My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
#14, Par 3, 165 Yards
To me, this is the hardest of the par 3's. It's not as long as the 4th, but the shot feels a lot more claustrophobic, with water hugging the front and right sides of the green. There's a closely mown area to bail on the left, but it leaves an up-and-down that's still reasonably intimidating. Take par and run to the 15th tee.
#15, Par 5, 541 Yards
This is a rare instance where Pete Dye put a par 5 as the 15th hole rather than the 16th. This one is a true three-shot hole as far as I'm concerned. I think some of the pros are able to get home in two, but I have no idea how. The hole is tight, and takes a hard turn to the left at roughly the 100 yard point. What's more, there's water on the left side of the green starting at about 140 yards out. So, any chance to get home in two requires a hard hook around the trees, and probably from 250 yards or more. No thanks.
#16, Par 4, 395 Yards
This is the hole where the most yardage has been added. The Blue tees today are where the blacks used to be, and the blacks are on the opposite side of the road. The drive needs to be in the area of the big tree in the middle of the fairway. Staying short of it is your best bet to have a clear look into the hole. The sand on the left side is where the term "Waste Area" was first invented and defined. Once you make the left turn to the hole, you'll face the seaside winds for the first time, which will typically be in your face. The golf course finally opens up after this left turn with no more bowling alley style shots required.
#17, Par 3, 174 Yards
The last of the par 4's, with a shot into the wind, and the setting sun if you're playing late in the day. Putting a hole at the end of a round into the setting sun isn't my favorite routing tactic, but it probably couldn't be avoided in this case while still heading out to the water. Hypothetically, the nines could be flipped to avoid that issue, but there's no way you'd ever think of that in the case of Harbour Town. I'll live with putting on some sunglasses. The green is pretty deep by Harbour Town standards, but don't go left. As usual, Dye gives you an area to bail if you don't want to take on too much of the risk.
#18, Par 4, 444 Yards
#18 at Harbour Town is one of that holes that I probably shouldn't try to explain. It's one of the most famous holes in golf, and it's a bear. The driving area is wide...almost Old Course #1 wide. The Lighthouse is a good line off the tee. Even though there's so much room out there, the drive still feels somewhat difficult since the wind that usually quarters off the left and into your face. Plus it's 444 yards, so you want to get all of it. From there, it's a long shot, into a postage stamp sized green, with the Calibogue Sound to the left. Again, Dye gives you a ton of room to the right to leave your approach, which leaves a workable up-and-down. A par here is a great feeling, and a great finish.
After finishing up at Harbour Town, there are many options without walking distance to unwind. You could always go traditional and get a drink at the Harbour Town Grill, which has a nice patio overlooking the 9th green. However, my recommendation would be The Quarterdeck, at the base of the lighthouse. The view from the outside is fantastic, and fronts the Harbour, where you can watch boats (er, yachts) going in and coming out. The drinks taste awfully good with that view, and the sunset is just as good!
Harbour Town is a fun experience. I think I'd go crazy if I had to play it every day, but then again, I'd probably become a straighter hitter if I had to play it every day too! Compared with many of its peer courses, it's priced at probably the low end of what they could get. Peak pricing is about $250 for a round, but playing around twilight or off-peak-season comes with a good discount where you can get on for closer to $150. Definitely worth playing for that price, and compared with the courses ranked near it, somewhat of a bargain.
#11, Par 4, 413 Yards
#11 and #12 are probably my least favorite holes on the course...just not terribly memorable. #11 isn't much more than a long-ish par 4 with a slight bend to the left. The green is well-guarded by sand. It's really narrow, so hit it straight as an arrow or you'll probably regret it. Sound familiar yet?
#12, Par 4, 404 Yards
Sort of a mirror image of the 11th. This one is 404 yards from the Blue tees and bends a little to the right. Again, no fairway bunkers on either side--just waste and pine needles. The green is L-shaped, with a bunker protecting the front left and the right side.
#13, Par 4, 354 Yards
After a couple lackluster holes (in my opinion), the rest of the golf course is pretty strong. #13 is a fun hole with a bit of a dogleg left. It only requires a shot of about 225 yards from the tee, and the best landing area is on the right half of the fairway, staying short of the bunker on the right side. From there it's a short iron to a green in the shape of a T. The front, looks like a tongue being stuck out, and it's super narrow. If the hole is in the front, don't go near it, but just to the fat part of the green in the back and take your chances putting. The U-shaped bunker that guards the front of the green is no picnic, and has steep railroad ties on its edges. Anything too close to the ties runs the risk of being an unplayable lie.
