Most golf courses embrace a “signature hole,” one that offers both beauty and a challenge and one that members brag about. The golf-rich state of South Carolina offers one, too — the 18th at Harbour Town Golf Links that will be tackled by some of the game’s best players this week in the RBC Heritage.
But even those with no more than a passing interest in golf know about Harbour Town’s 18th, thanks to the backdrop provided by the candy-striped lighthouse and yacht-filled marina that provide direction to the tiny green that seems to jut into Calibogue Sound.
But some students of the game do not realize this image of South Carolina golf evolved by accident.
For the 18th hole, golf can thank the company that constructed the harbor.
“The original routing by George Cobb brought the 18th back to the clubhouse, parallel to the 10th hole,” said Cary Corbitt, director of sports and operations for Sea Pines Resort. Architect Pete Dye, who converted Cobb’s routing into the acclaimed course more than 40 years ago, planned a par-3 17th hole in the bit of land originally available. Then, fate intervened.
The dredging operation dumped sand along the edge of the proposed golf course property, and pretty soon, enough land had been created for both the 17th and 18th. Dye’s genius took over and the focal point of the PGA Tour tournament’s television coverage became synonymous not only with Harbour Town but also with golf in South Carolina.
“There’s no doubt the 18th is the signature for the resort and the island and the state,” Corbitt said.
A par-4, Harbour Town’s 18th stretches almost 500 yards and features a generous landing area framed by the Calibogue Sound and marsh on the left and condos and out-of-bound stakes on the right. But the second shot is demanding — a long iron into a tiny green with the water in play. That creates an adventure on the calmest day, and the wind often blows.
One year, Ernie Els played the 18th with driver and a 3-wood into the wind and a day later, with the wind at his back, used a 3-wood off the tee and an 8-iron to the green,
“I’d hate to know I had to make par on that hole to win the tournament,” said Happ Lathrop, long-time executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association.
Dye no doubt had that in mind during the design process. He likes a finishing hole that encourages the golfer to play one way off the tee and another toward the green, and Harbour Town’s 18th does that in subtle ways. Driving straight means the second shot must clear a bunker and any shot left flirts with the marsh. Driving right offers a better angle — making the second shot to the left.
“George (Cobb) did the original layout, which I have only heard about and never seen,” Corbitt said. “But it did route the 18th toward the clubhouse. Then, Charles Fraser contacted Jack Nicklaus, and Jack suggested using Pete.
“I do have their original design. Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and Donald O’Quinn, my counterpart and also in charge of construction at the time, designed Harbour Town on his kitchen table. It’s a huge thing, done with an ink pen and colored markers. It’s as cool as it can be.”
What dredging created in land for the 18th hole, Mother Nature has threatened to take away. “Erosion issues,” Corbitt called the problem.
To solve the problem, the resort just completed building six rock revetments that are about 40 yards off the green and extend about 150 yards down the fairway toward the tee. The plan also called for more than 21,000 native marsh grasses to be planted to restore the area.
The result is what the South Carolina Golf Course Rating Panel named its “most memorable hole” and panelist Barry Reynolds noted, “It’s nerve-wracking to play for $2; I can’t imagine playing it for $1 million” in the RBC Heritage.
But that’s what the pros will be doing this week, and the hole guarantees terrific theater. For every chip-in to win, which Davis Love did to secure one of his five titles, there is a Steve Jones, who drove out of bounds to kill his title chances.
“Boo (Weekley) chipped in to win for from the left side and Davis chipped in from the right side,” Corbitt said. “(Greg) Norman got up and down out of the back bunker the year he won. Back then, it was much narrower than it is today and he hit a phenomenal shot close to the hole.”
The 2011 tournament provided the final-hole dramatics that have characterized the Heritage through the years.
Playing far ahead of the leaders, Brandt Snedeker birdied the 18th with a 12-foot putt to complete a 7-under 64. Luke Donald, who with a win would become the No. 1-ranked player in the world, saved par from the front bunker to finish at 70 and tied with Snedeker.
Snedeker and Donald traded birdies on the first playoff hole, the 18th, and pars on the second, the 17th. Back at 18, Donald left his approach in the front bunker, blasted just off the green and his chip for par hit the hole and bounced away. Snedeker tapped in for the winning par.
“Something always happens at the 18th,” tournament director Steve Wilmot said. “That’s the beauty of the hole and the tournament.”
That’s the reason the 18th can be called the state’s signature hole — even if it came into being by accident.