Sandlapper Society

South Carolina Golf

Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links

by Bob Gillespie

“It’s just different than most PGA Tour events, and the biggest event in the state. That’s why I love to see it.”
— Steve Wilmot, Heritage Executive Director

A lot of memories are made in 43 years. That’s especially true when those memories are tied to the biggest sporting event in the state of South Carolina each year— and when so many people have lives wrapped up in that event and its venue.

So, where were you in 1969, specifically the week of Thanksgiving? Cary Corbitt, then 16 and a high school golfer from McCormick, was busy caddying in the first Heritage, still South Carolina’s only PGA Tour event. The tournament site was a brand-new, barely completed golf course built for the occasion: Harbour Town Golf Links.

Developers and brothers Charles and Joe Fraser had conceived both the golf course and the tournament in the mid-1960s to help sell real estate in Sea Pines, their nascent Hilton Head resort development. “They invited all the state’s high school teams to participate in the first one,” says Corbitt, now Sea Pines’ director of sports and operations, overseeing the resorts’ three golf courses. “My brother and I stayed at Fraser Camp, across from what later would be the William Hilton Inn on South Forest Beach.

“It was all open-air; we were camping out, staying in a bunkhouse,” he says, laughing at the idea. Modern-day Sea Pines, with its lush condominiums, restaurants and understated elegance, was just a dream then.

Simon Fraser, son of Joe Fraser and nephew of Charles, also was in high school in 1969, and worked as a 16-year-old gallery marshal for the inaugural Heritage. Now an attorney, his memories go even further back— to days during the course’s construction when he walked the barren fairways with his father, his uncle and co-designers Pete Dye and the legendary Jack Nicklaus.

“The harbor [which gave the course its name] wasn’t finished until 1971,” Simon Fraser says. “I remember the scaffolding on the lighthouse”— the iconic 18th-hole image of the Heritage— “in the background when Arnold Palmer was getting the [winner’s] trophy. None of the main buildings, including the clubhouse, were completed yet.”

Fraser, too, laughs. “The tournament was purely to promote Sea Pines, and they built Harbour Town with the idea of holding an [PGA Tour] event,” he says. “Charles had a lot of foresight, and he saw things no one else did and was willing to take risks others wouldn’t. He was real smart about those kinds of things.”

Thus it is that the two— Harbour Town and the Heritage— have been inextricably linked since Day One. The one begat the other... or maybe it was the other way around?

Which is why, when the Heritage lost long-time sponsor Verizon following the 2010 tournament, there was a sense of unease for everyone associated with Harbour Town. When the 2011 event was staged with no sponsor and none seemingly lined up for the future, the angst was palpable.

No one felt the tension more than Steve Wilmot, the Heritage’s executive director since 1986. Wilmot, the man in the bull’s-eye as the tournament sought a sponsor, was taking blood pressure medication in part because of that pressure.

“I felt weird when I spoke to Sam Saunders,” he said, referring to Palmer’s grandson, who Wilmot granted a sponsor’s exemption for the 2011 tournament. “Someone referenced the fact his grandfather won the first [Heritage], and I thought that, ironically, Sam’s first might be the last one.”

But then on June 16, Royal Bank of Canada emerged as the new title sponsor for at least the next five years, with Boeing also on board as presenting sponsor. And everyone— from Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, who had lobbied RBC and the PGA Tour on the Heritage’s behalf, down to the hundreds of local tournament volunteers each year— breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, no one had suggested that Harbour Town might go away if the Heritage did. After all, the 6,973-yard, par-71 course, surrounded by marshes and pines and luxury homes, is an island fixture— not to mention being a fixture in most Top 100 U.S. and world golf course rankings, and a favorite of PGA Tour players.

“It would’ve been devastating,” Simon Fraser said. “The island would’ve still been here, and the golf course, but it would’ve hurt the image, your perception of yourselves. Imagine if the Packers left Green Bay.

“From a purely economic effect, property values... we have a lot of things generated by tourism and, if that fell off some, we’d have lost a lot of what we enjoy.”

Instead, Harbour Town remains what it has been these past 43 years: one of South Carolina’s premier courses— it ranks first or second in the state, sharing honors with Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, another Dye design— even as it also remains, in ways, a work in progress.

Part of that is Dye, now golf’s highest-profile octogenarian architect, who as recently as two weeks before this year’s Heritage was at Harbour Town, making slight changes and updates. “Pete comes once a year or so,” Corbitt says. “We review the golf course; for example, when he built the fifth hole with the bunker on the left side, we wanted a hazard there.

“Now guys hit over it, so it makes sense to move the tee back and move the bunker down the fairway or add another. Pete wants that process in their minds when they’re on the tee.”

