Editor’s notebook: Experiences of a different variety
Guy Cipriano

Editor’s notebook: Experiences of a different variety

Jonathan Wright and the Harbour Town Golf Links team have prepared cool- and warm-season turf for television while handling an influx of tourists seeking bucket-list moments.

April 12, 2021

Jonathan Wright leads a team responsible for maintaining a golf course everybody wants to play in a community everybody wants to visit these days. 

Tourists, locals and well-traveled golfers relish Harbour Town Golf Links, where Wright has worked since 1998, the past 12 years as superintendent, because of its quaint ambiance within The Sea Pines Resort on the south tip of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One of Pete and Alice Dye’s first mega-designs (with an assist from a young Jack Nicklaus), Harbour Town plays between — and often under and over — live oaks and pines and through lagoons, bunkers and waste areas. The peaceful journey deposits at the Calibogue Sound, which separates Hilton Head Island from Daufuskie Island.   

A Kentucky native, Wright has maintained golf courses on both islands, having worked at Haig Point on Daufuskie before moving with former boss Gary Snyder to Harbour Town, site of the RBC Heritage, the PGA Tour’s first post-Masters stop each spring. The RBC Heritage is played on hitting surfaces overseeded with ryegrass and greens overseeded with Poa trivialis. Warm-season course. Cool-season tournament turf. Wright and his team had deftly honed their tournament routine … and then last year happened.

The Masters moved to the fall and the RBC Heritage suddenly became a warm-season turf tournament, plugging a June spot on a revamped PGA Tour calendar. The PGA Tour announced its shuffled schedule in mid-April. Harbour Town was closed at the time as resort and local officials determined how to handle the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Work continued as Wright and his team waited for golfers to return. Aerification. Tree pruning. Cart path resurfacing. Swapping sand inside bunkers and restoring turf around their edges. Staying busy lessened the initial jolt of deftly preparing turf for the PGA Tour’s scheduled 2020 arrival and then learning it was moving to the toughest part of the growing season. “We were basically 100 percent prepared for the April event,” Wright says. “All the stands were in place and the turf was right where we wanted it.”

June seemed so close yet so distant, especially considering national events occurring outside their scenic island. “We tentatively started planning for this event, knowing the rug can be pulled out right from under our feet at any time,” Wright says.

The PGA Tour returned in June at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The closed-off golf caravan made its way to Hilton Head Island the following week, with players competing on Celebration Bermudagrass hitting surfaces and TifEagle Bermudagrass greens. The previous three years, in Wright’s words, were “blazing hot in May,” so they started forcing a transition from cool-season to warm-season turf in late April. But parts of May 2020 required Wright and his team to begin workdays in stocking caps. The wrong May for unseasonably cold weather. 

“The ryegrass made a huge comeback,” Wright says. “It was extremely stressful, because we tried to get our Bermudagrass promoted on the greens and we ended up getting the Poa triv healthier.”

Wright’s team persevered and the 2020 RBC Heritage was successfully contested June 18-21. “We accomplished what we had to accomplish, but it was pretty much a photo finish,” Wright says. Add the unique challenges of keeping staff safe with visitors flocking to Hilton Head Island as South Carolina started reopening commerce and “it was probably the most stressful tournament preparation we have ever had.” 

The dash has turned into an extended sprint. Harbour Town reopened for regular play following the tournament. Landing a tee time is tougher than making par on the 18th hole, which includes the Calibogue Sound on the left and a much-smaller-than-it-appears-on-TV green. Greens averaging just 3,700 square feet surrounded by oaks and pines are part of Harbour Town’s charm. They also present Wright’s team with major agronomic challenges.

Maintaining arboreal serenity while providing four seasons of upscale golf is a bit easier now than when Wright arrived thanks to two decades of selective tree removal and pruning. A few big storms, most notably Hurricane Matthew in 2016, further thinned corridors. But nothing suggests the zest for Harbour Town and memorable golf experiences will subside following this week’s tournament.

“After the Heritage last year, I have never seen as many golfers come through here in such a short amount of time since I have been here,” Wright says. “It has made us rethink things.”

Reducing available tee times in non-growing months and cart-path-only policies in fall, winter and spring help create a balance between satisfying demand and producing elite conditions within the confines of a beloved design. Still, on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon, just 27 days from the start of another RBC Heritage week, golfers from seemingly everywhere east of the Mississippi packed the course, marveling at the compact layout. Their shots clanked trees and bulkheads. Their trek through a place where Wright has worked exhaustively for the past 23 years — and frantically for the past 13 months — yielded lifelong memories.

“We are all so extremely proud and honored to be at such a significant design,” Wright says. “I feel like I have grown up with the place and I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.