As the recent PGA Championship confirmed the arrival of Justin Thomas as yet another of golf’s growing group of engaging, interesting, likable, gritty superstars, it also was adding to my worries that trends in golf-course architecture or maintenance are going in exactly the wrong direction.
It so happened that as the PGA was being played in North Carolina, I was fulfilling a 42-year dream of playing one of the PGA Tour’s classiest, old-style layouts, the Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head, South Carolina. On just about every issue where I think courses these days are going wrong, Harbour Town does it right.
The facets of modern courses to which I object (not all of which, thankfully, applied to the PGA’s lovely Quail Hollow course) are:
1. Too little emphasis, through natural features, on driving the ball straight;
2. Relatedly, too much advantage to people who bash the ball a long way without necessarily being straight (I think length of course should be an advantage, but only if the long ball doesn’t veer too much off center);
3. A growing, and strange, movement to remove, and de-emphasize, trees;
4. Extravagantly sloped greens with grass cut so short that putts roll extravagantly quickly;
5. Obsessions with “links”-like looks — wide open spaces, huge humps, hillocks, and mounds, weirdly wispy grasses — even on inland courses or on lakeside courses on land that is naturally wooded and lush.
If a course is on land that naturally has links-like features, then by all means emphasize the linksy-ness of it. I love a good, true links course. But if you’re building a course on the Puget Sound where verdant green woods are the norm — or in the non-lake-adjoining Wisconsin inland, in an area where at least some trees naturally grow and beautify the landscape — then, fergoshsakes, don’t try to make the darn place look like St. Andrew’s or Ballybunion.
If the course’s best defenses are greens that are outrageously tricked up (unless you’re Augusta National, where at least the greens’ slopes appear natural to the landscape), so that what you really are creating is a glorified “extreme putting” contest, well, then, you’ve screwed up your course. (I read that the PGA’s greens were running 14 or higher on the Stimpmeter, the measure of green speed. That’s insane. When the Stimpmeter first was invented, if memory serves correctly, most ordinary courses ran about 7 or at most 8; most tour courses ran about 9; and any course with a 10 or higher was considered super-fast — and that was even without greens not designed to look like an orgy of dromedaries with humps poking out from all sorts of unlikely places.)
Don’t get me wrong: I actually like interesting, and sometimes dramatic, slopes on greens, but not ones that look artificial and not outrageous slopes combined with a putting surface slick as wet glass.
What is the absolute worst is one of those greens with not just some small “false fronts” where a ball that only reaches three feet onto the green might roll back off it, but one with huge false fronts, false sides, or false backs, so that a well-struck ball landing a third of the way, or even 40 percent, onto the green, or away from the right or left or back edge of the green, runs all the way off and then down an unnaturally shaved hill. I saw one of those at Quail Hollow — an eminently decently hit shot, landing softly and without much spin, a full 20 or 25 feet inside the right edge of a green, which nonetheless rolled all the way off the right and into a gully. That’s not good course design; it’s Goofy Golf minus the windmills and plastic dinosaurs.
Golf courses should reward good shotmaking, and thus be “tight” in many places (although again, windy, linksy courses have good reason to be more generously wide) — but with the ability to recover, albeit only with some creativity, from a shot hit moderately off line. In naturally wooded areas, plenty of trees, with reasonable spaces (and no underbrush) between them, should be interspersed with natural-looking sand traps, and with as little earth-moving as possible.
With all that said, let me take you on a tour of Harbour Town, to see why it does golf right.
First, in general, Harbour Town is known as probably the “tightest” course, with the smallest greens, on tour. Lined throughout with gorgeous trees — fascinatingly gnarled, moss-strewn oaks; stately rather than scrubby pines, natural local palmettos and plenty of others — and interspersed with lagoons and ponds that certainly appear absolutely natural in the lowlands areas just off the Calibogue Sound, this course looks (whether true, or not, I don’t know) as if very, very little earth had to be moved to make it interesting. Visually, every place on the course fits in with the surrounding topography, vegetation, and ambience of the rest of the island.
