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Golf Course Review - Harbour Town Golf Links

Hilton Head Island, SC (SportsNetwork.com) - FACTS AND STATAS: Course Architect: Pete Dye (1969), Jack Nicklaus (Design Consultant), Pete Dye (Renovation, 2011). Year Opened: 1969. Location: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Slope: 147. Rating: 75.6. Par: 71. Yardage: 7,101.

Hole-by-Hole:

1 - Par 4 410 Yds 10 - Par 4 451 Yds

2 - Par 5 502 Yds 11 - Par 4 436 Yds

3 - Par 4 469 Yds 12 - Par 4 430 Yds

4 - Par 3 200 Yds 13 - Par 4 373 Yds

5 - Par 5 540 Yds 14 - Par 3 192 Yds

6 - Par 4 419 Yds 15 - Par 5 588 Yds

7 - Par 3 195 Yds 16 - Par 4 434 Yds

8 - Par 4 473 Yds 17 - Par 3 185 Yds

9 - Par 4 332 Yds 18 - Par 4 472 Yds

Par 36 3,540 Yds Par 35 3,561 Yds

Key Events Held: Heritage Classic (1969-70), Sea Pines Heritage Classic (1971-86), MCI Heritage Classic (1987-95), Nabisco Tour Championship (1989), MCI Classic (1996-2000), Worldcom Classic - The Heritage of Golf (2001-02), MCI Heritage (2003-05), GCSAA National Championship & Golf Classic (2003), Verizon Heritage (2006-10), The Heritage (2011), RBC Heritage (2012-present).

Course Record: 61 (David Frost, 1994)

Awards Won: Ranked #1 "Best You Can Play" Public Access Courses in SC (2013), Ranked #12 by Golfweek - Best Resort Courses (2013), Rated #18 - Golf Digest - America's 100 Greatest Public (2013-14), Ranked #96 by Golf Digest - America's Great Courses (2013-14), Rated #6 by Golf Magazine - Best Seaside Courses in U.S., No. 9 on PGATour.com list of Toughest Courses on PGA Tour (2013), 18th Hole ranked as one of Golf Magazine's Best 18 Holes, Rated #2 by Golf Magazine - Best Public Courses in SC (2012), Rated #2 by Golfweek - Best Courses in South Carolina (2012), Gold Medal winner - Golf Magazine (2012-13), Achieved designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, Consistently ranked among top courses by Golf Digest, Golfweek, and Travel & Leisure.

Website: www.seapines.com.

HISTORY: Harbour Town Golf Links was the brainchild and vision of Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser, a Georgia native, who at a very young age, convinced the powers that be in the South Carolina legislature to build a bridge to connect the mainland to Hilton Head Island. Fraser intended to build and develop the region for human enjoyment, without disturbing its beauty and environment. He most certainly did when he founded the Sea Pines Company in 1957.

Knowing that golf was first introduced at the South Carolina Golf Club in 1786 in Charleston, Fraser had aspirations of bringing golf to Hilton Head Island.

Just five years later in 1962, the first course on the island was built, the Ocean Course, which was followed two years later by the Sea Marsh layout (now called Heron Point).

Hilton Head's first sporting event featured Jack Nicklaus playing against Bruce Devlin in an exhibition match in 1966, when Devlin was the touring professional for the resort and the island.

Fraser, who has been called the inventor of the American modern resort, along with his brother Joe, felt they needed a hook to put Harbour Town and the 5,000-acre Sea Pines Resort on the map, and a golf tournament was the answer.

The Heritage Classic, as it was first known, was to be played on a course designed by Pete Dye and Nicklaus, called Harbour Town Golf Links. However, the layout was still a work in progress. By Thanksgiving of 1969, however, the course was ready for play and the king Arnold Palmer led wire-to-wire to end an almost 15-month drought in the inaugural event.

"No one told me until July that there was a tournament," Dye said. "Joe Dey, then commissioner of the PGA Tour, thought it was done. He called me all the time and I said it was, but we didn't really finish some things until the week of the tournament."

With Palmer winning and breaking his dry spell, the press anointed Harbour Town, not to mention Dye's design, as the place to be. The exposure was paramount, and Harbour Town and Hilton Head Island began to explode.

