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

Fourteenth hole, 190/145 yards; This one-shotter started life asking the professional to hit a ~7 iron to the green under calm conditions. It still does so today but 40 yards have been added to its original length of 150 yards. Imagine that – Needing to increase a hole’s length by over 25% just to have players have a similar club in!  Such is how the game has changed, but that’s the beauty of Harbour Town’s design: with targets this challenging, little else has had to be done. Somewhat shockingly, during the 2015 RBC, it played as the toughest hole on the course, averaging .324 shots above par, making it the single hardest par three the professionals faced on tour all year. Yet, that isn’t a one-off event. According to Shot Link, in 2005, only the Road Hole played more over par than this one shotter. And again in 2016, this was the single toughest one shotter the professionals played all year. Yikes – what gives?! In addition to the extra yards, tree growth along the left for five decades has made this hole more mischievous with time because a simple bailout left is no longer readily afforded. Additionally, a hidden back pit famously awaits, very much crafted in the Scottish theme of not guaranteeing the player a perfect stance or easy swing at the ball. All told, the fourteenth punches above its weight and is the umpteenth example found already in the round that distance isn’t a prerequisite for challenge.

The 14th calls for exasperating accuracy (photo courtesy of PJ Koening Golf Photography).

The saying about a bunker that is barely big enough for ‘an angry man and his ball’ originated in the United Kingdom and applies at Harbour Town too.

Fifteenth hole, 590/540 yards; When this hole (the only par five on the back) was unveiled, it was instantly revered for being one of the great three shotters built in the modern era. Five decades later and with technology on a tear, no par five is unreachable in two but the hole’s strategic merit has stood it in good stead. The need for an arrow straight drive can be off-putting but is step one toward success. For most resort guests, step two is to properly position your second shot to the right of a lagoon that emanates from near the green and extends back 100 yards. From there, the pitch might be the easiest of the three shots. Originally one of the smallest putting surfaces, the green was expanded in the early 1980s by Dye to spread out the foot traffic – and ball marks – at this very popular resort course. He did so by adding a bowl contour back left that actually makes a birdie a distinct possibility when the hole is there. That’s only though after two well played shots. Living near Pinehurst, what is remarkable to the author is the hole’s loose resemblance to the tenth hole at Pinehurst No. 2. As is well known, Dye was enlisted at Fort Bragg during the 1940s and frequently ventured to nearby Pinehurst where he struck up a friendship with Donald Ross. Both the tenth at Pinehurst and the fifteenth at Harbour Town are of similar length and bend left approximately 115 yards from their respective greens. Each is well guarded on the inside where the holes elbow and require thoughtful golf. To the author at least, the similarities are more than a coincidence and represent another way in how the Golden Age of architecture influenced the best architects post-World War II.

As seen from 200 yards from the green, the 15th fairway bends left around a lagoon and a copse of pines and oaks. Hard as it is to believe, today’s professionals have the ability to hoist a ball high enough to carry the trees and reach the green from 275 yards away.

However, such tactics are not without risk. A poor second shot can bring a 6 or even 7 into the equation – and nothing is more infuriating to a strong player than that.

The view from behind the green. Is the golfer heading to the 16th tee with a skip in his step or fuming from having made a mess of the hole?

Sixteenth hole, 435/360 yards; The golf has been a treelined affair to date and now begins the graceful transition to the Calibogue Sound. As far as the author is aware, this hole introduced the concept of  awaste bunker.’ With a floor made of Coquina Shell, the 135 yard long waste bunker dominates the inside of the dogleg left and is played as through the green, meaning the golfer is allowed to ground his club. Certainly a novel concept, this waste area serves as another example whereby something fresh and innovative enthused a playing vitality to an otherwise flat parcel of land. The author can’t help but think back to Pete and Alice Dye’s 1963 adventures in Scotland whereby they were exposed to things they had never seen before. Here at Harbour Town, they return the favor, showing that great architecture need not adhere to established guidelines. Just as their trip to Scotland opened their eyes, so has Harbour Town to a bunch of today’s architects. Also, as an example of how Harbour Town has evolved, this unique feature saw a change. Over time, the professionals became more adept at hitting off hardpan and this waste area lost some of its teeth. Therefore, in 2014, Dye installed six island mounds within the waste area. The golfer is no longer guaranteed a level lie and an uncomplicated swing should his tee ball venture left. Its another design cue that Dye picked up in Scotland: hazards are hazardous and need to be avoided. With the integrity of the hazard restored, the golfer is no longer so cavalier off the tee and hole once again plays as Dye intended.

The large waste bunker and the two pine trees in the fairway are the visible conundrums from the tee. The invisible challenge for the approach is the wind, which now enjoys an unabated path off the sound (photo courtesy of The Sea Pines Resort/Rob Tipton).

The course’s largest bunker is found on the inside of the dogleg left 16th. The tension created between it and two central pine trees in the fairway make the 16th the tactical challenge that it was always intended to be.