(As an aside, I love courses with big changes in elevation. Obviously, a South Carolina low-land course that remains “natural” also will remain mostly flat. It is a credit to a flat course like this one if it still can be beautiful, and fascinating to play, while being so flat. This one achieves those virtues, in abundance.)
With narrow fairways, it is of course somewhat easy to miss those fairways, and to find oneself in the trees. But the trees are widely enough spaced, and usually in areas expansive enough, that “recovery shots” are usually possible with a little pluck and a steady aim.
Harbour Town’s greens are remarkably (but not unfairly) small, but comparatively flat, and reasonably paced rather than shaved like your grandpa’s head. There are plenty of subtle, but visible, breaks on the greens — nothing easy, but also no tricks.
That said, here’s a brief description of each hole (please do feel free to follow the link to the video tour of each hole):
1. Beautiful opening tee shot through the prettiest, narrow avenue of trees on the entire course. The landing area is somewhat wider than it appears, so it’s still fair. The par-4 even from the white (the middle) tees is listed at 380 yards, but like most holes here, it seems to play longer. The green is particularly small — and, for a small demerit, not very well defined, visually. Very good opening hole kept from being great by a boring green.
2. A not-terribly-long, but narrow, par 5, with much the feel of the opening hole, both in strengths and weaknesses, with a green only marginally better defined than the first. But by the time you’ve finished the first two holes, you already know: This is a shot-maker’s course, and a lovely one.
3. Another 380-yard par 4 that seems to play longer, it’s not as tight as the first two holes, but its green, guarded laconically by bunkers short left and middle-short right, is visually more interesting. (Having hacked up both holes 2 and 3, alas, I couldn’t really tell what the “shot values” would have been on normal approaches to each green.)
4. This is quite a good hole — a 165-yard par 3 onto a peninsula green jutting from the right into a lagoon on the left. The green is big enough to be fair for the length of the shot, but as I found to my chagrin, it’s quite tricky. The pin was back right, and my shot released upon landing so that, while still on the green, it was back left — with a rough-and-fringe-covered mound between ball and pin. If I were playing for money, I would have taken a wedge and tried to nip a Mickelson-like pitch shot over the mound from one part of the putting surface to the hole. Instead, I tried to putt over the fringe, and ended up, after misreading how hard to hit the near-impossible putt, still facing a 22-footer for my follow-up. Frustrating, but not unfair: I really had slightly overcooked my tee shot, and deserved to face something tricky.
5. A rather wide-open, 497-yard par 5, unmemorable except for a well-placed tree just short and right of the green.
6. A sorta semi-tight par-4 with a fairway guarded by fascinatingly-shaped trees and bunkers, with another green only mildly interesting. (Again, though, this is grading on a tough scale: There’s not a bad hole on the course, and the whole thing is a delight to walk.)
7. The par-3s on both this and the nearby Heron Point course, both by Pete Dye, are all superb. This one, 160 yards, goes over a large expanse of sand to a long, narrow, wonderful green framed in front by two particularly gnarled trees. As on almost every hole at Harbour Town except for water holes, a missed green means about a half-stroke disadvantage: all the chipping and sandy areas afford eminently fair chances of recovery, but with the subtle flow of the greens making it hard to get a recovery shot exactly right. (I missed a 6-footer for par, darn it.)
8. This 405-yard par four has a slightly pinched opening through tees on the first shot, with a narrow river of sand all along the left of the fairway and adjoining the green on the second shot, with a pond all along the sand’s left side. There’s a little too much bail-out room to the right for my tastes, though. Another solid hole, but not spectacular.
9. This — this — is a truly memorable hole. From the white tees just a 298-yard par four (or 322 from the blues and 332 from the championship tees), the tee shot must navigate a remarkably narrow chute of pines, with the second shot, short as it will be, still nerve-wracking because the green is a very narrow, elongated-amoeba-shaped thing with a large bunker in front and three devilishly tiny plops of bunkers in the back middle. Even looking at a photo doesn’t give you the sense of just how deadly those tiny, deep-ish traps can be. Alas, I found out the hard way: After a perfectly placed drive, I skulled my gap wedge into the second of the back traps. I could not even stand in the sand, but had to stand on the grass about 18 inches above the top of the ball, bending down in an exaggerated (and physically challenging) squat position to have a chance at digging the orb out. (It took literally my best shot of the day just to scoop it out, onto the green, 16 feet away from the pin.)
