South Carolina’s 18 Classic Courses

South Carolina’s 18 Classic Courses - Harbour Town

A Heritage of success Even with PGA status in doubt, Harbour Town remains a prime destination

 bgillespie@thestate.comApril 17, 2011 

— Of all the golf courses Pete Dye has built in his Hall of Fame career — and “built” is the operative word, since even at age 86, the course architect once dubbed the “Marquis de Sod” still gets his hands dirty on every project — few have debuted with as much acclaim, and turmoil, as Harbour Town Golf Links.

Dye’s favorite story about the course comes from Thanksgiving 1969, when Harbour Town and its PGA Tour event, the then-Heritage Classic, first burst on the public’s consciousness — and when, then as now, things were on shaky ground.

The morning of the first round of the inaugural Heritage, Dye was making last-minute tweaks at the par-4 13th hole in the horseshoe-shaped bunker that surrounds the green.

“I’m in there pushing sand around, putting water on it to firm it up, and here comes the first player down the fairway,” Dye said, laughing. “I climb out all dirty and walk behind the green, and two guys are standing there. One says, ‘Look at this hole. Isn’t it great how Jack Nicklaus designed it?’ Well, I knew that Jack (Dye’s titular co-designer) had never seen it. So I tell the guy, ‘Jack Nicklaus had nothing to do with this hole. A lovely lady designed it.’

“I start walking away and I hear the guy saying, ‘There goes an early morning drunk for you.’ ”

In fact, it was Alice Dye, Pete’s wife, who conceived the 13th green with its distinctive cypress boards bordering the sand, then built it with the aid of a bulldozer driver known as “T.P.” The point, though, is even as Harbour Town and the Heritage were being born, both were considered a leap of faith.

When Arnold Palmer donned the first tartan blazer as the tournament winner (and took home a first-place check for $20,000), photos sent around the world showed the now-famous view of the 18th-hole Harbour Town lighthouse in the background — or rather the shell of it, with scaffolding in place. Access to Hilton Head Island, now one of the world’s foremost seaside golf resorts, was via a two-lane bridge that swung open for boats on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Quickly, though, the golf course became a sensation.

“It was unbelievable the national publicity we got when it first opened,” Dye said. “(Sports Illustrated’s) Dan Jenkins wrote about it, and when the ratings came out, it was in the first 10 in the world. Harbour Town made my career, really.”

Four decades later, the golf course remains a fixture on Top 100 listings and a favorite of tourists, who pay $250 and up to play. The tournament, on the other hand, is on life support.

When Verizon Wireless announced in 2009 that the 2010 Heritage would be its last as title sponsor, “I never thought we’d be in this situation,” said Steve Wilmot, the tournament’s executive director for 25 years. “I felt disappointed Verizon was leaving, but not upset. It was a business decision and (the reaction was) ‘Let’s bring in someone new.’ ”

“Someone new” has not emerged, and this week’s Heritage is being backed by a combination of county and town money plus Heritage Classic Foundation reserve funds. Unless a new sponsor can be found or a possible deal involving state tourism funds can be cobbled together, South Carolina’s PGA Tour stop could go away.

That prospect upsets Hilton Head attorney Simon Fraser, whose father and uncle, Joe and Charles Fraser, turned 1960s dreams about the course and a tournament, which they hoped would help boost property sales for their Sea Pines Plantation, into a South Carolina icon. Fraser, a high school junior and a course marshal at the first Heritage, says losing it would be “devastating.”

“The island would still be here, of course, but it would hurt its image, and our perception of ourselves,” he said. “We’re a small community with a big-time pro sports event. Imagine Green Bay if the Packers left.

“People see Harbour Town every year on (Golf Channel and CBS telecasts), and if that goes away, it’s got to affect vacation decisions, second-home buyers. We have a lot of things here generated by tourism. … I can’t imagine anything I want to see less than it going away on my watch. I would take it personally.”

Others would feel the loss economically. And yet, it’s not as if the Heritage hasn’t witnessed dire straits before.

an up and

down legacy

Cary Corbitt’s life has been tied to Harbour Town almost since he caddied in the first Heritage as a high school junior. A native of McCormick, he returned to Hilton Head in 1977 as an “entry level golf (professional)” and never left. Now, as Sea Pines’ director of sports and operations, he is the liaison whenever Dye returns to do updates.

Corbitt also has been around as the resort rode out bankruptcy and rebounds over the decades. “The mid-1980s, (PGA Tour players) made comments about the course’s conditioning that probably weren’t received well in the community, but they were correct,” Corbitt said.

Sea Pines was affected by rises and falls in real estate ventures, notably the exploits of developer Bobby Ginn, whose misfortunes were summed up in an island-favorite bumper sticker: “Honk if Bobby Ginn owes you money.” Said Corbitt, “There were times when money was short (and) some of the previous regimes, when (the resort) was owned by Phil Schwab and Luke Taylor … that was an unsettled time. Some people were not honest then.”

