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Harbour Town

A groundbreaking design by two storied course-builders undergoes a facelift and emerges more refined than ever

By: Evan Hartley

Appeared in April 2002 LINKS

The role of Indiana Jones was offered first to Tom Selleck, not Harrison Ford. The Portland Trail Blazers chose Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft. And half the country voted to put Al Gore in the White House in 2000.

As with those twists of fate, so it was with the choice of an architect for Harbour Town Golf Links. It would be easy to imagine that Pete Dye was brought to Hilton Head Island, S.C., by some cosmic force, when in fact it was names such as Jack Nicklaus, developer Charles Fraser, Robert Trent Jones, Arnold Palmer and golf writer Charles Price all serendipitously combining to shake the foundations of American golf.

Harbour Town did indeed change the nature of golf course design. Since its opening in the fall of 1969, Harbour Town has been cursed and praised with equal ferocity by hackers and touring professionals alike. And following an extensive restoration in 2000, the course now presents itself better than ever.

Harbour Town is 18 holes of paradox and contradiction. “Pine Valley in a swamp,” wrote Dan Jenkins in a 1970 Sports Illustrated piece. “St. Andrews with Spanish Moss,” he added for good measure. The course was built entirely around finesse. It is a tight, intimate layout, virtually flat, with small, simple greens. The late, legendary Price, a longtime Hilton Head resident who crusaded tirelessly to bring the PGA Tour to the island, once described Harbour Town’s greens as “so small and lacking in undulation that three-putting is more a matter of incompetence than a geographic survey that went awry.”

With masterful shaping and the use of railroad ties, sharp edging and ornamental flourishes of Bahai and pampas grass—design elements unheard of at the time—Dye created holes at Harbour Town that cast indelible images in a first-time player’s mind. But the course’s design is only part of the unconventional brilliance of Harbour Town. Its history is as colorful as those responsible for its creation.

A native of Urbana, Ohio, Dye was an accomplished amateur golfer who left the insurance business in the late ’50s to design and build golf courses. It was a fortuitous decision seconded by his wife, Alice, herself a nine-time state amateur champion. For the next few years Dye plied his trade around the Midwest for $1,000 a course. In 1963 the Dyes spent a month in Scotland playing the country’s storied courses, studying the characteristics that would influence the design of every course they would subsequently build back home.

Upon his return, Dye built Crooked Stick for a group of Indiana businessmen. The course was steeped in the tradition of MacKenzie, Ross and Tillinghast. Crooked Stick’s design features would become Dye’s trademark: bold, stark contours with sharp edging along the borders to provide visual definition. It was the ’60s, remember, and Dye brought a defiant, even counter-cultural approach to course building.

Meanwhile, on the remote South Carolina island of Hilton Head, Charles Elbert Fraser was well into the development of Sea Pines Plantation, a meticulously planned resort and residential community. Fraser had already built two golf courses with George Cobb at Sea Pines and was planning a third, a more traditional design set against the sandy shores of Calibogue Sound.

He was approached by Jack Nicklaus, who intimated to Fraser that he was interested in getting into course design and inquired about working on the new Sea Pines project. Fraser was leery; in fact, Cobb had already completed the routing for Fraser’s third 18. Then Nicklaus brought up another name. “Pete Dye,” he said. “The best in the business right now.” Fraser’s reply was on the order of: “Never heard of him.” Nevertheless, at the urging of Nicklaus and Price, Fraser summoned Dye. It was a genuine stroke of irony, as this well-to-do Southern businessman known for his unprecedented land-use plans and restrictive covenants would eventually be forever linked with a wise-cracking Midwesterner prone to routing golf courses on the backs of napkins.
 
What Dye found on Hilton Head was a 400-acre swamp, infested with mosquitoes and gangly pine trees and flatter than week-old champagne. One afternoon, he ventured down the road to Palmetto Dunes, an oceanfront resort on Hilton Head where Robert Trent Jones Sr. was building a course. Dye felt a bolt of inspiration. He drove back to Harbour Town intent on building a course as unlike Trent Jones’ neighboring layout as possible. Dye’s course at Sea Pines was to be a complete repudiation of contemporary stylings, with railroad ties shoring up bunkers, small greens, tiny pot bunkers and vast waste areas strewn with sand. Harbour Town would formally reintroduce the art of shotmaking to America. The tables were about to be turned on power golf.

With Dye on-site and Nicklaus making 23 visits during construction—a remarkable attendance record for a still very active tour player—the course quickly took shape. Nicklaus would sometimes play shots from bare, unseeded ground to roughly shaped green settings to assess shot values. The pair also made a significant change to Cobb’s original routing, taking the par-4 18th hole out along the marshes of Calibogue Sound rather than bringing it back toward the clubhouse.

