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

Seventh hole, 195/160 yards; Harbour Town measured under 6,700 yards when it opened and today the professionals tackle it around 7,100 yards, which helps keep its shot values in place. As we saw at the third, the good news is that the majority of the new back tees actually shorten the walk from the prior green. For instance, this hole has picked up 30 yards since inception by merely extending the tee back toward the sixth green. Happily, the walking culture is stronger today at Harbour Town than it ever has been. Carry your bag, take a trolley or a caddie but for goodness sake, walk! Similar to Pinehurst No. 2, hilliness is absent, so there are no excuses. Audubon International stamps Harbour Town as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, and whether you pass egrets or alligators, take time to admire the environment. Here at this imaginative one shotter, three live oaks occupy the green complex that floats in a sea of sand. Other clubs might have cut down one or all of the trees but not here. Yes, prudent branch trimming will forever remain part of the equation but, as you see below, the character-laden trees add another playing dimension that is worth such efforts.

Turf exists back right of 7. Otherwise, Dye’s first island green would have come at Harbour Town (photo courtesy of Sky Realty)!

The 35 yard deep green sits within the confines of a bunker that stretches for 95 yards.

As seen from behind, a pair of oaks stand sentinel and flummox even the professionals.

Eighth hole, 475/405 yards; When the Morrissetts first played the course in 1981, we did so having poured through its profile in the 1976 The World Atlas of Golf.  We knew what to expect at holes like four, thirteen, seventeen and eighteen but the two holes that blew us away were the eighth and ninth. The eighth did so in its utter simplicity. A single strip bunker extended from behind the green out along a lagoon for 110 yards. The green sits innocently beside it and better yet, there is an ocean of grass to the right. Sure, the hole possesses length but none of the playing features scream at the player. That is, until you get to the top of your backswing for your approach. Only a numpty would pull one left into the lagoon. Missing in the strip bunker isn’t the worse fate but once a ball starts turning left, who knows if it will behave and find the sand and not the water? What really preys on the golfer’s mind is all the grass right and the apparent safety that it represents. Why not head that way and take away the prospect of a big number? The tension between the dire threat left and safe harbor right is delicious. The green is more than twice as long (30 yards) as it is wide (13 yards) and routinely ranks as the least hit green in regulation with only ~1/3 of the players doing so over four days at the RBC Heritage. Such a clever design, pity that there aren’t more graceful, similarly uncluttered holes like it world-wide.

An underpinning of great design is often short grass and simplicity (photo courtesy of The Sea Pines Resort/Rob Tipton).

Plenty of ways to tackle the approach to the 8th. At the time Harbour Town was built, other architects were opting for defined targets that required aerial approach shots. Harbour Town provided a welcome ‘fork in the road’ to that design ethos (photo courtesy of Sky Realty).

As seen from behind, Dye doesn’t make you go for the green. In fact, he makes it abundantly clear that maybe you shouldn’t! The range in options befuddle while simultaneously generating a strong desire for another round. In short, design perfection (photo courtesy of Sky Realty).

Ninth hole, 330/300 yards; Here is what this hole had going for it: Nothing. Not a single natural feature or lagoon or anything that would make it memorable. The playing corridor was flat, straight and short. If ever a hole was doomed to be a dud, this was it. Yet in a tour de force display of ingenuity, what emerged is one of the great short two shotters in world golf. A couple of pine trees narrow the approach angle but the kicker is the green complex. It is the exact opposite of the prior one. Instead of being a long rectangle, it is a wide but shallow ‘V’, with a fronting bunker augmented by three smaller, nastier ones in the inside of the V. The green is more than twice as wide (30 yards) as deep (13 yards on the inside of the V).  The beauty of such a green complex is self-evident as it requires thought. If the hole location is left, the player drives right and vice versa. With today’s technology, professionals try and drive into the front bunker when the hole is set back. When it is in the narrow middle, they tend to lay-up to their favorite gap wedge distance. First timers might even have an advantage because they don’t suffer from scar tissue developed from past debacles! Old timers know to look at the flag from the nearby first hole and formulate a strategy before they arrive on the tee. Endlessly fascinating permutations of events unfold here. Dye and Nicklaus showed the world how to create something from nothing in 1969 and the tragedy to the author is that more architects never followed suit in some sort of (even loose) homage to this thoroughly original hole.