Dye, along with his wife Alice, began designing courses in the early 1960s, but it was his work at Harbour Town that put this relatively unknown on the map. Although he had crafted some stellar courses at Crooked Stick and The Golf Club, the work made him, along with Nicklaus, the most sought-after golf course architect in the world.

For Nicklaus, it marked his first golf course design work, which has propelled him to craft almost 300 layouts around the world.

Dye and Nicklaus had known each other for years because both lived in Ohio and Nicklaus had mentioned to Dye that Fraser wanted to build a course in Hilton Head. "Then I moved to Delray, Florida," Dye said, "and Jack was there and he had a private plane so I started riding with him to Savannah. I talked to Charles to see if Jack could come in and help. Jack would fly and drop me off until Charles hired him, I don't know if Charles ever paid him."

Nicklaus' input was quite vital to the project, especially on the final par-5 on the course. "The 15th hole was a par-5, and Jack could carry it and get on the hole in two," Dye said. "Jack said, 'Make the green small, I can get there.'" Now stretching almost 600 yards, and the putting surface tucked to the left around trees and a pond, this hole is rarely reached in two.

Dye faced several environmental challenges, none more evident than the closing two holes. "Robert Trent Jones was building another course," Dye said, "and he built his up in the air, so I did the opposite. I worked out a drainage system and I never raised the greens, so that's why it looks the way it does. I probably got more notoriety than from anything else on that.

"The swamp, of course, was the biggest challenge," Dye continued. "I started building Hilton Head and Ron Sullivan was with me and we changed the 17th and 18th holes from a swamp. In fact, we had to go talk to the governor to fill it in."

"During the actual tournament," Dye added, "I took some trees down on 13 and changed the dogleg while the tournament was going on and made the bunker playable which was controversial but successful."

After 46 years of championship golf at Harbour Town Golf Links, the winners of The Heritage read like a who's who of golf, with such stalwarts and major champion winners as Palmer, Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Davis Love III, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price and Jim Furyk all claiming the Tartan jacket.

Love has captured the tournament a record five times, including in back-to- back seasons in 1991 and '92. "It's a great golf course, classic, you know, original Pete Dye, and fun to play," Love said. "One, it's a great golf course. Not a whole lot of tournaments have had their whole history on one golf course, a great golf course like this. And this is one when people say what are your favorite courses on the PGA Tour, they always list Pebble Beach and they list Harbour Town and they list Colonial, they list classic golf courses."

Watson, the two-time Ryder Cup captain and World Golf Hall of Fame member, captured the tournament twice and is quite an admirer of the layout. "I loved the golf course right from the beginning," he said. "I still love it. I put it in my top-five golf courses. And I consider this golf course, that it requires you to hit the ball the way you're supposed to hit the ball. You have to move the ball left to right, right to left. You have to work the ball into the greens, around some of the trees, over the trees. It has a tremendous amount of character to it. And I have always loved playing here."

Although never a winner at The Heritage, Luke Donald, a three-time runner-up at this event, has enjoyed his time at Harbour Town. "I think it has a great feel. It's an event where a lot of the players love to bring their family. It's one of the best courses we play on tour. I think modern architects can take a look at this place and realize that you don't need to make long, hard golf courses to make them tough. This one is just one of the gems that we play all year."

The man behind the vision that is Harbour Town, Charles Elbert Fraser, died suddenly in the winter of 2002 due to a boat explosion off the Islands of Turks and Caicos. At the age of 73, Fraser was consulting on another project, similar to the ones he brought to life, such as Harbour Town, Kiawah Island and Amelia Island. The Cross Island Parkway bridge, which links the north side of Hilton Head Island to the south side, was dedicated in his honor prior to his death in 1999 and rightfully so, as he initially proposed the idea back in the 1950s.

Over the years, Harbour Town Golf Links has had renovation work, not to mention lengthening done to the course, as the layout has grown over 300 yards since its inception yardage of 6,793.

In 2011-12, new tees and bunkers were added to the course, such as the 16th hole, which was increased from 395 to 434 yards. In addition, the second hole had its green surroundings modified and the waste bunker down the fairway changed to a sand bunker.

One of the most photographed holes in golf, the 18th at Harbour Town Golf Links features a stunning lighthouse behind the green. The lighthouse, which was designed by Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay Association Inc., was still being constructed during the first Heritage. Hideo Sasaki is credited with creating the master plan for Sea Pines. Standing 93 feet tall, the lighthouse was the only one built on the Atlantic coast in over 150 years. Although built as a navigational tool, it stands as a symbol to Harbour Town thanks to the persistence of Fraser.

