The intimidation started early.
At first it was a sense of anticipation—I was about to play one of the top public courses in the entire country just a few weeks after the PGA Tour pros had done so during the RBC Heritage. The drive over the bridge onto Hilton Head Island and through The Sea Pines Resort gate only heightened the adrenaline rush of checking another round off my golf bucket list.
It was on the putting green, positioned between the 9th green and the resplendent 26,000-square-foot clubhouse, where my playing partner uttered the words I had been thinking.
“Are you playing for pleasure today or torture?”
Of course, having seen the course on television and knowing its background—Pete Dye’s seminal design (co-designed by Jack Nicklaus) that inspired the likes of TPC Sawgrass—this was something I had been deliberating long before setting foot on the grounds.
It was already going to be a punishing day, playing shortly after 1 p.m. on a scorching July afternoon. The Blue tees (one up from the tournament-length Heritage tees) were described to me as the “longest 6,600 yards you’ll ever play,” so I opted for the tamer White tees dialed in at just over 6,200 yards.
We were armed with a forecaddie that made it understood from the get-go that a premium is placed on shotmaking—the recommended shot path on the 1st is a tee ball that lands in the right center of the fairway and an approach that avoids the front-left bunker, but a miss long won’t hurt. Easy enough, right?
Not so fast. Even a seemingly well-struck shot that finds fairway can be placed out of position, with live oak trees blocking direct access to greens—like the one I needed to pop over stamped in the middle of a waste bunker about 50 yards out on the par-five 2nd, where my round’s engine first leaked oil.
Arnold Palmer described Harbour Town Golf Links as a “thinking man’s course,” and his win there at the inaugural Heritage Classic in 1969 brought the course (and Dye) into the limelight.
It’s not quite “target golf” as some have labeled it—at least off the tee. I actually found there was more room than meets the eye. Dye’s brilliance here is the way he used the landscape to play tricks with your mind; to make you overthink, at times. A good shot may not be good, and a bad shot will be punished. It’s built for that intimidation factor.
It’s precisely this way of playing that can both invigorate and infuriate the everyday player. I happen to love this style—it makes you fully engaged in every shot, every hole.
The course will almost certainly put you in some precarious situations that you won’t find anywhere else. Take, for example, the par-three 7th. Your shot is a carry over water to a long, skinny green surrounded by an E-shaped bunker that’s dotted with those huge oaks—one of my fellow players chuckled as he played his second shot out of the middle line of the “E.”
I didn’t realize until it was too late, but starting at the 8th (the toughest on the scorecard) I entered a brutal six-hole gauntlet of all par fours. After making the turn, the 10th is really your first exposure to the wind coming off the Calibogue Sound, which you spot for the first time beyond the green of the adjacent 16th—a sign of things to come.
I’d legitimately put the final six holes up against any stretch of holes I’ve played in terms of uniqueness, charm, and memorability—Harbour Town and holes 3–8 at Pebble Beach are neck-and-neck in that race. The plank-lined bunker wrapping around the green at the 13th is vintage Pete Dye. The 14th, considered one of the hardest on the PGA Tour, plays 192 from the tips with a prevailing wind that pushes shots toward the lagoon that players are required to carry. At 15 and 16, shots from past RBC Heritages flash through your mind—where players took on aggressive lines that seem nearly impossible to recreate.
If you didn’t think so earlier in the round, holes 17 and 18 make Harbour Town worth the price of admission. The par-three 17th is stunningly beautiful, a picture-perfect background of the Calibogue Sound behind the green. The same is true of 18—and with its 100-yard-wide landing area, Dye gives you a rare mulligan while you’re distracted at the sight of the iconic red-and- white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse in the distance.
Harbour Town Golf Links has consistently appeared on several lists as one of the country’s best courses that you can play—and you absolutely should.