ball, finding it and hitting it again. Dye and Nicklaus did things differently at Harbour Town but the features that they introduced were steeped in history. Below is the Alps bunker at Prestwick, one of several bunkers to feature railroad ties for well over a century. Suffice to say, Prestwick has stood the test of time – and history is now proving that Harbour Town has too. The joke early on was that Dye had built a course that could burn down but such jokes likely lacked an appreciation of the game’s root.

The greater the variety of hazards, the greater the course.

Seventy-five plus yard long bunkers had not really debuted in America in the 1960s. Take a look at a really fine architect like Dick Wilson and his masterpiece at Pine Tree in Florida. Similarly flat to Harbour Town and opened in 1961, Pine Tree received immediate accolades, in part because of its sandscape and Wilson’s proliferation of bunkers. The wayward golfer may conclude that bunkers are everywhere but the largest one is 55 yards in length. Yes, scores of others enjoy spacious footprints but nothing like the range of bunkers at Harbour Town. Ignoring the sandscapes and referring only to bunkers at Harbour Town, some of the most noteworthy ones include the 95 yard long one at seven, the 110 yard long one at eight, the U shaped 45 yard wide greenside one at thirteen, the 135 yard waste bunker at sixteen, and the 105 yard long one at seventeen. Dye’s inspiration? Where else but his trip to Scotland where he encountered oddly shaped hazards like the 75 yard long but narrow Cardinal bunker at Prestwick’s third hole. Indeed, David Fleming, Head Golf Professional at Prestwick, played golf with Perry Dye at Prestwick a few years ago. Over lunch, Pete’s son spoke freely to Fleming of his Dad’s love for Prestwick and how much it influenced his designs.

The 75 yard Cardinal bunker at Prestwick, complete with – you guessed it – railroad ties.

As for the build itself, Dye kept things simple, displaying his Indiana roots and midwestern sensibilities. If he needed dirt to create an appealing green complex, it invariably came from nearby. Cary Corbitt, long time Vice President of Sports & Operations at Sea Pines, spent scores of hours with Dye going around Harbour Town. He notes that Dye always spoke of ‘building down to go up.’ Examples abound. For instance, straightaway at the first, Dye scalloped out a section of fairway several feet down so that he could then build the first green complex a few feet higher from its surrounds. Most famously, at the fortress-like thirteenth green, in addition to gathering material from the fairway, Dye went down to create the bunker and used that material to build up the green complex. Essentially by flipping the soil, the depth to the famed thirteenth fronting bunker is twice that of what he moved. All commonsense stuff that helps explain why the course lays so peacefully upon the land to this day. What it doesn’t explain is why architects in the 1980 and 90s went haywire doing wall-to-wall shaping when the ideal had been presented at Harbour Town in 1969! But that’s another story.

Many neat ideas were unveiled at Harbour Town in a manner consistent with their surrounds. Though they provided an initial jolt, time has shown they weren’t gimmicky. And with Nicklaus hitting shot after shot, the shot values that emerged from the collaboration between Nicklaus and Dye were top drawer. And ultimately, that is what lures both the professionals and resort guests back year after year. The golf is of such a high quality and so many singular holes exist that can only be played here. Fraser got what he wanted: a world-class course as defined by an unrelenting series of unique, arresting holes. However, all the great design work could have been for naught if the perimeter of the holes wasn’t protected. After all, Fraser’s vision was that people would head to Hilton Head to bond with nature and if the overall sense was that you were playing between rows of homes, that connection would be lost.

Thankfully, Fraser immediately set a high standard for the size and color of homes that would border the course. Nothing above two stories and no paint color that would call attention to any man-made edifice. Such restrictions were critical to the enduring success of the course.

This photograph looking down the long 15th fairway shows that Fraser’s restrictions for building were not only well conceived but have been carefully and steadfastly enforced for five decades.