In the beginning, though, the Frasers were visionaries, movers-and-shakers before that concept became common.

“They built Harbour Town with the idea of holding a Tour event,” Simon Fraser said. “My uncle Charles had a lot of foresight, he saw things no one else did, or was willing to take risks others wouldn’t. He was real smart about those kinds of things.”

According to Terry Bunton’s book, “The History of the Heritage: 1969-1989,” the first inkling of what would be came in July 1968 when Bill Dyer, executive director of the tournament, sent telegrams to news outlets announcing “the first major professional golf tournament to be held directly on the Atlantic seacoast.” Dates for the tournament were Nov. 25-Dec. 1.

A month later, Dyer announced a one-year delay because construction of Harbour Town had just begun. Sea Pines Plantation and Delta Air Lines were co-sponsors, with a $100,000 purse. The first tournament brochure featured a photo of Nicklaus and Dye at “the site of the 1969 Heritage Classic.” An asterisk in the caption added: “If the course is ready.”

While Nicklaus’ name as consultant was the hook, most acknowledge that Harbour Town was Dye’s baby. Dye, in turn, gives credit, sort of, for many of Harbour Town’s then-unique elements to renowned architect Robert Trent Jones.

“I was always an admirer of Mr. Jones, and I went up to (Hilton Head’s) Palmetto Dunes when he was building that course,” Dye said. “Jack had called about building at Sea Pines, and I decided that to get any kind of identity, I needed to build something that was the dead opposite of Mr. Jones.”

Thus, where Jones was known for big, muscular golf courses with huge, undulating greens and significant elevation changes, Dye went minimalist. Harbour Town would be short but tight, its fairways hemmed in by pines and hardwoods, and with small, nearly flat greens, a combination that demanded more precision than power. Many of Dye’s distinct features — use of railroad ties for bulkheads around greens, for instance — were the result of a 1963 trip he and Alice made to visit courses in Scotland.

Harbour Town also launched Dye’s reputation for creating great courses out of poor land. In fact, Dye said, “they didn’t call (the site) a swamp, but it was.”

As for Harbour Town’s inland holes, “I tried to keep everything low-profile, with the trees as the biggest hazard,” Dye said. “The yardage (6,973 yards in its current configuration) is good because if you miss your drive, you’re in the pines.”

He grins — some would say “Dye-abolically” — whenever he says that.

a course unlike most others

For all its claustrophobic characteristics, though, Dye takes pride in pointing out that in 1969, en route to winning the first Heritage, Palmer “used driver on every par-4 and par-5.” That victory by “The King” established the tournament and the course, and it didn’t hurt that a who’s-who of major champions — Hale Irwin (three times), Johnny Miller (twice), Tom Watson (twice), Payne Stewart (twice) and Nicklaus (1975) — won most of the Heritage titles in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1987, Davis Love III, then an unknown, won the first of his five Heritages, disputing the course’s “big hitters can’t win here” reputation. Nevertheless, that image has affected more recent Heritage fields. Tiger Woods played Harbour Town once (1999, tying for 18th) and never returned. Phil Mickelson played regularly in the 1990s, but not since 2002. South Carolina native Dustin Johnson played in 2008-09, missed the cut both years and later said he is unlikely to play there again.

The past decade, as equipment and athleticism created distance monsters with accuracy issues, the Heritage was won by the likes of Justin Leonard (2002), Aaron Baddeley (2006), Brian Gay (2009) and, last year, Jim Furyk.

One multiple-majors winner, 1997 Heritage champion Nick Price, this year bemoaned the possible loss of Harbour Town. Price pointed a finger at some absent stars — “they know who they are,” he said — for putting the Heritage’s future in jeopardy.

Losing the tournament dates would be a shame, say PGA Tour players who view a trip to Hilton Head as a family vacation and “decompression period” following the Masters. This year, for the first time since 1983, the Heritage was moved back a week.

Wilmot, working the past two years to secure sponsorship for his tournament, has used the Heritage’s “adult spring break” reputation as a selling point. “We’re more laid-back, and if you know the pressure of a major … (players) come here, and it becomes a lot more relaxed. You see guys on bike paths with their shoes in their hands, riding bikes with their families. It’s just different than most places.”

Dye, for one, thinks even if the Heritage ends, Harbour Town will continue to thrive — “It fills up that time of year pretty much,” he said.

For others, though, the latest crisis evokes sadness and a sense of impending loss.

“(The Heritage is) the largest event in the state, an economic driver for the community,” Corbitt said. “It brings us national exposure every year and further qualifies the significance of Harbour Town, Sea Pines and Hilton Head. All the pieces fit together.”

Recently, Wilmot said, he experienced a moment in Heritage history, past and present. “I felt weird when I spoke to (former Clemson golfer) Sam Saunders to grant him a playing exemption,” Wilmot said. “Someone said, ‘His granddad (Palmer) won the first,’ and I thought that ironically, Sam’s first could be the last one.”

Anticipation, and uncertainty: For the Heritage, those seem always to go hand-in-hand.

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