Harbour Town is one of the tour’s low-profile gems—and this par 3 embodies Pete Dye’s genius
The Lowcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia—a sultry region of stoic live oaks, dank pine-tree jungles and sunbaked stretches of intracoastal marsh—is one of the country’s most distinctive environments. Located primarily on remote and difficult to access barrier islands, the Lowcountry remained almost entirely unexplored by residential and resort developments until the early 1960s. Arnold Palmer seemed to introduce it to America all at once, along with its previously unseen style of golf, when he won the inaugural and televised Heritage Golf Classic in 1969 at the new Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.
As attractive as the Lowcountry is, the landscape is largely homogenous, not a great asset for creating varied golf holes. Courses are lucky if they can steal small sections of frontage along open rivers and wetlands before returning to the uniformly wooded interior. What continues to make Harbour Town unique (still the site of the RBC Heritage) is not the famous final two holes that explode upon the shore of Calibogue Sound but rather the individual character Pete Dye (with input from Jack Nicklaus) was able to draw out of each inland hole. More than 50 years after it was built, the par-3 seventh remains one of the most distinguished short holes in the Lowcountry, no small feat.
Most other architects know they would get skewered for creating a hole like the seventh, so they wouldn’t. But criticism, real or imagined, never deterred Dye. During the clearing of pines, a triad of large specimen oaks was discovered, arranged just far enough apart to fit a green within the apse. Dye did just that, creating a bean-shaped green that lays like a fallen hammock at their base, with the two oaks at the entrance forming a pair of goal posts that players must hit their tee shots through. The putting surface is elevated several feet above a field of sand creating a kind of floating island, and a water feature running diagonally in front and along the left adds an extra dimension, one horizontal layer upon another to offset the vertical focal points.
A CHANGE OF COURSE
Though maddening when the oaks knock otherwise well-struck shots out of the air (sometimes into the sand, or worse), the artistry and whimsy have to be admired. But more importantly, the seventh represents all that makes Harbour Town historically important. The design was a sudden juke to the prevailing Modernist trends of the 1950s and 60s when courses were getting longer and brawnier and more expressive (and expensive) with outsize bunkers, greens and tees. Harbour Town was the opposite: diminutive, contained and quirky with small, uneven shapes, something irreconcilable with the trends of the times.
The seventh in particular was not just imaginative but architecturally insurgent, conceived in either madness or anarchy, a scant 4,500 square feet of sanctuary floating above rings of perdition secured at the price of nearly 200 yards. The guardian oaks could not have better announced the arrival of an artistic counter-culture had they been exclamation points, which in ways they were.
Each of Harbour Town’s par-3s look and play differently—from each other and from other Lowcountry designs, a remarkable achievement given the lack of interesting natural features to engage or any meaningful elevation change. Like the fourth and 17th, it orients to the southwest; like the fourth and 14th it plays to roughly 195 yards. That’s a recipe for sameness, but it’s hardly the case here.
While not as intimidating as the 14th, one of the more frightening par-3s on tour, the seventh is stout, playing to a stroke average of 3.07. While few players accrue penalty strokes here (as opposed to 14 where the water running diagonally along the right side of the green is a magnet), the deep, narrow green, perched like a platform, is difficult to hit. Knobs and hollows around the perimeter deflect shots that land off-center into difficult recovery situations, and year-to-year only half the field finds the green in regulation. It is the essence of target golf, and the essence of what makes Harbour Town enduring and original.
(Green-reading map: Courtesy of StrackaLine)