Well, this is different (photo courtesy of PJ Koenig Golf Photography)! The wide but shallow 9th green sits defiantly in front of the clubhouse.

The day’s back left hole location in the aerial suggests playing right off the tee (photo courtesy of PJ Koenig Golf Photography).

This ground level photograph from behind shows a front right hole location. The tactics off the tee are completely different to the two aerial photographs above.

Tenth hole, 450/400 yards; As the green pads themselves are low profile in nature, Dye didn’t need too much material and therefore, he only built two ponds, one on the front nine at the fifth and one on the back nine here.  Indeed, Dye’s judicious use of water is a cornerstone to the design. Sometimes, it is in your face at the one shotters (e.g. the fourth and fourteenth), sometimes it is hidden from the tee (the fifth), sometimes it is used to threaten the second shot (e.g. the fifteenth) and several times a bunker acts as a buffer between the green and water (e.g. the eighth and seventeenth). Here, the pond is starkly in your face off the tee, something that has yet to occur in the round, making the tenth the course’s single nerviest drive, at least to the author. Two gorgeous live oaks pinch in the playing corridor 55 yards from the front of the green and are configured so that a drive right center is ideal. The green is quite deep at 40 yards but à la the eighth green, none too wide at 15 paces across. There are simply no ‘blah’ oval targets at Harbour Town; each one poses something of genuine interest.

There are 5 or 6 shots in the round that are imperative to get right, including the tee ball at 4, the approach to 9 and here, the tee ball at 10.

The architects intentionally did little to aid the golfer in gaining depth perception. Much like in Scotland, the element of feel is important at Harbour Town.

This view from behind shows the role that the oaks play on one’s approach.

Eleventh hole, 435/385 yards; Into the woods we go for three holes and again, Dye and Nicklaus weren’t overendowed with natural features other than specimen live oaks and pines. Hence, it came down to what it always does when Mother Nature isn’t at full roar: man needs to create the playing interest, especially at the green. And that’s exactly what transpired.

The design cues seen on the front carry over on the back. The low profile tees, little earth disturbed tee to green, a fairway that elbows slightly, …

… a large sandscape with which to contend, …

… a tree near the putting surface, interesting hazards, and a uniquely configured green.

This aerial neatly captures the sum of the parts that makes the approach fascinating (photo courtesy of The Sea Pines Resort/Rob Tipton).

Twelfth hole, 430/375 yards; Not to be repetitive but why hasn’t this zig-zag green been copied elsewhere? It starts out level with the fairway, then bends left before flaring out to the back left. It breathes instant character into the twelfth, which routinely plays among the six hardest holes in the tournament.

No surprise that as the 11th elbows left, the 12th goes right.

Today’s hole location is front center. A back left hole on this zig-zag green could be 15 yards left and 35 yards back, requiring perhaps three more clubs as well as carrying the front left bunker.

For greens relatively small in stature, it is amazing how each day’s hole location can vary the asks of the player (photo courtesy of The Sea Pines Resort/Rob Tipton).

Thirteenth hole, 375/340 yards; Having Pat Ward-Thomas select this as his favorite thirteenth proved a sure-fire way to have greatness stamped upon it when The World Atlas of Golf was published in 1976. Even better, it is well nigh impossible to imagine that this hole has ever disappointed a single visitor, no matter how sky-high their expectations. Historically, the ninth and thirteenth represented an important turning point. Though Oakmont, Merion, and Pine Valley had long been the standard-bearers for the merit of short two shotters, architects had nudged away from them in the 1950s and 1960s. Harbour Town marked a welcome return to this genre of hole. Now, such holes are the present darlings in architecture and are considered a must in any modern design. The two at Harbour Town offer ‘fortress type’ defenses at the green, which have largely thwarted gains in technology. Good luck trying to strangle the desired birdie out of either! Certainly, the role and desirability of sub-360 yard holes was one of Nicklaus’s primary takeaways from the Harbour Town project and he delivered the goods when he built the fourteenth at Muirfield Village, the third at Cabo Del Sol and a host of other ones.

The 13th fairway offers more land movement in part because Dye needed more fill for the raised …

… 13th green pad.

The 13th green putting surface protrudes into the bunker before flaring out to the left rear. Forward hole locations are particularly problematic.

As seen from the right, this famous greenside bunker starts shallow but is ultimately over five feet below the putting surface.

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