Few golf courses boast the kind of inception and christening that Harbour Town Golf Links enjoyed in 1969, the year it opened and hosted the first Heritage Classic. The famous course on Hilton Head Island was designed by the dynamic team of Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye. Under time constraints, they completed it just in time to watch Arnold Palmer end a 14-month victory drought with a three-stroke victory over Bert Yancey and Richard Crawford.
“I just want to thank Jack for building a course so that I could win again,” Palmer said after the victory in late November, a few months after he turned 40 years old.
The beauty of Harbour Town, built on flat, low-lying marshy ground, is not just its serene and inspiring setting on Hilton Head Island, just off Calibogue Sound. It’s also in its strategic minimalist design, which was controversial at the time (as many designs with the Dye signature tended to be) with its harrowingly narrow fairways and small greens.
The par-71 layout measured just 6,657 yards when it opened, short even by 1960s standards. But what it lacked in length it made up for in its routing and unique features. Harbour Town demands shot-making excellence to avoid the hundreds of trees — recently pared down after the ravages of Hurricane Matthew last December — and the many “sharp, crisp” bunkers that Dye once said is its best asset. (A historical nugget: some of the larger tracts of sand became known as “waste bunkers,” a term first coined at Harbour Town, according to Dye.)
“We tried to make it so that it demands an accurate well-played shot,” Nicklaus said prior to the initial Heritage, which began on November 28, Thanksgiving Day. “A bad shot can put you in trouble.”
Nicklaus found out how much trouble when he ended up tied for sixth place with a closing 75 and 5-over 289 total. But the Golden Bear would go on to win the event himself in 1975, not a small achievement given that Harbour Town shackled his power game. The victory was one of only four among Nicklaus’ 73 PGA Tour wins that came on courses carrying his design signature. The others were two victories in the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide in 1977 and ’84, the event he has hosted since 1976, and the 1973 Ohio Kings Island Open on the Grizzly Course near Cincinnati.
Dye has credited his fellow Ohio native Nicklaus for embracing the design concept at Harbour Town and refining its features, which was enlightening to the creative architect, who, of course, knew well that Nicklaus’ game was built on power.
The co-designers paid earnest attention to the reaction from players that first year and were generally pleased that, although there were some questions about the design, most players were complimentary, perhaps none more than Lee Trevino, one of golf’s most renowned shot-makers. But there was bound to be grumbling when rounds in the 80s numbered twice as many as rounds under par.
When legendary writer Dan Jenkins called it the “Pebble Beach East,” Dye and Nicklaus felt satisfied that they had created an iconic golf course, one that has stood the test of time as a supreme challenge in this modern era of ever-longer drives.
The list of winners speaks to the quality of layout. Virtuosos like Johnny Miller, Hubert Green, Hale Irwin and, of course, Palmer and Nicklaus showed the way. Later came Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Greg Norman, plus the event’s all-time leader in victories, five-time winner Davis Love III.
When Nicklaus took a final tour of the layout two weeks before the inaugural tournament, he understood that the Heritage Classic (a name inspired by what is believed to be the first golf club in the U.S. — South Carolina Golf Club, chartered in 1896) needed a course to match what founder Charles Fraser and the PGA Tour hoped would be a special event on the schedule. Said Jack, prophetically, “They have the capability in the course to do just that.”
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of three books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.