After living through the pressure cooker that is the Masters, many PGA tour players welcome the respite that comes after the three hour drive to Hilton Head SC and the Harbor Town Golf Links, home of the RBC Heritage (starts today 4/18 and runs through the weekend). The setting and vibe could not be more contrasting.
Augusta National is set deep in a hilly forest of Georgia pines.
Harbor Town is laid out on flat land, surrounded by Spanish moss-laden live oaks, condos, and Calibogue Sound.
Augusta National features wide fairways and greens large enough to land small aircraft if they weren’t so damned undulating.
Harbor Town’s fairways are so tight that, as the late Ken Venturi noted, golfers need to march single file down them, and greens that are mostly flat and thimble-sized.
Augusta National’s main landmarks are Magnolia Lane and its classic clubhouse.
Harbor Town’s main landmark is a candy-striped lighthouse overlooking its 18th hole.
The opening ceremony of the Masters features legends of the game teeing off.
The opening ceremony of the Heritage features the previous year’s champion teeing off with a hickory shafted club while a canon booms.
The winner of the Masters is awarded The Green Jacket, an honor so coveted that many winners wear it virtually everywhere they go.
The winner of the Heritage receives The Red Plaid Jacket. Despite claims to the contrary, I don’t see them getting a lot of wear in public.
The (Mostly) Great White Fathers of Augusta leave their fingerprints on every aspect of The Masters, including TV coverage, media access, on-course rulings, and crowd control (love those black-suited Pinkertons!).
The sponsors of The Heritage just want to be sure that their logos are prominently displayed and their commercials get aired.
Tiger Woods has won The Masters five times.
Tiger Woods played The Heritage once and finished tied for 18th.
When Pete Dye designed Harbor Town in the late sixties, it was not so much a response to Augusta National as it was a rejoinder to trends in golf course architecture in general at the time, particularly to the reliance of generic runway tees and tepid shot values that were the hallmarks of Robert Trent Jones, the most prolific course builder of that time.
Harbor Town introduced to the golfing world many of Dye’s trademarks – angled tee pads, pot bunkers, visual trickery, and, of course, those railroad ties that serve as bunker facings on many holes. Dye borrowed this idea from Prestwick, the original site of the Open Championship. Its 3rd hole is named Cardinal in reference to the giant fairway bunker that intersects its fairway; it resembles a cardinal’s hat and features the aforementioned ties.
I played Harbor Town twice back in the late 80’s at a time when I was still pretty much a novice, and while Ken Venturi’s assessment of its fairways may be a slight exaggeration, he wasn’t far off the mark. Even when my drives found the fairway, there were times when I found myself aerially stymied by large, overhanging live oak branches (it was at Harbor Town where I stopped appreciating the aesthetics of Spanish moss).
I had my best luck on the par-3 holes (a very strong set of one shotters) – no trees to negotiate from the tee box – but for the most part, it’s easier wading through a bunch of Walmart shoppers than keeping a ball in the fairway at Harbor Town.
But Hilton Head in general is a fine destination indeed, with plenty of other, more user-friendly courses to play (as well as a number of exclusive gems such as Long Cove, Wexford Plantation, and Colleton River). There are miles of beaches, many dining options, and, despite the seeming never ending traffic on US 278, the atmosphere is surprisingly laid back.
And even though Harbor Town can seem claustrophobic, the rush that one feels when he/she hits the 17th tee and tries to gauge the wind off the sound is palpable.
And on 18, the fairway opens up to be about 60 yards wide, but the sound that borders the left side of the fairway and the lighthouse in back of the 18th green make a vivid final impression of a unique golf experience.
Just don’t nail the condo out of bounds on the right, like I did.