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How to Tame Harbour Town Golf Links

Harbour Town Golf Links, designed in 1969 by architect Pete Dye with the help of professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, is recognized as among the best golf courses in the United States.

Story by B.C. Rausch + Photo by Arno Dimmling

And while the course that challenges the world’s best golfers this month will play harder, tighter, and longer that what you and I enjoy, watching the pros and considering what the designer was trying to do can help you play this and any course better and have more fun.

A few suggestions. First, think of golf as a strategic test and each hole a puzzle to be solved: You need to think, observe and anticipate. Second, stay in the moment: Don’t think about what happened on the last hole or the last shot. Once the ball leaves the clubface, there’s nothing you can do about it. Third, choose the set of tees right for your game. This may be the most important decision you make all day, as many golfers play a course too long for their skills. Remember, you are out there to have fun, not win the RBC Heritage.

On each tee, check how the markers are pointing, where they’re directing you to hit. Be especially careful on Dye-designed courses since he often angles tees intending to confuse. Be sure to align to your target. It’s not the architect’s job to tell you where to go; that’s your responsibility as a player.

Avoiding trees and branches is vital at Harbour Town. It’s sometimes better to play short of a tree or aim to one side or the other. You may want to give up a bit of distance in order to keep the ball in play.

On the eighth hole — the most difficult hole on the course — it’s key to hit it long and right off the tee to have a decent opportunity void of trees, bunkers and lagoons on the approach shot.

Dye is a master of the “risk-reward” hole, where taking a risk should reward you with a par or better, while playing it safe means par is your best possible score. On the par-3 fourth hole, firing right at the hole — especially when it’s cut in the front left of the green — is risky. But there’s plenty of bailout room to the right and the likelihood of a two-putt par.

Several holes at Harbour Town leave a very small margin of error between greens and water hazards. On these holes, tee shots and lay-ups must be placed strategically, usually one side of the fairway or the other, to leave a straight shot in. Also, be sure to know your yardages.

Take the ninth hole, a tight par 4 that usually plays around 325 yards, tempting golfers to go for the small, bunker-guarded green. But wait. Think. The architect is counting on you making a mistake. What’s wrong with two 150-yard shots, keeping the ball in play, and easily finding the green?

Then there are the infamous Pete Dye bunkers. When you see a bunker on a hole, figure out why it’s there. More than simple hazards, bunkers are often placed to keep a ball from going out of bounds, as aiming targets, or to indicate which direction the hole is going.

The size of putting greens can vary enormously from course to course and even on the same course. At Harbour Town, they’re mostly small, meaning there’s not much room for error. Hitting safely to the middle of any green is a good idea.

The two finishing holes play along Calibogue Sound, where the water line varies with the changing tides and there’s usually wind. At low tide it can be possible to play off the sand in the hazard (remember, playing from the hazard is like playing from a bunker where you can’t ground your club or improve your stance).

The 18th is the signature hole at Harbour Town. The entire left side is guarded by Calibogue Sound and the right side is lined with out of bounds stakes. Here, a little local knowledge helps: Aim your tee shot at the red-and-white-striped lighthouse for perfect positioning. Even though the fairway is wide, the approach will still be long and tricky to a green close to the water and protected by bunkers front and back. By now you should know what to do.

All these elements of good design — bunker placement, trees, water, wind direction and strength, aiming points — may distract from your primary objective. And when they do, it’s the sign of a well-designed golf course. That’s Harbour Town Golf Links and the genius of Pete Dye.


B.C. Rausch has worked in the world of golf – both inside and outside the ropes – for more than 30 years, tilling the turf, rubbing shoulders with the world’s best architects, and affiliating with some of the finest golf resorts. His knowledge has been learned from the ground up, literally. In a good year, he’ll log 40 rounds, qualifying him as an avid golfer.

New Pete Dye room in Harbour Town clubhouse

The Pete Dye Room celebrates the life and work of the World Golf Hall of Fame member, showcasing some of his other influential designs as well as how his brilliant career inspired and changed the game. In one of the most comprehensive golf course architecture museums in the world, three videos offer insight into Dye’s philosophy and work ethic: In one, professional golfers and friends discuss their favorite Dye holes and courses; another relives the magic of the most famous shots on his courses; and a mini-documentary looks deeply into the creation of Harbour Town Golf Links and how Dye’s process as a builder revolutionized course design and play.

Two large-scale exhibits expose the machinery integral to plying his trade: a Smithco bunker rake, which he used for shaping greens, and a life-size image of Dye using a transit – a surveying device used to measure and create angles.

Also on display in the Dye Room are an exceptional sand-table interactive exhibit that shows how Dye designed and built holes; an interactive transit that looks at a course under construction; a cross section model of a putting green; and dozens of iconic images and tales of Dye and the people he has influenced in his storied six-decade career. There are also numerous trophies and awards that provide further testament to Dye’s place in golf and golf course design.

Photos provided by The Sea Pines Resort

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