10. Walking off the ninth green, my upbeat, energetic, superbly knowledgeable caddy, Whit, told me without over-emphasis that “the back nine is where the course really gets interesting.” He was right: The front nine, with a few exceptions, had been quite good, definitely enjoyable, even excellent, but not truly memorable in the way I had imagined. And the tenth, a 398-yard par 4 with water down the left of an otherwise fairly wide-open tee shot, was another of the just-short-of-memorable holes that nonetheless surpassed, in quality, even the better holes at most courses.
11. But the 387-yard 11th, tight, with trees above pine straw to the right and more trees above waste bunker on the left of the fairway, and another beautifully placed and curiously writhing tree just short and right of the green, gave a great taste of why Whit said things would truly get interesting. At Harbour Town, perhaps with the exception of the first hole, one always has the visual sense that the approach shot must be extremely precise — whereas the reality is that while only a well-struck shot will be rewarded, any semi-missed shot even within the realm of decency will provide a fair chance for an up-and-down par. This is good course design: quite challenging for par or birdie, but not overly punitive unless the shot is truly bad.
12. This is another of those holes with bent-amoeba-shaped greens, and the last of the ones that doesn’t otherwise stand out in my mind. Maybe that’s because I hacked it up, making my third (and thankfully final) double-bogey of the day.
13. From here on in, the course was nirvana. After 42 years of watching on TV, these also were the holes immediately familiar to me anyway — but that’s far from the only reason they remain embedded in my mind. This is where a very good course with a few truly superb holes (up until then) becomes an old-school golfer’s dream. Like the 9th, this one is a short par 4 — just 339 from the white tees. Like 9, although not quite as tight, it still requires a very precise tee shot to find the right angle between two large oaks and a very large cypress, and over a very large, bulk-headed sand trap, to a well-defined green shaped like a stubby boomerang. This also happened to be where I finally started hitting some really good golf shots (although I would still completely blow some short irons). I blasted a tee shot (for me, that’s about 225 yards) absolutely dead center, hit a full wedge (107 yards) to eight feet — and pulled the bleeping putt left on the first good chance for a birdie all day. But wow, was this ever a hole that fit my eye!
14. The hardest par 3 on the PGA Tour from the back tees, it played for me at a much more manageable 148 yards. From the tee, the green looks impossibly small, guarded by a lagoon short and all along the right and with what looks like less room than there actually is to the left before being tree-bound. If you’re following along at the website’s video tour, you also don’t see that the ground to the left of green up front is on a slope or hillock, which tends to corral a shot only mildly off line so that it doesn’t keep bounding away. The photo doesn’t do justice to the hole’s elegant, visual inducement of claustrophobia. Still, while the tee shot is nerve-wracking, I found it was eminently fair — tough, certainly, but nowhere near unreasonable. I loved this hole!
15. From tee to green, this hole requires well-aimed shots, and at 541 yards with a slight dogleg, it plays long. (The photo on the website, right up near the green, does not do justice to the full sweep of the long, elegant hole.) I hit two superb shots and still had a 9-iron remaining — which I promptly fanned into the right-front trap, leading to another bogey. My experience is relevant to all: On the entire closing stretch of holes, there’s no “let-up” on this course. It’s tough throughout, without ever being “tricked-up.”
16. This is the first truly sharp dogleg (left) on the whole course, and from TV it is justly famous for its huge, tree-overhung bunker all along the left side and the large, signature tree (for some reason, I can’t remember what kind!) right in the middle of the fairway of this 361-yard par 4. I split the fairway with my drive, got a bigger-than-usual bounce, and found myself in the “intermediate cut” of grass that makes a small circle right around the famous tree. But the tree is well pruned, with plenty of room underneath it. The smallish but accessible green was easily approachable from there — but my poor short-iron play continued. I hit my wedge as fat as a Sumo wrestler, short of the green, and made another bogey.