Indeed, when discussing Harbour Town, the word ‘ambience’ invariably comes up. Listen to Canadian architect Jeff Mingay and the reverence he shows for the design: ‘For me, the Lowcountry and its ambience have a lot to do with my love for Harbour Town. The neat thing is that the course fits that setting so well … which is probably why I’m accepting of big mossy oaks factoring into the challenge to the degree that they do. The architecture is perfect for that site. We’d label it ‘restrained’ these days and the shaping doesn’t try to overcome what is mostly flat ground. Yet, at the same time, Harbour Town is one of the most creative courses ever conceived. Not only are the holes in each par category remarkably varied and memorable, no one had ever seen holes like 9, 13 and 16 before Harbour Town! It’s a wonderful example of how to do an interesting, distinctive course in seemingly restrained style.’ 

Life has a slower cadence in the Lowcountry, a fact that Harbour Town’s architecture readily embraces.

Before touring the holes below, the author shares this story from Brad Faxon. In 2005, we were at Eastward Ho! together for an event and the question was posed of him what were his favorite PGA Tour courses. He immediately mentioned Harbour Town stating words to the effect, ‘Too few courses we play ask the player to shape the ball. If we aren’t careful, courses will soon only reward the long hitter. Harbour Town is different. You have to play thoughtful golf and the occasional intrusion of trees into play reward the player who can move his ball either way while controlling its trajectory. We need more designs like Harbour Town.’ Well said and traditionalists fully appreciate/support such sentiments. Indeed, with the passage of time and what technology has done this century, the kind of golf that Harbour Town espouses – tactical, thoughtful, inventive – should be appreciated anew. Yet, no architect readily builds a 6,600 yard course today with ~4,000 square foot greens, eschewing that for courses much larger in scale that devour more land and take longer to play. After one round here, just like in 1969, the golfer  leaves wondering, Why? 

Holes to Note

First hole, 410/380 yards; The golfer’s acumen is tested right away, though what exactly the test is, is not immediately discernible! The flattish hole looks innocuous, what Donald Ross would describe as ‘a gentle handshake.’ Yet, more years than not, this hole finishes in the top half for difficulty in the RBC Heritage, averaging around par. Time has taught them that trying to muscle the hole is pointless. The salient points are this is an island fairway, the green is angled from front right to back left and (surprisingly) runs away from the player, and two pine trees alternate narrowing in from either side. The vast majority of professionals now hit a ~265 yard ball for position in the right center of the fairway. From that vantage point, the player hits down the spine of the angled green but needs to be mindful that the back half of the putting surface slopes away. Indeed, with fairway grass extending eleven yards beyond the back edge of the green, the prudent miss is often long. To the author, Harbour Town was one of the first modern designs that encouraged the use of a putter from well off the green. Green Keeper Jonathan Wright (the course’s only Green Keeper this century) deserves praise for the tight, closely mown areas found throughout the course that foster a variety of recovery play.

The enticing view from the Inn & Club at Harbour Town of the next door 1st tee on a clear, crisp December morning.

The pine tree on the left is 60 yards from the front of the green and the one on the right is 30 yards. Should the tee ball not be placed properly, either pine becomes problematic, likely requiring the player to demonstrate proficiency in shaping and controlling the flight of his approach shot.

For a flat course, Harbour Town possesses an uncommon amount of mystery. The first timer is confounded to discover that the slightly elevated 1st green runs away.

Third hole, 470/380 yards; Harbour Town has never been about length but rather variety. Still part of variety means asking players to hit a range of clubs into greens. In terms of length that has been added since 1969, the biggest single addition is found here at the third. Ninety yards (!) has been added but it was done so seamlessly as the new back tee for the Heritage is actually closer to the second green than the original tee. In fact, the second hole is a reachable par 5 and plays as the course’s easiest hole; the beastly third is a perfect compliment to that one and the professionals are content if they take 8 shots to cover the ~1,000 yards between the two. Subtlety still rules the day. The slight bend in the third fairway favors a draw with the player keen to avoid the 150 yard long sandscape right of the fairway. The rub is how the green is offset to the fairway with back right hole locations requiring an artful fade into the green. There are more overtly stiff challenges at Harbour Town where a double bogey or worse is possible but Shot Link confirms that a back right hole location guarantees that this sleeper gem will be one of the day’s three most difficult holes.