Though Dye’s highly ranked designs number in the hundreds today, in 1969 he was a relatively little-known course builder with a short résumé. Then Charles Fraser contacted Nicklaus about building Harbour Town, and Nicklaus in turn recommended Dye to be his “collaborator.” Says Dye, “I was always close to Jack, so when he called and said they wanted to build a course in Sea Pines, I was interested.”

Dye also was an admirer of Robert Trent Jones, then the best-known American course designer, who at that time was building a course at Hilton Head’s Palmetto Dunes. Dye visited Jones’ site and came away convinced that “to get any type of my own identity, I needed to build something that was the dead opposite of Mr. Jones’.”

Jones was a proponent of big, muscular golf courses with huge, undulating greens and major elevation changes. So Dye went minimalist with Harbour Town, building it relatively short but with narrow fairways bordered by trees and pine-straw-covered areas, and with smaller, subtle greens. Playing Harbour Town, with its wealth of marshy areas and bunkers, required precision and accuracy instead of pure strength.

Dye and his wife/co-designer Alice also gave the new course a look similar to ancient designs in Scotland. The couple had toured the “Home of Golf” in 1963, and many elements of Harbour Town— such as using railroad ties to build bulkheads separating greens from sand and/or water— were influenced by what they had seen.

One of Harbour Town’s best-known (and most feared) holes, the par-4 13th, features an elevated “target” green sitting peninsula-like above the horseshoe-shaped bunker, with cypress boards bordering the sand. The concept was the brainchild of Alice Dye, who Pete says built it with the help of one bulldozer.

The world got its first look at Harbour Town that fall weekend in 1969— barely. Sixteen months earlier, in July 1968, telegrams were sent to area newspapers announcing the tournament and the golf course— which had barely begun construction. A tournament brochure, featuring a photo of Nicklaus and Dye at “the site of the 1969 Heritage Classic,” included the disclaimer, “if the course is ready.”

It was, as though Dye tells of working on smoothing out the sand at No. 13’s bunker moments before the first players arrived during the opening round. But then, given what he had created the course from, Dye was happy to be that close. “They didn’t call [the site] a swamp, but it was,” he says, chuckling.

In fact, says Corbitt, only a few portions of the mostly-inland course required filling in. The now- famous 18th, which runs along the shore of Calibogue Sound, was created from dirt dredged to create Harbour Town’s marina. The par-4 16th’s fairway bunker was “where Pete dropped all the waste from building the golf course,” Corbitt says.

Harbour Town earned instant credibility that first year, and it didn’t hurt that the hugely popular Palmer— who “used a driver on every par-4 and par-5,” according to Dye— won the event on a course “co-designed” by his arch-rival Nicklaus. Too, the course was unique among PGA Tour layouts, another plus.

“It was unbelievable the national publicity we got when it first opened,” Dye says. “Dan Jenkins [then writing for Sports Illustrated] wrote about it and, when the ratings came out, it was in the first 10 in the world.

“When we first opened Harbour Town, it just jumped out of the woods. Harbour Town made my career, really. It changed my whole way of life.”

Soon golfing tourists were lined up to pay steep greens fees (currently around $250, depending on the season) to test themselves on the course. In turn, Harbour Town and Sea Pines became centers of a lifestyle that visitors wanted to make their own— especially during the Heritage, which moved in 1983 to its now-traditional spring date, the week after
the Masters.

“It’s a festive atmosphere,” says Wilmot, who likens the week to “adult spring break.” That attitude even affects the PGA Tour players. “They come here and it becomes a lot more relaxed,” he said. “You see them on bike paths with their shoes in their hands, riding bikes with their families.

“It’s just different than most PGA Tour events and the biggest event in the state. That’s why I love to see it.”

And why, when April 2012 rolls around, thousands will once again flock to Harbour Town to watch the world’s best players taking on Dye’s deceptively difficult layout. It’s been that way for 43 years, and Wilmot— who doesn’t play golf, but has his own special memories of the tournament and the golf course—  hopes that never changes.

Davis Love III, a five-time Heritage winner, captured his first title in 1986, the year Wilmot took over as tournament director. And Love “took my son [Charlie] under his wing in 2003, when he won his fifth,” Wilmot says.

“Davis had just chipped in to win [on the 18th hole] and he asked Charlie, who was 16 then, ‘You want to ride in with me?’ He left with Davis in the cart and I didn’t see him for 1-½ hours.”

Just as Wilmot was wondering if he might have to launch a search, he looked into the media interview room— and saw Charlie, sitting near Love.

That’s a memory the Wilmots would have forever, regardless of the Heritage’s fate. Now, though, they can look forward to more to come.  

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