The Heritage has produced some exciting finishes at Harbour Town the past five years, with three winners coming by way of playoffs and the 2014 event was championed when Matt Kuchar holed out from the greenside bunker for birdie to clip Luke Donald by one stroke. Kuchar, who started the round four shots behind, rallied with a final-round 64 for his seventh career PGA Tour title.

David Frost, a three-time runner-up at this event, owns the course record of 61, set back in 1994 and a mark that might never be broken. Since 2002, only two players have carded better than 63, and that occurred in 2002 by Davis Love III and when 2005 winner Peter Lonard opened with a 62.

How difficult is Harbour Town Golf Links? Only twice in the past 30 years of this event has the overall scoring average been under par.

HOLE-BY-HOLE REVIEW: Although it's been lengthened over the years to just over 410 yards, the opening hole at Harbour Town is a simple, straightaway par-4. The key, as you will find with most holes at this special layout, is that you'll need to keep your ball between the trees, a chute of only 20 yards, in order to score well. At its widest, the fairway is just 30 paces and the right side of the landing area will make for the best approach. The putting surfaces at Harbour Town are quite small and No. 1 is no exception at just 24 steps in depth. If you hope to have a chance at posting a good score, the early holes at Harbour Town is your best chance. Just ask 2014 RBS Heritage winner Matt Kuchar, who began his final round with back-to-back birdies on the first and second holes en route to a 64.

At 502 yards from the Heritage Tees, the second is a birdie or better waiting to happen, especially with a front pin. The fairway is as narrow as it gets, while the second shot must thread through the encroaching trees on either side of the fairway. A left side angle is the best to attack this green. Although quite long, its depth is minuscule with a bunker fronting and one in the rear. During the 2014 RBC Heritage, this hole played the easiest for the week, with 10 eagles and 204 birdies.

Number 3 bends slightly to the left and has been stretched almost 70 yards since its inception. A sandy waste area down the right side, 100 yards in length, will deter the player from favoring this area, but this will provide the best approach to another tiny green. Sand right and short left provide plenty of protection for this putting surface, which plays from back to front and left to right. What was once a sure birdie chance is now a beast of a par-4.

If there is a criticism of Harbour Town, it would be the par-3s. Not because they are easy or bland, hardly, it would be because they are all roughly the same yardage, running from 185 to 200 yards. Having said that, the fourth is a beauty with the signature Pete Dye railroad tie bulkhead. Water guards three sides of this 200-yard hole, while sand stands in the rear. Bail out right if you must, otherwise this is a double-bogey waiting to happen.

The fifth is another realistic chance at birdie because it's only 540 yards in length from the back markers. The key is the tee shot, which must move from right to left, as the hole doglegs in that direction. The fairway is rather friendly, but two bunkers pinch the landing area. The decision to go for the green is now first and foremost, as out-of-bounds is down the right and a 130- yard waste area bunker and water are down the left. The kidney-shaped green is flanked left by sand and the surface runs left to right. Par is not a bad score, but during the 2014 PGA Tour stop, Jason Kokrak made birdie all four days and tied for 12th.

One of the nine par-4s over 400 yards in length, the sixth is a dogleg right that features one of the longest greens on the course at 31 paces. The landing area is generous, but sports a waste area bunker down the left and a long fairway bunker on the right. The tee shot must favor the left for your best angle of attack. The putting surface runs from back to front and toward the right, so below the hole is best. Any errant approach will find the three guarding bunkers.

The course continues to heat up with a sensational par-3 of 195 yards, the seventh. Almost an island green, but surrounded by sand, this one-shotter needs pinpoint accuracy, as the putting surface is quite long, yet narrow, with tall oaks right and left protecting the entrance. The water that fronts the tee box and runs left of the hole is more for aesthetics, as it's the sand, trees and green depth that will get you.

