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RBC Heritage

Here's the real story behind the 'Bryson Net' at the Harbour Town driving range

April 14, 2021

Tour players warm up on the range during an inclement weather delay in the final round of the 2020 RBC Heritage.

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A fascinating detail emerged from Hilton Head earlier this week when an operations worker at the RBC Heritage tweeted out a photo of the back side of the driving range at Harbour Town, where a secondary net supported by two boom lifts rose above the regular net at the back of the range, jutting out like the lid on a baseball cap. It's worth seeing that photo again:

The reason for the new net seemed obvious: The normal one, standing about 130 feet at the corners, clearly wasn't high enough to contain the big hitters like Bryson DeChambeau, and something more was required. As you see from the photo, the eighth green is directly behind the range, as well as the volunteer tent and a well-traveled road, meaning that when the longest hitters stood at the range, walking behind that net was a little like getting lost in the Arizona desert and finding yourself in the forbidden zone where the U.S. Army holds artillery practice.

As it turns out, that explanation is exactly right. According to Jonathan Wright, golf course superintendent at Harbour Town, things did indeed get a little dicey in 2020, and it wasn't all DeChambeau's fault. With the tournament moved to June in the midst of the pandemic, the wind came from the south—opposite its typical April direction—and the heat and humidity played a role in the ball traveling farther.

"None of that helped at all," Wright said. "But then you got Bryson DeChambeau, who hits the ball 430 yards, and Rory McIlroy, who hits it 430 yards, and it became a kind of competition between the players to see who could hit it over the net. There were no spectators, so they were goofing around, just pelting balls. You had balls hitting eight green, balls hitting the pond near eight green, balls hitting the houses over the road by eight green."

There was a tent where all the volunteers congregated last year, and it became a legitimately dangerous spot to be. Eventually, when enough balls landed by them or were heard echoing off the canopy of trees behind the net—not to mention the shots that made it all the way to the houses—people began to figure out what was going on. Wright and his staff put signs up, but beyond asking players like DeChambeau to use caution or even move back when they hit driver, there wasn't much anyone could do.

This year, with spectators returning, they needed a solution, and it was unclear whether simply extending the net to greater heights would violate a Hilton Head ordinance. What was clear was that it would be expensive—perhaps as much as $100,000. Instead, they decided to try a temporary fix, which is the point at which Wright and his team became like golf's version of MacGyver.

It was time to bring in the net. Well, two nets, actually, attached in the center by carabiners.

With Wright watching and guiding from the range, via phone and radio, two workers guided the rental boom lifts—"I'd say they're qualified," Wright told me with a laugh. "They're qualified, but they're not qualified"—and attempted to maneuver the nets over the trees and into a position where it would catch the drives that the permanent net could not. (You'll be happy to know the "qualified" workers operated the machines from the ground.)

Even to get to that point involved a slew of complications, from buying the wrong equipment at the hardware store, to dealing with the tricky guide wires, to trimming tree branches that got in the net's way, to watching the net get snagged on bolts or sagging in the center or blowing chaotically in the wind. Eventually, they had to bring in a crane because they lacked support rope or cables on the bottom. The process began last Tuesday when the boom lifts arrived, but—massive understatement—it did not finish last Tuesday.

"It was the most stressful part of our week," Wright said. "It was a bit of a process, man."

He and Morgan Hyde, the vice president of operations at the tournament, estimate that the total cost of the net and the lifts and the various smaller equipment needs ran to about $20,000, and that's not counting the roughly 30 hours of man hours it took to get it fully operational.

If you're a fan of futility or the universe laughing at your plans, you'll love this next detail: According to reports from the ground, players are still hitting balls over the net.

Which is why, when Wright heard that DeChambeau had withdrawn from the tournament, he didn't know quite how to take the news. Should he be disappointed or relieved?

"I would have liked the guy to be here because he's one of the top players in the world, so it hurt my feelings a little bit," Wright said. "But at least we knew we were a little bit more secure with spectators, you know?"

All of which is to say, if you plan on strolling around the eighth green this weekend at Harbour Town, maybe your first stop should by the A-2-Z Military Surplus store in nearby Savannah, Ga. At a place like that, you can get a hell of a good helmet.