The story of golf on Hilton Head Island began right here, a stone’s throw from The Shops at Sea Pines Center. The world is reminded of it, six hours at a time and in full color, every year when the PGA tour arrives for our beloved Heritage Classic. What’s behind this legendary locale for golf is less well-known – and yet even more interesting.
The first thing to know is that the famed Harbour Town Golf Links represent just one of three courses that are our neighbors here. Two more await, offering their own unique versions of the authentic, Lowcountry golf experience.
Three Ways of Looking at the Game
Atlantic Dunes is a complete reconstruction, designed by Davis Love III of Sea Pine’s original golf course, the historic Ocean Course. Davis Love III is a Heritage Classic favorite as a player, and so he brought special insights about the character of Harbour Town Golf to his new design. One result? Atlantic Dunes was named National Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owner’s Association (NCGOA). The course sometimes flirts with the shoreline, and sometimes embraces it, blending that beachfront with the stately pines that gave this resort its name, and with the ancient, Spanish moss-draped live oaks that seem to pass an age-old blessing on the rounds of Harbour Town golf that people play today.
Heron Point, a 7,035-yard course from the back tees, offers an excellent round for the heavy-hitter. With seven sets of tees, including tees for junior golfers, this Pete Dye course can be played a variety of ways, including shorter. Regardless of the approach you choose the experience is dramatic, with four holes guarded by water, fairways bounded by dense, green bulkheads and walls of wooded groves, and Dye’s sculptural way of using mounds and swales to both frame and guard the target areas. The course achieves this in the nature-friendly way pioneered by Sea Pines, such that it has won the designation of Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. It’s welcome and challenge to golfers made Heron Point the 2015 Golf Course of the Year for South Carolina, and one of Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play.”
So, there’s a lot more to Harbour Town golf here in the neighborhood of The Shops at Sea Pines Center than just the Harbour Town Golf Links. And then – there’s the Harbour Town Golf Links.
The Course of Legends
How do you tell the story of the world-famous Harbour Town Golf Links? By the tussle it gave to last year’s winner? By the romance it demanded from those who tried for years to win the Heritage Classic? By the pinnacle of putting on the plaid jacket awarded to the winner? By the pause it gives the players who come so very close? Maybe the best way to approach the legend of the Harbour Town Golf Links is to pretend it’s just a simple story of people who built a golf course. And of people who played it.
Arnold Palmer needed the win. Charles Fraser needed the publicity. Now that they’re legends, we might forget the drama that was the first Heritage Classic, and of building the course on which it was to be played.
For 14 months Arnold Palmer was winless. He had averaged four victories a year for 13 years prior to the drought. This new tournament called the Heritage Classic might be his chance to turn that around. Palmer’s golfing obituary was starting to appear in newspapers and magazines, and the first Heritage was where he planned to prove them premature.
Charles Fraser was redefining the idea of resorts. Making Sea Pines a haven set in nature was part vision – part necessity. More imagination, less capital was the approach Charles took, so it may be even harder to recall how uphill his job was in 1969 than to think of Arnold Palmer winless. Imagine a Heritage where the grounds pass was “pricey” at $20. Where you could add the Clubhouse for ten bucks more. For the whole week.
So that first tournament on the Harbour Town Golf Links was as bold as one of Palmer’s approach shots.
Building a Heritage
When they completed it, just in time, course architect Pete Dye and consultant Jack Nicklaus predicted that “only players of championship quality” would win at Harbour Town. Indeed, only four of the 51 Heritage winners thus far found their first championship here.
Harbour Town Golf Links calls for skill with every club – and a bit of cunning they say. Designed like the links of Scotland, it can’t be won with power alone, or even power primarily.
It’s interesting that even when they reached into history for the design, Dye, Nicklaus and Fraser were ahead of their time. The links design at Harbour Town anticipated by more than four decades the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 to its original design.
When Harbour Town Golf Links was completed – in just 18 months – for that first Heritage, Sports Illustrated called it “…nothing short of a work of art.”
What Endures is Pleasure
A Heritage champion once said that coming to Harbour Town Golf Links the week after the Masters is like playing the Super Bowl and then heading to Disney World – pure enjoyment. For years touring pros have looked forward to bringing their families here for Heritage week because the atmosphere is as special as the course.
Visitors come from across the nation and around the world to enjoy the week that every year transforms Hilton Head Island from being just a lot more pleasant than home – to full-blown Paradise. Often the pro-am and qualifying rounds are played in sweater-vests and the finals in summer attire. This is the week when Hilton Head Island hits its stride, and you can feel the celebration.
Someone said that the only folks who enjoy the Heritage more than the pro golfers and the visitors are the Hilton Head Island residents. Just when we think we know how good it is to live here, the Heritage comes again, and we are reminded of a whole bunch more. You can see it in the way people walk the course, what they wear, the smiles and laughs.
It is not just a tournament. The Heritage is truly a celebration. A celebration of the season, of the place and of golf itself. The course that was built for it is alive and living next door to The Shops at Sea Pines Center. It’s just one of the blessings we celebrate here.