Number 8 is rated as the most-difficult hole on the course ... and rightfully so. At 473 yards and doglegging sharply to the left, this behemoth recorded only six birdies out of 78 players during the final round in 2014. Tree lined on both sides, your tee shot needs to split the fairway to have the best look at the green. Now the difficulty really starts, as the putting surface, which runs from front to back, is quite narrow with water and sand protecting the entire left side. A back-left pin must be avoided, so play out toward the right and even if you miss the green, you'll have a reasonable chance at saving par. I wish I had, instead of going for glory and making double!

If you thought tthe closing hole at Harbour Town was a pushover at 332 yards, you'd be sorely mistaken. Yes, the hole is quite short and requires just a long iron or fairway metal off the tee, but you'd better be accurate because trees guard both sides of the fairway. Even with a shot in the short grass, you might be blocked by one of the tall oaks that tightens the landing area. Now it's time to approach the green and depending where the pin is, it might be difficult to attack, as the heart-shaped putting surface is as small as it gets. A massive traps guards the entire front, while three pot bunkers at the top of the green are a heart attack waiting to happen, no pun intended. Starting on the sixth hole, Kuchar made five consecutive 3s during the final round in 2014, including a birdie here to help secure his victory.

The back nine starts hard and fast with three straight par-4s over 430 yards in length. Number 10 is a difficult driving hole that bends around a lake to the left. Although trees won't hinder your tee shot, they certainly come into play with your approach, as both sides are pinched tightly by oaks. The putting surface is fairly long and narrow with sand on the right and a chipping area to the left. Running from back to front, stay below the hole for your best chance at saving par.

Number 11 is one of the more difficult holes at Harbour Town, as it ranks sixth on the scorecard. As with most holes here, the key is the tee shot because it must split the tight, tree-lined fairway. Left-center will leave the best approach to this green which is blanketed by sand on both sides and has a tall oak tree on the right. There's also another long and narrow green which slants from back to front.

Another difficult par-4, the 12th is a sharp dogleg to the right of 430 yards. The key is to place your tee ball past the corner of the dogleg, otherwise your approach will be blocked by trees. At 41 paces, the green is the longest and the trickiest on the course, as it wraps around a devilish bunker on the left. Double-check your GPS for correct yardage, especially when the pin is placed in the back-left quadrant of the putting surface.

Signature holes are bandied about on all courses, but the 13th at Harbour Town is certainly a Pete/Alice Dye signature hole. A reasonably short par-4 of just 373 yards, the 13th requires just a long iron or fairway metal off the tee that should favor the right side, as sand and trees protect the left. What sets this hole apart is the green complex which is fronted by a bulk-headed sand bunker, sitting well above the fairway. The putting surface, although small, has plenty of movement and any shot long will end up in a swale that falls away from the green. Alice Dye, Pete's wife of 60-plus years, is credited for building this hole. "In July of 1969, Charlie Price, a golf writer, came out and said they are going to have a tournament in November," Dye said. "I thought surely they were talking about the old course and found out it was the new one. So I sent Alice out with T.P. (Dye's bulldozer operator) to build the 13th to help me out. She put boards there, but that's the only time she used boards. I finally got the course done right before the tournament golfers showed up."

The 14th is no slouch, either, with its bulk-head fronted green. This time, instead of sand, it's water that protects this medium-length par-3 of 192 yards. Although it's rated the easiest on the course, you'll need to be spot- on with your yardage and accuracy. Your only bailout will be left of the green, but sand and a difficult chipping area await. The putting surface is reasonable in length and slopes from back to front and left. This is not the time to go flag hunting. During the final round of the 2013 RBC Heritage, the 14th was the most difficult hole, as it yielded just seven birdies and had a stroke average of 3.514.

The final par-5 on the course, the 15th is also the longest at Harbour Town, reaching 588 yards in length. There is no question this is a three-shot hole, as the fairway is quite tight and the final 100 yards swing hard to the left, making it almost impossible to get home in two. Sand flanks both sides of the landing area off the tee, so not only do trees come into play, but so does the beach. Your layup needs to favor the right side of the fairway to set up the best angle of approach. Not only that, the putting surface is just 26 paces and slopes hard from right to left. Be careful, as the green is slightly elevated and this must be taken into account, otherwise you'll end up a fronting bunker.

