2005: Perspecitve - Harbour Town won’t back down

Think the U.S. Golf Association should leave the golf ball alone? Last week’s MCI Heritage pretty much made your case.

Those who say there’s no challenge left for the world’s best players, that they can simply bomb their drives past all the trouble on today’s obsolete courses, should look to Harbour Town Golf Links, a diabolical Pete Dye gem that still manages to confound whatever modern technology throws its way.

Harbour Town is one of an ever-shrinking handful of Tour courses that measures less than 7,000 yards – 6,973 to be exact. Almost four decades after Dye and consultant Jack Nicklaus carved this layout out of jungle-like terrain along the South Carolina coast, it still more than holds its own, requiring a level of accuracy rarely seen at golf events not named the U.S. Open.

Davis Love III, an avid advocate for leaving the golf ball alone (and, not coincidentally, a Titleist spokesman), points to Harbour Town as a reason why.

“Go and walk around out here, and ask anybody if they think it’s too easy,” said Love, a five-time MCI winner and a long hitter who has managed to alter his game to fit Harbour Town’s nuances. “It seems kind of silly to me. This tournament, they don’t shoot 30 under here, and this course has been here since 1969. They don’t shoot 30 under at Colonial. If the game is ruined, they’d be shooting 30 under here.”

In 37 years, no one has reached a 20-under total at Harbour Town. Loren Roberts came closest at 19-under 265 in 1996. On 17 occasions, the winning score has been 10 under or higher.

The remedy for longer drives?

How about tight, tree-lined fairways that force players to pull something other than a driver from their bags.

The case for position driving rather than power driving?

Try tiny greens, overhanging limbs and nasty pot bunkers.

And when the wind blows off Calibogue Sound, as it did much of last week, things get even nastier.

Take a glance at the scores on Hilton Head, where winds were constant at 10-15 mph with gusts to 25 mph for much of the first three rounds, drying the greens and making them the fastest they’ve been here in years. The USGA itself couldn’t have set up conditions any better.

To wit:

Peter Lonard’s winning score of 7-under 277 was the highest at the MCI since Tom Watson’s 4-under 280 in 1982. After shooting 9-under 62 in Round 1, he went 2 over the rest of the way, including a final-round 75 – and still won.

David Frost set a Tour record for fewest number of putts with 92 over 72 holes – and tied for 38th at 6 over par.

The cumulative scoring average, 73.246, was the highest at the event since such statistics were first kept in 1983. The previous high was 72.757 in 1986.

Only five players broke 70 in the final round; Billy Andrade’s 3-under 68 was the low score of the day.

Harbour Town’s quartet of par 3s rank as perhaps the toughest on Tour. Last week, its 192-yard 14th hole – protected by water in the front and along the entire right side of the green, plus a trademark Dye pot bunker on the left – played to an average score of 3.496. That made it the PGA Tour’s most-difficult par 3 since the stat started being recorded in 1983, breaking the old mark of 3.488 held by the TPC of Southwind’s 14th hole at the 1991 FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Dye’s famous par-4 18th hole, despite tournament officials moving the tee up from its normal 452 yards in a concession to the wind, required many players to hit 3-iron and 4-iron approaches into the green, especially in the first two rounds. How often does that happen on Tour?

If you need further convincing, take a look at how Harbour Town has handled golf’s Big Four, none of whom entered the MCI this year. In a combined 24 visits to Hilton Head, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh – four of golf’s longest hitters – are 0-for-24, and none of the foursome has finished better than third.

Woods has played here only once, when he tied for 18th in 1999, and the way the world’s No. 1 player has been spraying his tee shots, that’s probably wise. Wild doesn’t play well at Harbour Town.

“This is a ball-control-type golf course, a position-type course,” said Fred Funk, who has played here 15 consecutive years and made the cut 14 times, mainly because of his superb driving accuracy. “We’re getting fewer and fewer of these, and it’s always one that’s one of the favorites of almost all the guys on Tour.

“I think if you poll them, they’re going to pick this one as one of their top five for sure.”

Darren Clarke is another who sings Harbour Town’s praises, or at least he did before he went 9 over on the final 13 holes Sunday to blow a four-shot lead.

“I think this course is fantastic, I really do,” Clarke said after a first-round 65. “This is one of my favorite venues on the PGA Tour. It’s one of the first events that I will put in my schedule aside from the majors and the World Golf Championship events.

“I think it’s a great test, a very, very fair test. You play well, you get rewarded. If you don’t, you’re punished. That sounds very obvious, but that’s the sign of a great golf course.”

Unfortunately for Clarke, he then went out and proved his theory. After opening 65-65-73, then making birdie on four of his first five holes Sunday, Clarke was punished with a final-round 76 in which he made three double bogeys in his 9-over stretch. We assume he’ll return next year, ready for another beating.

Roll back the ball? Nonsense.

Instead, how about rolling out more courses like Harbour Town.

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