HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – He was left with his drive. Then he was slightly left with his layup. So, what’s a player to do when he’s at Harbour Town Golf Links?
Why, hit a second layup, of course.
Come again? World-class players unable to reach the green in three shots? Even a mega talent like Ernie Els? What’s that all about?
“It’s one of a kind,” Bill Lunde said. “There just aren’t any other courses like this on Tour.”
Mind you, Lunde is here for the fourth consecutive year, and because he has missed the cut twice and finished T-37 in his previous visits, it’s not as if he has unlocked the mystery to this confounding Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus co-design. In fact, Lunde shot 3-over 74 in the opening round of the RBC Heritage, so now in nine rounds his scoring average here is 72.333.
But it’s such a short, cute course at a time when week after week we are subjected to behemoths measuring 7,500 yards long. Lunde shook his head, then smiled.
“It is such a change of pace, no doubt,” he said, “and I think that’s why guys like it, because it’s different. But a lot of guys will say, ‘I always love playing here; I don’t play well, but I love it.’ ”
That description doesn’t quite fit Els. He loves playing here and does well (seven top 10s in a dozen starts), yet he’s not perfect. His drive that was pulled left at the 588-yard 15th and his layup that stayed down the wrong side of the fairway – that would be the left – is proof of that. Though he had just 143 yards, Els couldn’t go for the green. The hard, hooking wedge to a hole location back left with water left isn’t a play that excited him.
“That’s the neat thing about this golf course,” said Els, after his 45th round at Harbour Town. “You can miss it in spots, but they’d better be in the right spots.”
And the right spot to miss isn’t down the left side of the par-4 11th, which might be the most difficult 436-yard par 4 these PGA Tour gentlemen will play all season. Yet, seasoned veteran that he is, Els was there, too, as was fellow playing competitor Padraig Harrington, the two of them forced to hit pitch-outs because the other option – a hard draw from about 170 yards – was not practical, thanks to trees.
You remember trees, right?
Those big, tall things that apparently aggravated folks within the golf world, because “it became the rage to cut them down,” said Joe Ogilvie. “But you come here and there are so many trees. You want to ‘length-proof’ a golf course, don’t cut down the trees.”
Ogilvie flashed a quizzical look and asked if “length-proof” was a word, and while we’re not sure one way or another, certainly we get his drift. Trees that are strategically situated offer a challenge to golfers so that you don’t have to break the bank with a land purchase to push back tees. At Harbour Town, the first hole for the lads this week is just 410 yards, while Nos. 9 (332) and 13 (373) are shorties, too. Yet there were Bill Haas and Harrington fighting for their lives after missing the fairway right at the 13th, while at the ninth, not even 60 percent of the field had hit the green in regulation midway through the round.
Asked what he liked about Harbour Town, Ogilvie thought a minute, then said: “Every hole. There’s not a bad hole out here. On every hole, you have to hit a good shot.”
But aren’t there some holes where you can hit a fairway, yet be out of position for a direct shot to the green?
Again, Ogilvie smiled and agreed.
“Let’s see. Number 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16,” he said. He thought over the list, agreed he had hit right, and added: “This place makes Colonial look wide open.”
Take note, too, that Ogilvie had just shot 74, proving Lunde’s point. That players will sing the praises of Harbour Town, even on days when the number doesn’t make them smile.
In Els’ view, “this place has stood the test of time,” and there are any number of testaments to the glory of Harbour Town. Take note of the roll call of winners – from Arnold Palmer in the debut year of 1969, to Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, to the next generation’s best, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Davis Love, Greg Norman and Nick Price. Then factor in that those who hit it long (Love and Norman) have won, as have the Brian Gays, Boo Weekleys and Jim Furyks of the PGA Tour world.
Mix all of that together and you have a quality golf course, though not everyone will throw a big bear hug around it and offer it unconditional love. Harrington, for instance, conceded that Harbour Town “is not my cup of tea,” but he was quick to explain why. The only other time he has played here was in 2001, so clearly he’s in need of a GPS this week.
“It’s a hard-enough golf course to play if you know it, but if you don’t know it, it’s impossible,” Harrington said.
Still, the Irishman was handling things quite well until he bogeyed two of his last three holes to finish at 3-over 74. It was not a score that had him smiling, but on a day when frigid temperature and cool winds greeted players (“It’s tough when you can’t feel the tips of your fingers,” Ogilvie said), there were plenty who would have gladly taken 74. Sang-Moon Bae, for instance. He made at least bogey on 11 of his holes, shot 83 and promptly withdrew. Fred Funk signed for 81, Camilo Villegas and Stewart Cink had 79s, Justin Leonard and Jason Dufner went for 78, and Luke Donald made just one birdie in a round of 75.
By the time the morning wave had finished, only six players had broken par – a combination of cold weather, a steady wind, firm and quick greens that have been stressed by the lack of rain and the genius of this Dye/Nicklaus design that employs strategically placed trees and diabolical doglegs.
All of which had Rory Sabbatini smiling when he was asked about this RBC Heritage being a time for decompression, being the week after the Masters and all. He wasn’t sure he agreed with that statement because, “I think last week we had easier conditions,” he said.