All the while, Dye and crew were under excruciating time constraints. The PGA Tour had committed a professional event to Sea Pines, originally scheduled for November 1968 but eventually postponed a year. The tournament was to be held in conjunction with the re-chartering of the South Carolina Golf Club, considered by many—most notably Price—to be the first organized golf club in America. Originally founded in Charleston in 1786, the club was to be re-chartered to Sea Pines and celebrated by the playing of the aptly named Heritage Golf Classic.

Fraser desperately wanted the tournament to be played at Harbour Town, a plan that would leave Dye and crew an 11-month window from start to finish. In the first tournament brochure, all references to Harbour Town were accompanied by an asterisk, noting in the fine print, “if the course is ready.” But it was ready indeed when the game’s top touring professionals arrived that Thanksgiving weekend in 1969. Among them was Arnold Palmer, who after dominating the game for much of the decade was enduring a 14-month victory drought. Much to his chagrin, his professional obituary was beginning to appear in numerous magazines and newspaper articles.

Harbour Town’s reception by the Heritage field was initially as chilly as the temperature during the opening round of play. Many players stalked off the course shaking their heads in dismay at Dye’s unconventional design. But as writers were labeling the course as “tricky” and “unfair,” Jim Colbert arrived in the press tent with a grin on his face and a 69 on his scorecard, extolling the course as the greatest American layout since Pine Valley. “That round saved us,” Dye would claim years later. “Colbert’s 69 saved me and the golf course from extensive criticism. The momentum could have easily shifted the other way.”

If Colbert’s round saved Harbour Town’s reputation, then Palmer’s performance in the inaugural Heritage burnished it. He battled the weekend’s inclement conditions—managing a 3-over-par 74 in Sunday’s cold, windy final round—and won by three over Bert Yancey and Richard Crawford. Afterward, Palmer raved about the golf course, noting that winning there required a competitor to play “smart golf,” and admitting he had felt more pressure to win that weekend than at the U.S. Open or the Masters. Palmer won again the following week. Two weeks after his Heritage win, he was named Male Athlete of the Decade by the Associated Press.

It was an amazing weekend that forever put Hilton Head Island on golf’s radar screen. A week before the ’69 Heritage Classic, few had heard of Harbour Town; a week after the tournament it was known throughout the world. One month later, Jenkins’ article appeared in Sports Illustrated, describing Harbour Town as “moody, creaturish, inventive and demanding.” He wrote that the course’s “instant character” allowed it to be favorably compared to Merion, Augusta National and Pine Valley. Soon, Harbour Town was being included among the world’s top courses, a reputation it continues to enjoy today.

Harbour Town’s continuing allure lies in its contradictions. While Dye purposely made it significantly less than 7,000 yards (until the 2000 renovation it played 6,900 from the tournament tees), the course doesn’t play short. Depending on wind direction and velocity, holes such as 8, 10, 11, 12, and 18 can be as long and difficult as any par-4s in the world. It was never a long hitter’s course, yet long hitters have learned to manage it and win there. Conservative and aggressive players have been successful there; the key is knowing when to attack and when to play with caution.

Two of the three par-5s on the course are birdie holes, yet the back nine’s only par-5, the 15th, is a true three-shot hole and one of the most formidable par-5s in competitive golf. Its short par-4s—9, 13 and 16—are exquisitely maddening. In fact, Dye and Nicklaus can claim credit for only 17 holes at Harbour Town. The magnificent 363-yard 13th was designed by Alice Dye, who sketched its design on a cocktail napkin after Pete asked for her input; Alice then oversaw the crew that built the hole. And Harbour Town’s par-3s, none of which measure longer than 200 yards, still collectively rank among the world’s best—if not the best.
 
Few significant structural changes were made to the course until 1989. That summer, teeing areas were rebuilt, four greens (the seventh, 11th, 14th and 15th) were redesigned and rebuilt, and the remaining greens were restored to their original size by re-sodding the collars. Having been groomed to a uniform height, the expanded collars allowed players the option of chipping, pitching or putting from just off the green.

Harbour Town’s recent restoration, overseen by Dye and completed in December 2000, rebuilt all greens, bunkers and tee boxes and upgraded the course’s drainage system. While its basic characteristics remain intact, some holes were lengthened and several new championship teeing areas were introduced. The changes were universally lauded when unveiled to the professionals at the 2001 Heritage, today known as the WorldCom Classic—The Heritage of Golf.

“Pete did a phenomenal job putting the golf course back to its original state,” says Greg Norman, the 1988 Heritage champion and a vocal critic when the course’s conditioning began to wane in the late ’80s. “The course plays better now. The visual impact off the tee is better. But you still have to keep fitting your shots to the hole. It still requires tactical position golf. That’s why it remains one of the great golf courses of the world.”

Harbour Town Golf Links is founded on a design that violated the prevailing culture of course architecture. It is an unfussy routing, ever in stride with its island environment, yet as complex a shotmaking challenge as any constructed by its mastermind, Pete Dye.   

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