We here at GNN are on a quest to play every stop on the PGA Tour schedule. In our first installment of the GNN Tour, we take on Harbour Town Golf Links.
Arriving to the tee at the par-3 17th at Harbour Town Golf Links, the Pete Dye design is no longer cordoned off by an army of massively tall Hilton Head pine trees. What becomes visible is the money view that has made this South Carolina course an iconic stop in American golf and the postcard photo opp that drives the RBC Heritage.
I had the chance to play Harbour Town last Saturday morning. I asked for, and got, an early tee time. In fact, I got the first time that day - a 7:30 a.m. start that would set the pace behind me.
But, first, I had to get there. I wasn't staying on Hilton Head Island, so I had to take the brief drive from Bluffton, S.C., on Route 278. Remember, it's a dollar to get in and $1.50 to get out. If you don't have a state-issued Palmetto Pass, make sure to bring cash or risk having your car's picture taken by enforcement cameras. (As I learned, EZ Pass does not work.)
The next toll comes at getting onto the property of the Sea Pines Resort. That guest pass will run you $5, which is a small price to pay for a day of challenging golf.
I arrived to the parking lot, greeted by a friendly forecaddie ready to load up a cart with my clubs, some tees and a sack of driving range balls. Making my way to the practice ground was brief - a few seconds in the buggy.
The range isn't huge, but it is natural grass, supports most players' length with the driver and provides a nice view of the first and 10th tees, as well as the 9th green. The practice greens for chipping and putting are more than sufficient for the resort-bound weekend hacker. The close proximity of the facility's features is a fair warning of what Dye has in store for the player for most of the afternoon.
My forecaddie, Brad, greeted me as I was staring at the scorecard, trying to make something of the 6,640-yard track in front of me.
The first hole, a par 4 playing out 392 yards, was a bigger jolt to the senses than my coffee. The claustrophobic may turn around and leave the island. It's a tight tee shot, even if straight down the chute. Rather than risk a trip to the forest on the first hole, I took a 3-iron and drew it into the middle of the fairway.
The challenge didn't end there, much like every other hole at Harbour Town. The target was small and left little margin for error to hit the green. It required a draw to get close, but as Dye intends, the shot shape changes depending on your position. Position matters most on Dye tracks - finding the proper side of the fairway to create a comfortable second shot, leading to a reasonable chance for birdie. In this case, I did just that, leading to a par and a confident start.
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But not every hole is that simple - which is a relative term. Some are tighter than others. The holes curve left and right and, like at the par-5 fifth, both ways in the same hole thanks to the shaping created by trees, bunkers, waste areas and mowing.
Though the greens are small, some are shaped to create an even stiffer challenge. At the short par-4 ninth, even a perfect drive can be ruined by a poor wedge shot to a horseshoe-shaped green. Flanked by bunkers the size of lawn chairs, a player could easily go from licking their chops for birdie to licking their wounds on the 10th tee with a bogey.
As the round unfolded, I found myself playing more conservative than usual. The small targets wore on me, leading me to believe the best course was to lay back off the tee to have more freedom to approach the green.
The hazards mess with your mind, too. At the par-3 14th, I bailed out to the left to avoid the treacherous water hazard just steps to the right of the pin - even with an 8-iron in hand.
By the time I had reached the 17th hole, I had made seven bogeys and a birdie, a 20-footer at the aforementioned fifth. I laid up there. That's not my inclination on a 520-yard hole.
The dropped shots came from silly mistakes ranging from bailing out on approaches to tee shots that left me blocked out of any realistic chance to go for the green.
Having an experienced forecaddie like Brad was enormously helpful, particularly off the tee. I didn't always execute on his advice but, if I had, I would have been maybe a couple over par. Whatever you score at Harbour Town is at least five shots more than you would typically score. Dye believes par is more a test of prescription than imagination, but leaves just enough room for creativity to keep a player hopeful to salvage par.
No matter how you're playing, the final two holes are the payoff of the round. They are no cake walk, but their innate natural beauty made me relax for the first time all day.
The par-3 17th is 190 yards, playing that day into a fairly stiff wind to a narrow, north-to-south green flanked by deep bunkers. Hit it straight and grab the putter. Do anything else and it's a likely bogey for most. Fortunately, I did the former.
A quick turn to the right reveals the par-4 finisher. It's really not that remarkable at first glance, and you're left wondering where the tee is. There's little drama at the start of the hole because, frankly, it doesn't need it. Each shot reveals more of its magnificence.
The tee ball provides options. Play to the left to cut off length, but going left comes with the peril of finding the marshland. Bailing out to the right brings an equally poor fate for an overcooked approach to the left of the green.
I did what Davis Love III tends to do. He's won the RBC Heritage five times, so it made sense. I played out just to the right of the green, leaving a bump-and-run chip to salvage par. Harbour Town would not be mistaken for a links, but a player can play comfortably on the ground. That's just what I did for one last par on the card.
The total was 77 on the par-71 course. Not bad. Neither was the pace. Playing with a gentleman from Texas, we played in a blistering 2 hours, 30 minutes. The first handful of tee times are typically reserved for two- or threesomes to avoid early backups. If you want to get in and out quickly, play early.
Harbour Town is one of those rare tracks on the PGA Tour that you and I can play without having to make a phone call, sell your first-born child or splurge on a six-figure initiation fee. Whether it's gaining an appreciation for PGA Tour talent, watching alligators lounge in streams or a quiet morning with the sticks, Harbour Town is an experience well worth having.