At one time, the 16th hole was just a 373-yard par-4 and pretty simple with plenty of birdies chances. Sixty-one yards later, this hole is no longer the pushover it was. Case in point: During the 2014 PGA Tour stop, only five birdies were made during the final round out of 78 players, the second-lowest total of any hole at the tournament. Although the 16th features the widest fairway on the course, a tall pine sits prominently at the 300-yard mark, so most players will go with 3-metal off the tee. A large bunker runs down the entire left side of the fairway and plays as a hazard, not a waste area in previous years. The green is as small as any at Harbour Town at just 26 paces in depth with a trio of traps on the right and a chipping region left and long.

The penultimate hole is a beautiful par-3 that plays toward Calibogue Sound and is quite exposed to the elements. Listed at 185 yards, the 17th can be stretched to over 200, making club selection near impossible. Sand and, of course, marsh guard the entire left side of this 35-yard-long putting surface, which features plenty of movement. The front portion moves toward the front of the green, while the back section runs from left to right. It's quite a difficult hole when the tournament or a $5 Nassau is on the line.

One of the most photographed holes in golf, the 18th at Harbour Town is a magnificent par-4 of 472 yards. Not only is it a beautiful closing hole, but it is quite difficult, as it yielded only five and four birdies, respectively, in the 2013 and 2014 final rounds of the RBC Heritage. The fairway is almost impossible to miss, as it stands some 80 yards in width. However, with the wind playing havoc, you'll need to carry 230 yards from the back markers to reach the landing area. With fairway metal or long iron in your hands, you're now faced with the famed Harbour Town lighthouse in your sights and a minuscule green to approach. Just 25 paces in length, the green is fronted by sand and, of course, the tidal marsh of Calibogue Sound to the left. It comes to reason that the bailout right and the bunker see plenty of action. After a three-putt bogey on 17, Kuchar holed out from the bunker, 56 feet away, to win the 2014 RBC Heritage. Now that's drama!

FINAL WORD: Harbour Town Golf Links is in a class by itself. Prior to Kiawah Island's Ocean Course being built by, you guessed it, Pete Dye, Harbour Town was rated the top layout in South Carolina. Many still believe that it's No. 1 in the Crescent State, but either one or two, it's still one heck of a track.

The only course in the state to host a regular stop on the PGA Tour, Harbour Town has it all. The conditions of the course are outstanding from tee to green. Overseeded with Paragon ryegrass, the Bermuda grass tees and fairways are as smooth as silk, but it's the TifEagle greens that are as good as it gets.

Generally the smallest greens year after year on the PGA Tour, the putting surfaces are just on average 3,700 square feet, compared to the Phoenix stop, where the greens are roughly 6,350 square feet.

"It's a golf course where you have to really position the ball," said two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. "You have to really hit it straight off the tee, have to be very sharp with your irons into the greens because the greens are really tiny and small. The par 3s are soft. Three of them have water that comes into play. It's a great golf course, a great track."

You've heard it many times while watching the golf telecasts: "You really have to golf your ball." No question, that is the biggest understatement at Harbour Town. The corridors down each hole are so tight due to the trees lining each fairway and the smallest of putting surfaces make this a true test for even the best of players in the game.

"This is a fantastic golf course; you have to be a shot maker off the tee," said PGA Tour player Jordan Spieth. "You have to be able to hit straight balls into the greens. They're just so small, it's amazing."

Three-time Heritage runner-up Luke Donald championed those thoughts: "It's all about position, small undulating greens make it very difficult. The players really appreciate that traditional feel."

Traditionally, a links course is built alongside a major body of water, with very few trees, a sandy soil, plenty of undulations in the fairways and greens, a natural open layout susceptible to the weather and few, if any internal water features.

Does Harbour Town Golf Links fit all of the criteria? Well, not really. But, so what. What's in a name?

There's something to be said about playing a course that the professionals tee it up on, and here's your chance. Harbour Town is a resort course, so even if you're not staying at Sea Pines, you can still garner a starting time. Yes, it might be a bit pricey, but from November through March you can play for as low as $163. That's pretty good considering some of the other top-ranked public venues reach closer to $400-500 a round.

The key here would be to get a golf package, so you can experience this outstanding golf course more than once because, trust me, you will make plenty of bogeys and doubles along the way. This is one special course.

"Harbour Town made my career," Dye said. "It changed my whole way of life."

How does Harbour Town stack up in his eyes? "I'll say No. 1," added Dye.

Aces, pars or bogeys, send your thoughts to psokol@sportsnetwork.com.

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