Play Golf at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Saturday February 17th, 2007
Like Stewart Cink, you too can feel the rush of playing Harbour Town's fabled 18th hole. <span class="picturesource">Getty Images</span>

Everybody exhale. The Masters is over and it's time to breathe again. There's no better place to do it than Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

A zig-zagging, two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Augusta, Georgia puts you in the southernmost reaches of South Carolina, on the golf-drenched barrier island of Hilton Head. As with Augusta, green is the dominant color here, thanks to acres of pines, moss-draped oaks, sturdy cabbage palmettos and dense shrubbery — not to mention more than 400 golf holes scattered across the windswept island. For many years, the Heritage stop on the PGA Tour has followed the Masters and the two tournaments could not be more different. They're both marvelous, but for completely different reasons.

Being at Augusta National for the Masters is like being in church. You are in awe of the place. Its beauty is stupefying. Its traditions are reverential. It's joyful just to bask in the aura of anything related to the tournament. But you're also quite conscious that you must be on your best behavior. No running, or they'll yank your badge. Get caught with a cell phone and away you go. There's a host of other rules that MUST BE OBEYED. And then there's the nearly suffocating pressure that accompanies the actual tournament competition, where players' lives can be changed forever with one good or bad bounce.

That's why the Verizon Heritage event on Hilton Head is so perfect. It's where players and spectators remove their starched collars and dress shoes and slip on the T-shirt and flip-flops. It's a week-long party — perhaps not on the grand scale of what they do in Phoenix — in Hilton Head, it's more like a backyard barbecue. One of my favorite intersections in tournament golf is where the right side of Harbour Town's 10th fairway meets the right side of the 16th fairway. It's a sea of smiling faces, of golf fans celebrating the good things in life, such as great golf, balmy weather, cool cocktails and an easy-on-the-eyes Lowcountry backdrop. It's a sweet scene.

Hilton Head Island has beckoned vacationers since 1960 or so, but it wasn't until 1969 that it took its exalted place among golf destinations. It was all due to Harbour Town Golf Links. Jack Nicklaus' first foray into big-time architecture was here, while serving as a co-designer with Pete Dye. The PGA Tour staged a November event in 1969 and both tournament and course were judged roaring successes. It didn't hurt that another future designer, Arnold Palmer, won that first event, breaking out of a minor slump to do so and that his winning score was a hard-fought 1-under par. Harbour Town has beguiled the pros ever since.

More than any course on Tour, Harbour Town favors no single style of play. It simply rewards the best player that week. What Harbour Town favors is shotmakers, with all-around games. That explains why Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Payne Stewart each won twice each. That also explains why Hale Irwin could win in 1971 and 1973 — and then again in 1994 at age 48. Craft and cunning usually prevail at Harbour Town. So does a mellow vibe.

Players and families hang loose within the handsome rural confines of the Sea Pines Plantation, where Harbour Town resides. The kids ride horseback, rollerblade along bikepaths and scamper across the beach. Pure fun pervades. Another reason players relax here? Harbour Town's putting surfaces. Whereas Augusta National's greens are the ultimate test, relentless in how they punish marginal approaches, frightening in their combination of speed and contour, Harbour Town's are small, flat and much slower. Shucks, they're practically friendly. Here, a 20-footer is just a 20-footer. You won't see anyone's back to the hole when they putt at Harbour Town.

Nor do the pros worry about downhill or sidehill lies on Harbour Town's flat terrain. Dye and Nicklaus hatched a short, tight, but poker table-flat layout that ribbons through forests of live oaks, pines, palmettos and magnolias. Lagoons, waste bunkers and oddly shaped greens add further dimensions to the challenge. Then it all concludes along the breeze-fueled salt marshes of Calibogue Sound. At the 18th, we arrive at one of the "must-play" holes in golf, a 460-yard par-4. To the left of the entire hole is Calibogue Sound. To the right lies trees, condos and out-of-bounds. In the distance looms Harbour Town's most enduring symbol, a candy cane-striped lighthouse, along with a marina filled with boats owned by the kind of people who can afford to play Harbour Town every day.

Post-round libations flow freely at the restaurants that surround the lighthouse. Live bands play, the breeze blows, the golden marsh grasses glow in the late afternoon sun. Every ounce of tension that's ever gripped your body seeps out of you. Welcome to Hilton Head. The party has started.

Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at askjoe@golfonline.com

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