The trees have sheltered the golfer somewhat from the full effects of the coastal breezes to date. That changes with the approach to the 16th. Will the golfer correctly assess the wind’s full affect?

Seventeenth hole, 215/150 yards; Breathtaking, the penultimate hole transports the golfer to the edge of Calibogue Sound. Standing on the tee, nearby pines hinder a complete read on the brunt of the wind greenside. Indeed, the good player readily mis-clubs here by 2 clubs more than any hole in world golf with which the author is familiar. The locals pay close attention to the water movement in front of the tee as well as the swaying grasses in the marsh for guidance; certainly the thickset Palmetto trees behind the green are a poor barometer of the wind’s strength. Apart from the wind, other attributes make depth perception elusive – and we have seen these factors throughout the round. First, there is the absence of framing; note the clean drop beyond the green in the first photograph below. The trees on the spit of land in the distance are actually 350 yards away. Second, another of Dye’s oddly configured bunkers helps obfuscate exactly where the flag is relative to the bunker, which is triple the length of the green and starts back left and finishes front right of the green by 50 yards. Third, the green itself is again much deeper than wide. At 35 yards deep, a back hole location can require three clubs more than a front one. Throw in the wind and it is the sort of crafty hole – within reach for all, yet elusive to hit in regulation – that defines the playing experience at Harbour Town.

The stunning view from the 175 yard tee. On the day that this photograph was taken, John Farrell, Director of Golf, stated he would play a 220 yard shot to counteract the wind’s strength.

Expansive views unfold across the waterway to Daufuskie Island as one approaches the long green, which is narrow in front before widening toward the rear. The short grass prior to the putting surface is the golfer’s friend and is a fine place to miss, especially when the hole is forward.

The famous candy cane colored lighthouse peeks out in the distance and makes its first appearance as one stands on the 17th green.

The depth of the left greenside bunker is evident in this view from back left. So too is the strength of the wind.

Eighteenth hole, 470/415 yards; How best for such a design to end? The golfer has just spent the past 3 1/2 hours placing his ball in the fairway to best approach the small, angled greens. All of a sudden, the golf bursts out onto a huge, open stage to encounter one of the widest fairways in the Southeast at 90 yards in width. It is an unexpected turn of events – and all the better for it. The tees, fairway and green are all at grade and the absence of any mounding helps lend the hole its timeless appeal. With the wind frequently off the left, how to hit the green, which is a mere 16 yards across and 27 yards deep? Does the player possess the courage to throw his approach left over the sound and let the wind bring it back onto the putting surface? It is a shot for the ages. When thinking about America’s Atlantic seaboard, few Home holes actually finish along it. Exceptions include Seminole, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, and Eastward Ho! but given its length of 2,000+ miles, the golfer readily hopes for more. Harbour Town delivers on those dreams and the rousing nature of both the tee ball and approach are due to the thumb of land that protrudes into Calibogue Sound. It was created from the material dredged from the construction of the harbor behind, which occurred simultaneously with that of the course. Such redistribution of land would not be allowed today, which is another way of saying, don’t hold your breath in hopes of ever seeing a better finishing hole on the Eastern Seaboard.

The unbridled joy of the Home hole at Harbour Town makes it Dye’s finest finishing hole out of the 100+ courses that he built.

The approach to the Home green. Few holes in world golf hold the same appeal on both their drive and approach – but this is one of the them.

Holding true to the design tenet that a small green is a vexing target, the 18th green measures a mere 3,693 square feet. Yes, there is 50 yards of short grass to the right but possessing the skill – and fortitude – to hit this green is rare.

Similar to the 8th hole, the 50 yards of short grass right of the green make aiming at the green more difficult, not less.

This view back down the Home hole conveys its sweeping appeal, as well as its timeless man v. nature allure.

There you have it. Nicklaus himself sums up the course and today’s RBC Heritage well when he says, “It was a great project, attracted great golfers and still does today and I think that’s a testament to Pete and what Charles Fraser wanted to accomplish there and the quality and class of the tournament.”

Has Harbour Town stood the test of time?  Certainly, the professionals have always loved it. In 2012, they voted it their second favorite course for architectural quality, behind Augusta National and ahead of Riviera in a poll conducted by Golf World.  Here is what several have said since:

Luke Donald

“Modern architects should take a long look at Harbour Town and realize they don’t need to build long, hard courses to make them tough.”

Jason Day

“You can’t overpower this course. You have to position yourself off the tee to attack the flags, and your short game has to be sharp. It’s one of the few ‘old school’ courses we play throughout the year.”

David Lingmerth

“I enjoy these old-style golf courses like Harbour Town where you have to place your ball off the tee. You really have to play a strategic game here.”

