The annual playing of the RBC Heritage nears, and the build-out at Harbour Town Golf Links is long underway.
Strongmen with pitch forks carefully route the course texture with fresh pine straw, jump-suited forecaddies don spotless whites and nearly-finished grandstands frame what’s soon to come.
Above it all, the famed lighthouse on Harbour Town’s home hole keeps watch
And for the mid-handicap amateur playing the renowned Pete Dye design (with Jack Nicklaus consult) from the forward tees, it almost feels like PGA Tour tournament conditions.
And that’s exactly the intention.
Fronted by Harbour Town, which annually charts among the nation’s top resort courses, the trio of tracks at The Sea Pines Resort on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island don’t aim for fame simply when television comes to town.
Rather, a complete Davis Love III rework of Sea Pines’ Atlantic Dunes in 2017 (formerly the Ocean Course), Dye’s redo of Heron Point a decade before that, and a total Harbour Town restoration in 2014 sees the resort raising expectations higher than ever.
From the top down, that’s how they roll.
“If for a minute I get complacent and don’t think this one day for a guest is a visit to a Bucket List course – shame on me,” says John Farrell, director of golf at Harbour Town Golf Links. “But that can’t just be on me; I need to make sure that our entire team – our caddie master, bartenders, driving range attendants, everybody – we all need to understand that a guest has fresh film in the camera, and it’s not unusual that somebody has saved money all year to come have a week the way we live every day. We can never lose sight of that. We can’t afford a bad day. We have to be on our game.”
For Farrell – who oversees all three of The Sea Pines’ courses – being on his game means ensuring quality control from the links to the loo.
“The worst thing I can do is sit at my desk all day,” he says. “And when I have to use the men’s room, I never use the same one twice. Sounds crazy, right? But you inspect what you expect.”
Running a luminary locale extends expectations to all facets of the operation. Yet the on-course scorecard is no doubt atop the anticipations for most guests.
“There is a lot of pressure to provide excellent course conditions for our daily fee guests, as well as the PGA Tour players. But most of that pressure we put on ourselves,” says Jonathan Wright, golf course superintendent /agronomist for Harbour Town Golf Links. “We are very passionate and committed to doing things smarter and getting better every year. Pete Dye built a masterpiece in Harbour Town Golf Links, and it is an honor to be here; I feel like we owe it to him, the layout, the PGA Tour and the ownership to provide the conditions that this golf course deserves.”
Wright’s boss agrees.
“None of this would be possible is we didn’t have a superintendent that didn’t believe these same things,” Farrell adds. “We believe mediocrity is epidemic – we don’t want mediocrity. Would you ever refer somebody to a place where you had an average time? Our super knows that when a golfer steps to that first tee, they’re doing so with a certain expectation.”
Said expectations aren’t presented without combat from the grounds’ geographic setting.
“Because we are located on an island, we do face many unique agronomic challenges. Number one being the weather,” Wright explains. “We’ve had two major tropical storms (Hermine and Irma) and one major hurricane (Matthew) visit us (in recent years), and lost close to 500 trees and counting, not to mention that one-third of the golf course was affected by the salt water tidal surge.”
Whatever one’s opinion on climate change, the wet stuff hasn’t simply confronted Sea Pines in pure liquid form.
“In 2018, we experienced the first ice and snow storm that Hilton Head Island has seen in 30 years; and we had a hail storm that brought us ping pong ball-size hail,” Wright adds. “We’re in constant battle with the elements, whether it be salt in our water, wind, humidity, shade patterns, insects, frost, rain etc. So, we’re always paying close attention to weather patterns and continuously taking soil and water samples for enhanced and timely applications to the turf.”
And akin to many in the industry, manning a top-level destination doesn’t make a property immune from staffing challenges.
“Another one of the major issues that we face being on an island is finding qualified equipment operators and technicians,” Wright says. “Unfortunately, this is not solely an island problem. Employment issues have become the most important concern for agronomy and golf course maintenance – period. We’re very fortunate to have an extremely talented, established team, as well as a wonderful relationship with Ohio State’s intern and training program that will hopefully yield qualified individuals to help keep our profession afloat, worldwide.”
A Consistent Condition
Sporting the smallest greens on the PGA Tour schedule (from a square-footage measurement vantage), the Harbour Town experience – like its sister courses – was enhanced with its own rework.
“We were very protective of the original design, and all the shot values were completely maintained,” Farrell says of Harbour Town’s complete restoration in 2014. “And that was at the insistence of the PGA Tour players and our ownership. So, that restoration was completely from an agronomic standpoint, wall-to-wall, with each inch of grass replaced along with new irrigation, new cart paths, everything. And that was done to provide tournament-type conditions on a year-round basis.”
In a bombers’ world, Harbour Town’s design is a throwback to days of shot-shaping, wedge demands and putting prowess.
“The Tour players have something of a love affair with this course, because of its uniqueness,” Farrell adds. “We’re kind of a Wrigley Field, a Fenway – we’re a small ballpark. So, it’s more cerebral, and 18 times you better think out there where you’re going to leave the ball.”
On a yearly basis, about half of the courses played across the PGA Tour schedule are facilities which are open for public or resort play. But while several Tour/public/resort crossover tracks “trick-up” conditions between what amateurs play 50 weeks a year and what the world’s best play across four days – Harbour Town doesn’t deviate all that much in course conditions across the calendar.
“We’re trying to give people tournament-type conditions,” Farrell says. “Green speeds will generally run about 10.5 on the Stimpmeter; good pace, and if you get them too fast it can negatively impact an experience. That, and you lose certain hole locations. Come the Heritage, depending on weather, we’ll be faster, but the difference between course set-up isn’t too different from what players see daily and how we set up for the PGA Tour players.”
Wright says, “The only noticeable difference is the length of the course and hole locations. We utilize all tournament hole locations during daily resort play, but the most difficult pin placements are condensed into those four days of the Heritage.”
The resulting thread is that daily duffers are essentially taking on the same layout and demands which has seen an average winner’s score of just about 11-under par across 50 years of play on the shot-makers’ course.
“We try and maintain the same, excellent conditions for both our daily fee guests and PGA Tour players,” Wright adds. “The only differences in conditions for the two entities would be in heights of cut and levels of firmness in the surfaces. For the Tour players, we play the greens a touch firmer and all of our closely mown areas are maintained a little tighter. Although, after the Heritage, we do maintain those same conditions for about a month to give our daily fee players the ultimate PGA Tour experience.”
Speaking from his own vast experience (Farrell has been with Sea Pines since 1989), the director saw how thicker rough during the RBC can actually help the PGA Tour pros.
“It’s counterintuitive,” Farrell says. “The year that our 72-hole record was set (Brain Gay’s 20-under in 2009), the rough was really, really high because of rain. Interestingly, the deep rough kept the ball more centered and prevented balls from rolling off canopies under trees. And that allowed better angles to holes.”
With daily green speeds and rough heights nearly the same as what Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell and other past RBC champs encounter one week a year, the only true Harbour Town difference for the amateur doesn’t come in the form of altered course conditions inside the ropes.
The main distinction?
“The amateur doesn’t have 30,000 people starting at you and a live television audience,” smiles Farrell.