#10, Par 4, 421 Yards
The drive looks pretty easy off the tee. Sure, there's a large pond to the left, but there's enough room out to the right to bail out. However, this is really not the case. Almost anything on the right half of the fairway will have its line into the green blocked by trees. So, you have to stay on the water side of the fairway to have a good line, or lay back a ways.
#8, Par 4, 435 Yards
One of the hardest holes on the course, this long and tight par 4 bends to the left with sand and water to the left of the green. The good thing is that there is a large bailout area to the right of the hole. The closely mown bailout area is really not a bad place to be, and leaves you a relatively simple up-and-down.
#9, Par 4, 322 Yards
I suppose this one would be driveable for some, or at least you could put it in the front bunker. However, I'm not sure anyone in their right mind would really try it because of how narrow the hole is. The driving range is on the left side (OB), but the good thing is that there are nets there to keep most balls out of it. However, the don't keep balls hit off line from the trees on either side, which area basically jail. A ball on the left side of the fairway will be blocked by trees that are about 70 yards from the hole. A ball on the right side will be blocked by trees about 30 yards from the hole. So, whatever you can hit exactly down the middle to a landing zone about 10 yards wide is the club to choose from the tee. From there, it's a short shot to a boomerang-shaped green with a bunker in front and three nasty pot bunkers in the rear. Probably the hardest 322 yard hole I've seen.
#5, Par 5, 511 Yards
Bombs away off the tee. Aside from the 18th, this hole probably has the most driving room at Harbour Town. In addition, there aren't many overhanging limbs to worry about on this one unless you stray offline. Being in the fairway presents a good look at the hole in two, or more safely in three. Water lines the left side of the hole on the second shot but is enough off the beaten path that an aggressive shot can be hit without worrying too much about it.
#6, Par 4, 404 Yards
A subtle dogleg right. Keep it on the right half of the fairway here to avoid interference from the trees. Hug the fairway bunker to have the best line to the hole. The green is fairly wide in the front, and narrows toward the back. As is the case with a good number of holes at Harbour Town, the hole is susceptible to running the ball up....that and the last hole or two are probably the only features that gives this course any amount of a links feel. Otherwise, the term links is definitely a misnomer here.
#7, Par 3, 172 Yards
Trees flank either side of a green that is also surrounded by sand. If you're errant enough that you miss the sand, there's water waiting for you as well on the left side. So, hit a field goal between the trees and you'll be all set. This green is really deep by Harbour Town's standards....35 yards from front to back.
#4, Par 3, 187 Yards
The fourth is the first of four fantastic par 3's. These are possibly the best set of par 3's in the country. The left half of the green here is surrounded by water with room to bail on the right. The shot is probably a mid-iron, so it's a good test.
#3, Par 4, 411 Yards
Nothing terribly memorable about the 3rd, but a long straight drive is required to a fairway that is surrounded by waste and pine needles. When the course was renovated in 2000, lots of waste areas were added to the edges of holes where rough or pine needles existed in the past. The right side of this hole is a good example of this.
#2, Par 5, 495 Yards
Keep your ball on the left side of the fairway and you'll have a chance to get home in two, but you'll need to hug a fairway bunker on the left to do so. Trees and bunkers block the right half of the green, which sits on a diagonal from front left to back right. Of course if you do have a go at the green, keep in mind that it's only 27 yards deep, so shot hit with a fairway wood will either have to roll up onto the left side of the green, or will risk running over the bank and into a bunker. OB runs down the left side of the hole.
#1, Par 4, 392 Yards.
A fade is the required ball-flight of the first tee. There's some room out there wasn't you get past the first chute of trees. Harbour Town is extremely flat, along with all of Hilton Head Island really. So, there really aren't any elevated tees or greens. The approach here isn't terribly hard, and Dye, as usual, gives you an ability to get off to a decent start.
