HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Most golf resorts begin with a piece of land so beautiful it must have been blessed by the golf gods. An architect's dream is a piece of land that wasn't intended for anything but golf.
Such is not the case at Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head Island, S.C. While it's long been known as one of the most popular golf destinations in the Southeast, if not for the vision of one man, it might never have come to be.
In the 1950s Charles Fraser utilized his Yale law education and a passion for the environment to see opportunity through the dense pine forests that dominated the Hilton Head landscape. Using a section of the island he'd purchased from his father, he put together plans for a high-end residential community. When builders bought into his concept Fraser kept them at bay, enforcing strict housing codes that prohibited any structure from rising above the tree line. Houses were designed to coexist with their natural surroundings.
But you don't have to be a tree hugger to appreciate Sea Pines' splendor. The golf is just as well thought out.
Harbour Town Golf Links is the resort's main attraction and is one of the longest-standing host sites on the PGA Tour. Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus teamed to design the course, one of only two venues with such a distinction. The course opened in 1969 and immediately earned a spot on the PGA Tour's schedule - no small feat for an area that barely a decade earlier had a population of about 600.
Aside from the highly photogenic, candy-cane-patterned lighthouse that shines like a beacon behind the 18th green, the course's defining characteristic is its postage-stamp greens.
In fact, because of its difficulty and emphasis on distance control, there is perhaps no other PGA Tour event with a smaller pool of candidate-winners. Multiple winners at Harbour Town include some of golf's finest ball-strikers: Payne Stewart, Boo Weekley and Davis Love III.
While some of the long hitters decide to rest and recuperate from the previous week's driving onslaught at Augusta, the short hitters get a chance to showcase their shot-making skills.
At 6,973 yards Harbour Town is one of the shortest layouts on the PGA Tour, but it has withstood the test of time with careful design and unique risk-reward opportunity. Like most great golf courses the back nine at Harbour Town is where the rubber meets the road.
A 373-yard par 4, the 13th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links doesn't appear tough on paper, but two precise shots are required or else bogey beckons. The green is protected by a massive bunker with road ties as walls, so shots astray can be deflected violently. With the possibility of birdie about equal to that of double or even triple bogey, the tide can turn quickly at this unique and diabolical short par 4.
Great par 5s give players options and No. 15 at Harbour Town is no exception. If you can hit it long down the right side you'll have a chance to get there in two, but a sharp dogleg left into the green will snare any less-than-perfect shot. When a 571-yard par-5 plays as a strategic three-shotter for most PGA Tour players you know it must be tough.
The 185-yard, par-3 17th is the first hole to expose players to the unpredictable winds off Calibogue Sound. Strategy for this hole depends entirely on the wind. PGA Tour players have hit as much as 3-wood and as little as 9-iron here.
The finishing hole at Harbour Town is no doubt its signature. It also happens to be one of the most photographed holes in all of golf. Players are confined to tight driving lanes all day, but at No. 18 the 80-yard-wide fairway is the exception to the rule. Conveniently and perhaps not accidentally, the lighthouse is the preferred aiming point off the tee. Hitting the fairway is the easy part, though, as the unpredictable wind off Calibogue Sound makes the final approach very intimidating.
Beyond Harbour Town Golf Links, there are two other courses within Sea Pines Resort: Heron Point by Pete Dye, and the Ocean Course, the first course built on Hilton Head Island. It recently underwent a redesign by Mark McCumber.
The Inn at Harbour Town - Everything in this quaint, 60-room hotel has an authentic European feel, from the greeter at the front door who's clad in Scottish garb to the British accents of the concierge. Rooms have views of the Harbour Town Golf Links.
Homes & Villas - If you're traveling with family or golf buddies, this is the option for you. There are three levels of accommodations to meet your financial preference. The homes and villas are scattered throughout the resort in five different locations.
February 5, 2010