Golf’s stars, like its fashion, have transformed greatly during the past 50 years.
The world’s best players now spend more time in the fitness trailer than on the 19th hole. Many of the PGA tour’s golf courses reflect a trend of favoring longer hitters who like to overpower golf courses with booming drives.
There’s been talk of changing the golf ball and rolling back equipment to offset the gains in how far players now hit the ball.
Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island might always be a place that needs no such protection, despite being among the shorter courses the pros face during the year. As players prepare for the 50th Heritage, they recognize the course Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus built on a Lowcountry swamp as one that’s held up to the game’s best throughout the decades.
“It’s always in the top five of everybody’s rankings of courses on tour,” five-time Heritage champion Davis Love III said at Harbour Town last year. “It’s just stood the test of time without really much adding of length. And always produces great champions.”
The tree-lined, par-71 layout forces players to be precise. That means not only finding the fairway, but the correct side of the fairway on many drives to ensure the correct angle to approach a green.
Trees aren’t the only defense. There are the small greens, waste areas, pot bunkers and water hazards — all designed to intimidate and reward the bold.
The grandest hazard of them all awaits players on the final tee. The 18th hole runs the link of Calibogue Sound with the iconic lighthouse as a backdrop.
From the wide fairway are sweeping views of sparkling water, sailboats and yachts. The green juts into the marsh and is protected by sand traps in the front and back, an intimidating final approach for those wanting to win the tartan jacket.
Cut out the trees, and Harbour Town would still be a great course, Love said last year. He used the par-4 10th hole as an example, where players gamble with the water on the left off the tee to earn the best angle to approach the green.
Harbour Town and Hilton Head have changed in recent years.
A new $23 million clubhouse has welcomed players since 2015. The course underwent a major renovation the same year to replace all of the grass and rebuild greens.
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 axed some trees and slung debris along the iconic 18th hole. The course survived widespread flooding from Tropical Storm Irma in 2017, snow this winter and more recently, hail during a spring storm.
Dye has been back throughout the years to tinker, as he is inclined to do. That has meant the potential for added length in some places in an effort to force players to hit a longer club off the tee.
The course seemingly hasn’t lost its character.
The “claustrophobic” layout, as Luke Donald called it last year, has gained a reputation as a short-hitters course. But the powerful Love has debunked the thinking with his record number of victories.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, one of the game’s longest hitters, will be the latest to test whether Harbour Town can be tamed by a bomber.
“If Dustin decides to play Harbour Town as Harbour Town suggests, he’ll play great,” said George Bryan III, a PGA professional who watched Johnson come up in junior golf and whose son, Wesley, won the Heritage in 2017. “It depends on his patience.”
Patience is required when discerning the correct tiny targets and when the wind blows as the final holes open up to the water.
The par-3 14th hole, one of the easiest on the scorecard for the Sea Pines resort guests despite the carry over water, becomes one of the toughest holes on tour with from the back tee box and the wind swirling. Then after navigating most of the course under the shade of the oaks, the final holes welcome the effect of the winds from Calibogue Sound.
“It’s like a puzzle, this course to me.,” Donald said last year before finishing runner-up at the Heritage for the fifth time. “I think you really have to think your way around it very well.”