April 17, 2014

Trees are key to Harbour Town, RBC Heritage

From the window in his office inside the temporary pro shop at Harbour Golf Links, John Farrell enjoys a perfect view of the first hole and how the course's trees immediately affect golfers' psyches.

From the window in his office inside the temporary pro shop at Harbour Golf Links, John Farrell enjoys a perfect view of the first hole and how the course's trees immediately affect golfers' psyches.

A stand of trees to the right of the fairway creates one of the tighter driving windows on the PGA Tour, with a drive to the right center needed to ensure access to the tiny green.

"Then you've got two big trees up overhanging the green that look like (former NBA centers) David Robinson and Manute Bol up there swatting balls away," said Farrell, Harbour Town's director of golf. "So right out of the blocks, the trees impact your shot selection pretty quickly."

The trees form the heart of Harbour Town's charm and its bedevilment. Twisting live oaks and rigid, tall pines provide the primary defense for a course that is famously throwback -- a layout that can dip to shorter than 7,000 yards and still elicit some of the highest scores on the PGA Tour schedule.

Farrell says to watch the overhead blimp shots this week for an idea of just how trees create the makeup of Harbour Town.

Colonial Country Club draws the most comparisons among Tour venues. Few places are shotmaking and decisions so driven by limbs.

"You can find different spots in those trees to hit out of every round and every hole," said Beaufort's Mark Anderson, who finished tied for 13th at the Heritage in 2013. "It never gets old."

• • •

Hilton Head Island protects its trees.

When Heron Point by Pete Dye was crafted in Sea Pines from the original Sea Marsh course, Dye and those involved with the renovation originally wanted to remove 30 protected trees in addition to the 799 trees they were already approved to remove.

Removing trees on the island required the permission of town planners and a Board of Zoning Appeals, based on an ordinance adopted in 1987.

The town balked, and plans were redrawn.

Trees -- more specifically the shade they cast -- create problems for golf course superintendents trying to keep bermuda grass alive. To reduce grass acreage, Heron Point's builders formed beds from pine straw, mulch, sand and shells.

The new plans still faced opposition, and parts of the course had to be rerouted to save six protected trees.

Golf courses protect the trees critical to the design.

Perhaps the most famous tree in golf suffered an icy death earlier this year in Augusta, Ga.

The loblolly pine on Augusta National's 17th hole, which rose more than 60 feet to protect the left side of the fairway and gained fame from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's disdain, could not be salvaged and raised the question of how to address the sudden absence of an architecturally significant feature.

At Harbour Town, protections are in place.

Trees integral to the design -- the pine in the center of the 16th fairway, which has been replaced before, and the stand of trees on the left side of the par-5 15th hole -- have lightning protection and replacements ready to go should they be lost.

Farrell said a number of trees have been removed from the golf course with the town's permission, but none that has affected the strategy of a hole.

"Ones we've taken are ones that were unhealthy themselves or were making our course conditions almost impossible to maintain," he said. "You can't grow this kind of grass in the shade."

• • •

The trees demand players' obedience.

On No. 1, avoid the left side off the tee. The par-5 second is reachable in two, but the approach must be threaded left of the oak and pine guarding the green.

Beware the magnolias left on No. 3. The oaks on either side of the par-3 seventh shouldn't be in play for the pros, but they are in mind.

A giant oak on the right side of No. 1 waits to pin players off the tee.

And the seemingly harmless ninth hole will aggravate using its tall, skinny pines around the green.

Favor the right side of the 10th fairway to avoid the water and face the trees. Perhaps the most memorable oak on the course greets golfers as an obstacle on the front right of the 11th green.

Pines dangling into the dogleg on No. 12 wait to snag aggressive tee shots. Sand receives the attention on the tiny 13th, but its trees are in play.

Trees request the par-5 15th be played as a three-shot hole, though a few might try to bend the rules. With the green tucked left behind a stand of trees and a standalone pine, the only play for mortals is to lay up -- and the shot better be precise.

"The trees play a part every single hole, without exception," Farrell said. "There's not a lot of golf courses that can say that."

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at

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