The angled 3rd green as seen from behind (photo courtesy of Sky Realty).

Fourth hole, 200/165 yards; The first of Harbour Town’s world-class holes, one can only imagine how jarring this hole was when first experienced in the late 1960s and 1970s. Courses like Doral featured water but it was invariably presented with grass banks feeding down into it. Here, railroad ties mark a stark, abrupt delineation between glory and failure. Dye went on to build  many more such holes but this (and fourteen) was the first where railroad ties were used to ominous perfection at a resort course. The beauty of the hole is its flexibility. In 2015, when played from the back marker to the dreaded back left hole location, the hole was the day’s hardest. Yet, in round one, when the hole was set in the friendly back right (i.e. away from the water), it played as the second easiest hole. In recent years, the PGA Tour has had fun with the pairing of a shorter tee to a back left hole location, essentially wooing the player to be more aggressive than is prudent. Alice Dye’s guiding influence is seen here too with the forward tees right of the lagoon, taking the forced carry out of the equation.

An early morning photograph of the 4th, before the flag was put in. Note how the one shotter simultaneously possesses an air of serenity as well as a steely edge.

As seen from behind, the lagoon also wraps around the green’s back left. The popular – and prudent – miss is front right.

Fifth hole, 550/495 yards; One of the reasons Harbour Town remains a pure delight to play is its give and take architecture. We saw it at the second and third and again here at four and five. Even if the golfer has had the misfortune to miss left at four, Dye immediately presents the opportunity to bolster the player’s spirts with this reachable par five. Not surprisingly, this modest length three-shotter features the most fairway bunkers off the tee of any hole with five. If those are avoided, the chance to reach the plateau green in two presents itself. A pond left (one of only two man-made ponds on the course) lends this slight dogleg left its teeth as does its elevated green. Not quite a plateau green, this green is nonetheless the most elevated of any on the course, being built up five feet from its surrounds. Indeed, it started life to the right about 20 yards near a live oak but it was uncomfortably close to the out-of-bounds. In 2015, Dye moved it left to its current location and gave it its elusive, hard to hit-and-hold qualities from ~220 yards. Still, at 550 yards, the fifth routinely plays the second easiest on the course, after hole two, for the professionals. The pressure is on: the veteran player knows he must have his scorecard in good order standing on the sixth tee because he is about to play seven par fours in the next eight holes that explore every facet of the game.

The pond left keeps the player honest, both off the tee and with his second shot.

A well-played tee ball leaves this view from 220 yards of the elevated 5th green.

Sixth hole, 420/375 yards; Another of Dye’s takeaway from Scotland was how grasses were used for contrast. In the 1960s, new courses were monochromatically green across North America. Experimentation with grasses, colors and contrast had yet to get underway. Dye helped change that, first at Crooked Stick and then at The Golf Club. At Harbour Town, large clumps of pampas grasses were sporadically planted but it was Dye’s innovative use of large sandscapes that lend several holes the desired contrast and visual interest. Here, a large sandscape left and bunker right define the task off the tee on this slight dogleg right. Similar to the third, the green is cocked at an angle to the fairway and the long rectangular green is twice as deep as it is wide. This time, back left hole locations are the bête noire.

This 155 yard sand scape is found left of the fairway. Glued to the ground, Dye could have made it more flamboyant but that would have betrayed its Lowcountry setting. A lot of times in architecture, simplicity is best. Next time you play here, imagine the hole without it and you’ll gain a renewed appreciation of the benefit derived from the visual contrast of the off-white sand to the Celebration Bermuda fairways.

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