When I played Harbour Town for the first time around eight years ago, I got a last minute late afternoon tee time while on a road trip. Little did I know that I’d later live and work near Harbour Town and play the course many more times. After my most recent round I decided it was time to rewrite my original review.
Since that first visit the course has been renovated and the clubhouse rebuilt (along with much of Sea Pines, which is the community around Harbour Town). All of the updates and renovation work have completely changed the feel of Sea Pines and Harbour Town for the better and I applaud the owners for taking on the massive projects, including the redesigns of Heron Point and Atlantic Dunes, two other courses in the community.
During that first visit to Harbour Town I struggled to understand the course. Years later I still think the trees restrict creativity and options on the course, but I’ve come to appreciate the design much more. One of the things that has grown my appreciation for Harbour Town is playing the course multiple times with 100+ year old hickory golf clubs. A good friend of mine named Tim Alpaugh restores and plays hickory clubs and we’ve teed it up twice with hickories at Harbour Town. Even though Harbour Town opened in 1967, playing it with the old clubs opens up so much more strategy and interest.
More than anything, the hickories eliminate the possibility of overpowering Harbour Town. The clubs force you to think your way around the course and focus on shot placement – coincidentally both are key to enjoying the course.
The course is short by modern standards at just over 7,000 yards from the tips and more often than not drivers or even fairway woods get you in trouble off the tees. When the pros play the course during the Heritage tournament on the PGA Tour, many only hit a few drivers over the entire event.
The design demands accuracy and you have to be exacting to score well. Hitting the fairway isn’t enough – you have to be on the correct side of the fairway. If you miss the perfect area, even marginally, you’ll likely be blocked out by trees. I think Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, who was a co-designer, intended to strictly dictate the style of play, but after 50 years of tree growth, the challenge has become even harder and the course even narrower. There’s little-to-no margin for error at Harbour Town, which is fun to watch in a PGA Tour event, but can be devilishly hard for your average 15 handicapper.
Skip through the video below and you’ll see what the course looked like when it opened. Trees played a large role, but the course has grown up so much over 50 years. Homes and condos now line the course and while they rarely come into play, they do add to the sense of tightness throughout the design.
One of the most noticeable changes at Harbour Town since my first visit is the clubhouse, which was rebuilt ahead of the 2015 renovation. It retained its footprint, but the building feels much bigger and much more modern. Plus, it now has all of the facilities and room that is required to host a PGA Tour event. The original clubhouse is the first photo below and beneath it is the new design.
Hole #1 – 392 yards – The “welcome to Harbour Town” moment arrives on the first tee when you have to thread your drive into a narrow fairway. Any approach shot from the left edge of the fairway can be blocked by trees on the left (particularly when the pin is on the left).
Hole #2 – 495 yards – The second hole saw changes around the green during the 2015 renovations, with a high front greenside bunker lip softened for a more natural look. An area left of the green was also re-shaped with trees added (the short palm trees you see on the left below).
Hole #3 – 411 yards – This slight dogleg left has a small well-bunkered green. I rue the day when that young tree short of the green matures into a sizeable challenge. It will block shots from the right side of the fairway or block any golfer who plays a draw into the green.
Hole #5 – 511 yards – The largest architectural change during the 2015 renovation was when they moved this green significantly further left away from the trees. The move avoided shade and an invading root system that had hurt turf conditions on the green. The resulting approach shot is much easier and the green is in better shape! Wins all around.
Hole #6 – 404 yards – A waste area runs down the right side of this dogleg right and a tree on the left narrows the approach to the green. You want to hit your drive far enough to have a clear shot around the corner, but too far or left and that tree left of the green can block you.
Hole #7 – 172 yards – This small green is tough to hit without the trees surrounding the green, let alone with them. If you miss this green you will likely end up in a greenside bunker, and even from there you can be blocked by trees in between the bunkers and the green.
Hole #9 – 322 yards – This short par 4 is a fun strategic hole where long hitters can go for the green. The hole threads through a field goal-style set of trees where the optimal line is the clock on the clubhouse. The green is shaped like a horseshoe and if you’re on the wrong side you’re in major trouble!
Hole #13 – 354 yards – The dogleg left 13th is one of the most memorable holes on the course. Perfect drives end up where the first photo below was taken, leaving a wedge into the railroad tie-bunkered green. Even a slight miss left or right of that point in the fairway means you’re blocked out, as seen in the second photo below.
Hole #14 – 165 yards – That water sure creeps in on the right! The green also slopes left to right, so missing left isn’t a safe bet when you’re chipping downhill toward a lake. Also watch out for a very small pot bunker back and left of the green not visible in the photos.
Hole #15 – 571 yards – The long dogleg left par 5 15th is tight and narrow up to the approach shot where players contend with a group of large tree that block the approach to the green. This is one of those holes that makes you realize the difference between us and tour players. I’m a low single digit player, I hit my driver around 285, and I would never in my wildest dreams be able to reach this green. Many players reach in two during the Heritage.
Hole #16 – 395 yards – The dogleg left 16 feels more open since one side of the hole borders the 10th, but there’s a tree in the middle of the fairway. Most golfers hit short of the tree, leaving a mid-iron into the green. The church pew bunkers in the left waste area were added during the 2015 renovation.
Hole #17 – 185 yards – The penultimate hole emerges into an open scene looking out to the Calibogue Sound and Daufuskie Island beyond. The green is very small and shallow and a wide range of teeing grounds change this hole every day.
Hole #18 – 444 yards – After 17 holes of extreme narrowness, the 18th has one of the widest fairways on the PGA Tour, as seen in the aerial below (the tees are off the left side of the image). It’s a beast, especially when the wind is blowing. After playing the final two holes you can’t help but wish there were more open holes out on the water!
Following my latest round at Harbour Town I ate lunch with my friend Tim in the locker room (a seriously nice place to spend time). A group at the table next to us finished their lunch, stood up, and said to eachother, “Guys, this has been one heck of an experience… I’m not sure if we’ll be able to top it!” I can see where they’re coming from – the experience in the clubhouse, locker room, and out on the course is top notch at Harbour Town. I may not love the tight narrow feel, but as long as I stick to the hickories, I’ll be a happy man!