Its list of winners over the past five decades is second to none, including Palmer, Johnny Miller, Irwin, Nicklaus, Watson, Faldo, Price, Norman, and Love with 5. In fact, in its first 20 PGA Tour events, only two winners didn’t also win a major. Impressive as the above comments are, what is really telling is the underlying wistfulness that make it clear how much the professionals embrace the opportunity to hit shots and be creative. Among Americans, nobody grasped the need to invent shots and get on with play better than Tom Watson. No surprise that Harbour Town resonates so much with him. He states, ‘Anyone who has an interest in golf course design or architecture must include a study of the Harbour Town Golf Links – I’ve felt this way since we first played there and feel the exact same way today’. When he says ‘today’, he said those words on December 16th, 2020. He went on to add,  ‘Small greens like they have that require talent, we just don’t see enough of anymore. Maybe because I grew up with small greens in Kansas City, I just love the greens at Harbour Town, it’s too bad we’ve gotten away from this style.’

Canadian architect Rod Whitman knew Pete Dye for over 40 years, having first met him in Carefree, Arizona in the late 1970s. Whitman went on to work for Dye in the 1980s at Austin Country Club, Crooked Stick and Oak Tree and says of Harbour Town, ‘What I admire the most is how distinctive it is. When you start out as an architect, you aren’t encumbered with fixed ideas. Therefore, you are prone to trying fresh things and that is what Dye did at Harbour Town. My appreciation for it grows each year I see it on television as it has clearly stood the test of time. Too many modern courses these days only reward power – you can hit the ball just about anywhere, especially off the tee. That is not true at Harbour Town and its balance between length and precision is refreshing.’

American architect Brian Curley worked with Pete Dye for a few decades, including up the South Carolina coast at Kiawah. Curley’s admiration for Harbour Town is evident when he writes, ‘ HT is easily the best example of a largely single-loaded corridor land plan where the homes have very little impact on the image of the course or even the playability. The actual acreage devoted to golf is unquestionably small.  It is a testimony to the value of treelined holes when golf meets housing. When I worked with Pete on Kiawah, we played the other courses there and he pointed out “proper” clearing of a thick treed property. You quite often see clearing where you go from nothing to thick and, although the openings may be wide, the result is a lot of lost balls once they enter the edges. HT does the opposite…… very narrow clearings and selective gradations of clearing from sparse to full means the initial layer or trees bat down errant shots but leave them in the  somewhat cleared areas for recovery, even if hitting off non-turf surfaces. These same errant balls on most courses are sent to the dark forest, never to be recovered. This is something lost on many architects who see width as equating to playability. Most importantly, HT is  a wonderful example of a low profile design and is the kind of course you can play every single day. As with TPC Sawgrass, it produces winners from short hitters to long bombers, and will always hold up. Thankfully, the task fell to Dye to build it as if the job had been given to  99% of the other designers at the time, you would have likely seen a standard residential golf community with elegant “Florida styled “ bunkers with capes and bays…….and it would have been received as a nice new course only to drift into oblivion with its brothers and sisters.’

What Dye and Nicklaus created was a one-off the day it opened. It represented a marked departure from what the other lead architects of the day were doing – and it could have been a complete miss. There were no guarantees that a 6,600 yard course featuring railroad ties and tiny greens would be well received. Give Charles Fraser credit for letting the course unfold in the manner in which it did. Plenty of owners would have waffled, opting for something more mainstream. Yet, Dye’s recent trips to the United Kingdom had instilled in him an unshakeable confidence as to what constituted good golf. When you add in Nicklaus’s contributions and the hundreds of shots he hit during construction, the playing values of Harbour Town are second to none. Sure there have been tweaks over the years as enumerated in this profile but as far as the author is aware, Harbour Town adheres the closest to its original form of any Dye design.

Nicklaus’s words predicting great things for Dye proved prophetic. Anyone with the capability, let alone the vision, to build Harbour Town’s quartet of one shotters, its famed short par fours, and eighteenth hole was clearly a man destined to standout in his profession. And for the next fifty years (!), Dye did so. True, before Harbour Town, he had built of note Crooked Stick in Indiana and The Golf Club in Ohio, both of which also featured holes never quite seen before. The difference at Harbour Town was that the course gained instant notoriety via television as compared to the two discrete private clubs. The reach that television provided proved a pivotal moment for Dye and the ascent of his career. Over the next two decades, a host of future star architects including Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Tim Liddy, Rod Whitman, Brian Curley, and Bobby Weed would work for Dye. Nicklaus himself would go on to design Muirfield Village several years later and start a design empire. Suffice to say, the Dye design tree is immense and is as responsible for the face of modern architecture as any single entity. To learn more, be sure to set aside a good half-hour to tour the Pete Dye Room just inside the Harbour Town clubhouse.

Without doubt, Fraser’s dream has been fully realized. When Arnold Palmer emerged victor at the inaugural PGA Tour event, all the accompanying praise from the professionals and the media saw Harbour Town’s star ascend. Nothing has changed since. Through the lens of time, history now shows that the event amounted to Pete Dye’s coming-out party. Modern architecture received a much needed boost and a change of direction. Golf design was never the same thereafter in North America.

The Home flag says it all.

The End