Harbour Town isn't the first course I played on the Bucket List (Torrey Pines gets the nod there), but it is probably is the course that actually started my bucket list. I have traveled to Hilton Head with my family since 1981, and since I began playing golf somewhere around 1990 or so, I had aspirations to play golf in Hilton Head. However, after walking up the steps of the Harbour Town Lighthouse a number of times, it wasn't just playing golf in Hilton Head that I dreamed about, it was playing the famous Harbour Town Golf Links. So, it wasn't the first time I played a great golf course, but when I first stepped up and teed off the first hole of at Habour Town in 1998, it was this day that I played a course I had really dreamed about playing. In those days, my bucket list was short, and my goals of playing America's best golf courses hadn't been established, but the feeling was the same teeing off #1. It was a feeling of finally getting a chance to play a course I had long dreamed about....a feeling that I've had a number of times since.
Harbour Town Golf Links, and Hilton Head Island as a whole were the brain-child of Robert Fraser. The story of Charles Fraser is an amazing one. While Hilton Head Island has had historical significance in several wars, most importantly during the Civil War as an important Union stronghold and part of its blockade of the South. However, until the mid-1950's, there were nearly no inhabitants of Hilton Head Island, and no bridge that connected it to the mainland. It was Charles Fraser who took the risk to develop the Sea Pines Plantation in 1956, which began the development of Hilton Head Island as a tremendous vacation area in the Southeast. It was Mr. Fraser who had the brainstorm to build the Harbour Town Lighthouse, which to this day is one of the most iconic landmarks in golf, and is a logo about which Sea Pines (and Hilton Head Island as a whole) has been branded. Now known as Sea Pines Resort, there are three public golf courses on Mr. Fraser's property, and one private track. All the courses are solid, but Harbour Town is the crown jewel of Sea Pines, and along with Long Cove Club, is the best course on the Island. The story of Charles Fraser includes the development of Amelia Island Plantation as well as Kiawah Island Resort. He died in 2002 in a tragic boating accident while consulting on a project in Turks & Caicos.
The course itself was built to host a PGA Tour event, which was part of the marketing strategy to get additional exposure to Sea Pines. The course opened in 1969, designed by Pete Dye, with Jack Nicklaus acting as a consultant. This was the first ever design work by Nicklaus, in what would begin a remarkable career of golf course design. While only open since 1969, Harbour Town Golf Links honors the "Heritage of Golf" by paying homage to the South Carolina Golf Club, the oldest in North America, which was rechartered at Harbour Town.
I've played Harbour Town two other times since that first day in August, 1998. Moreover, I've walked the golf course a number of times during the PGA Tour's Heritage Classic (MCI, Worldcom, Verizon, and now RBC have been sponsors over the years). I've biked around the golf course on rental bikes. So, needless to say, I know the course reasonably well.
There are courses like Augusta National and Oakland Hills that test putting. There are courses like Bethpage Black that test brute strength. There are courses like TPC Sawgrass that test the mental ability to block out trouble. And then there's Harbour Town; a course that tests ball-striking and precision. What makes this course tough isn't the yardage--only recently did they stretch the tips to over 7,000 yards. What makes this course tough is the narrow fairways, tiny greens, and the fact that overhanging trees make the fairways even narrower than they really are. If you're on the wrong side of the fairway, there's a good chance that overhanging limbs will block your route to the hole. Therefore, at Harbour Town, it's not just about hitting fairways, it's about hitting fairways on the correct side. Shaping the ball both ways is required to score well here. Putting is more of an afterthought here. The greens are incredibly small (ranging from 23 to 39 yards deep), and not terribly undulalting, so if you are on the green, more often than not, you'll have a reasonable chance to make a putt.
Unfortunately, I've never taken many pictures at Harbour Town, but a great review and pictures can be found at golftripper.com
Since I've had the chance to play here multiple times, I've also had the chance to play it from different set of tees. When I first checked the course off the Bucket List, I played it from all the way back (at that time, it was 6,900 yards from the tips), and shot probably the best 86 I've shot in my life. Since that round, I've played it two other times, both from the second set of tees from the back and faced more difficult days. It's currently 6,640 Yards from the Dye Tees, which play to a par of 71 and a rating/slope of 73.0/141. From all the way back, it's a nasty 75.6/147. There's a reason that Tiger Woods has never played The Heritage....don't play those tees unless you're long, AND straight. I'll quote the Dye tees in my review:
#81, Top 100 Courses in the World (2013)
#42, Top 100 Courses in the U.S.(2013)
#12, Top 100 Courses You Can Play (2012)
#18, America's 100 Greatest Public Courses (2013-2014)
#96, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2013-2014)
#3, Best in the State of South Carolina (2013-2014)