17. If 14 weren’t such a tough par-3, this one would be unforgettable both for its difficulty and its beauty. Somewhat reminiscent of the 17th at Pebble Beach, except with water actually in play on this one, it’s a tough, tough 185 yards from the back tees. When the pin is back, it’s one of the hardest pars on the course. From the middle tees, though, it’s less fear-inducing, and the front portion of the green is much easier to reach than the back. This was the hole I’ll never forget. I usually hit my 7-iron about 135 yards, and the front-center pin location left me exactly 150 yards, with about, I’d guess, a moderate 7-mph wind at my back. I took out my 7 iron and caught it just right, launching the ball well higher than I usually do and dead straight. It settled just 12 feet to the right of the pin, leaving me a slightly downhill putt with about a foot of break in it. The course’s beautifully maintained greens had almost no blemishes — but, strangely, this one did: a little, baked-brown spot, about the size of a half dollar, four feet in front of my ball and right on a line leading a foot right of the hole. Whit and I both agreed that if I could graze the very inside edge of the brown spot, at the right speed, that was the line. And for once, I didn’t blow it. The wife of a playing partner for some reason took about five phone-photos of just that putt of mine — and she captured me as I hit it, as I started to raise my putter with the ball about 15 inches short, and right as the ball tumbled, half-in and half-out, into the dead center of the cup while I hold my putter aloft, Nicklaus-like, in triumph. And then she took yet another picture as I crazily pumped my arms in celebration. I looked like a total goofball. But I birdied 17 at Harbour Town!
18. This is the postcard hole. It has the widest fairway on the entire PGA Tour, with its famous peninsula jutting out into the marsh adjoining the Calibogue Sound. But it seems to play longer than its 414 yards; even after a fine tee shot right down the middle, I was left with a fairway-wood approach to the famously small, square, marsh-guarded green (with that iconic, red-and-white lighthouse in the background) which, even if I hit it well might not carry the marsh or sand trap. As surely almost everybody does, I aimed just right of the marshline, meaning just right of the green — and smoked it! I ended up hole high, on the fringe about 10 feet to the right of the green, on the little mound near which Davis Love had chipped in to win a playoff for one of his five victories on this course (I think it was 2003). For an avid but only half-decent golfer, this was nirvana: A serious chance to par or even birdie the final two, very famous, holes at a storied course I had wanted to play since watching Jack Nicklaus beat Tom Weiskopf there two weeks before the legendary 1975 Masters.
My tricky chip off the side of the mound was almost perfect, but somehow just wouldn’t stop rolling on the otherwise reasonably paced green. The ball rolled five feet past the cup — and then I waited while my two playing companions chipped up and putted out. The longer I wait, the worse I usually putt. Too much time to think. My putt, quite makeable but no ‘gimme,’ was a bit uphill, and definitely with a tendency to break a few inches left-to-right if hit not too hard. I couldn’t decide whether to hit it firmly at the left-center of the hole, to take out almost all the break, or to hit it a bit softer, an inch or so outside the left edge, letting the ball break into the cup. So, dummy that I am, I decided to do both — hit it firm and allow for a break. I aimed to split the left edge, with some pace. Uh, too much pace. Too much to take any break at all. It started left edge and stayed there. Half the ball tried to fall into the cup; half the ball had too much velocity to fall. Lip out! (And a significant one at that, spinning nearly three feet away to the right.) No par.
This, this was a truly fun golf round. Granted, it took me until the 13th hole to finally find my swing tempo, and even after that I blew some short irons — so this 12-handicapper finished a mediocre18 over par, with an 89.
But, lord-oh-lord, what a wonderful experience! This was golf as golf should be: A beautiful setting throughout, with “shot values” requiring real mental engagement with every swing, always a challenge but never unfair, with not a single poor hole design and ten or 11 really memorable ones.
No tricks. No holes that looked unnatural. No ridiculously cantilevered greens, no crazy forced carries, nothing too penal or too forgiving, not a single shot requirement that left me cursing under my breath — but, on the other hand, a few that wonderfully took my breath away. Fun, fair, lovely, challenging, and eminently rewarding. Old-style golf. A true delight.
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Editor of The American Spectator.