50 Words or Less
Harbour Town Golf Links, one of the most recognizable courses on Tour, is a test of precise shotmaking. Controlling your line and distance off the tee is a must. Can be quite penal if you’re out of position.
Sometimes we are attracted to things that are totally outside our normal taste. Harbour Town Golf Links is the most notable example for me. I like wide open courses and tend to dislike prescriptive shot making. I’m not the biggest fan of Pete Dye or Jack Nicklaus as architects. But in spite of all of this, Harbour Town has always been near the top of the list of Tour courses I want to try. I got the chance to play it last week, and it lived up to my hopes and then some.
Harbour Town Golf Links was built to host the PGA Tour, so, fittingly, it has strong a practice area. Within steps of the first tee, there’s a large putting green, short game area, and a driving range. Every part of the practice area is well suited to the actual course.
The practice green reflects the speed on the course perfectly, and the short game area gets you focused on hitting precise shots to small targets. The driving range isn’t super long, but it has lots of target greens to get you focused on shotmaking.
Customer Service & Amenities
Sea Pines Resort, the home of Harbour Town Golf Links, is an expansive facility with a lot to offer. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to limit the focus to what’s at the course.
As you would expect, Harbour Town is home to a massive clubhouse. Inside there’s a pro shop where you can buy anything imaginable with the famous red and white lighthouse on it. There’s also a Pete Dye Room where you can learn about the course’s history and architect.
If you’re looking for food, there’s Links, An American Grill, which is a beautiful upscale restaurant with tremendous views of the course. Post round, you can walk off the 18th green toward the lighthouse and eat at the Quarterdeck. This recently-renovated spot has great views of the Calibogue Sound and delicious seafood.
Learn about all HHI has to offer HERE
When it comes to customer service, you are never left wanting at Harbour Town. From the moment you pull up, there’s someone available to lend a hand and point you in the right direction. Caddies are required at Harbour Town, and for good reason. Local knowledge is essential to playing well, and the caddies add a lot to your round. HTGL is very walkable, but if you choose to ride, your group will take a forecaddie.
Beauty & Scenery
Anyone who has seen Harbour Town on TV probably remembers the two finishing holes playing into the Calibouge Sound. These are, without question, the visual highlight of the round. #17 is a par 3 that plays out to the water, and the #18 is a long par four that plays toward the famous lighthouse with marsh down the entire left side.
The first sixteen holes are inland and offer a very different feel. This course is built between homes, but the strategic demands keeps your focus where it belongs. Between the work of Dye and Nicklaus, and the fauna, there’s always something to catch your eye. The bunkers are particularly interesting in their variety of shapes and sizes.
We also got a treat, spying a mama gator with a congregation of babies.
Having watched Harbour Town on TV for many years, I had some very clear expectations for the golf course. Most of all, I was expecting the course to require extremely precise tee shots, often shaped, and often with less than driver. While I was absolutely correct about the accuracy requirement, straight shots always play, and the course rarely takes driver out of your hands.
Want more space off the tee? Check out the Arthur Hills Course at Palmetto Hall HERE
On most days, Harbour Town Golf Links sets out four tee boxes ranging from 5,047 to 6,681 yards. The Heritage tees at 7,191 yards are marked only with plaques, because over 99% of the golfing public has no business playing them. With a par of 71, the 6,681 yard blue tees are a stout test for those driving it over 250 yards. The white tees at 6,253 yards are a very solid challenge for anyone with less distance off the tee. I played the white tees on the front and had to hit less than driver only once. Playing the blues on the back nine, I hit driver on all the par 4s and 5s.
Whether you hit driver or not, the accuracy requirement cannot be overstated. However, the course doesn’t feel overly tight. The first tee shot is narrow and tree lined, but after that it has a more open feel. That feel is deceiving because water, sand, and doglegs (primarily left) make this course very demanding off the tee.
On most courses, caddies provide their biggest value on the green. At Harbour Town, it’s on the tee. They will put you on the right line so that you stay dry, don’t run out of fairway, and have a fair shot into the green. Without the right game plan, you can hit “good” tee shots all day and record a huge number.
Your approach shots at Harbour Town can range from straightforward to impossible depending on your tee shot. Whether you’re straight or crooked, however, there are some commonalities. First, the greens are quite small. This alone makes the approach shots a little tricky. Second, your stance is likely to be very manageable. There is minimal movement in the fairways or rough. Finally, unless you get unlucky, you’re going to have a good lie. The rough is trivial – thin and just barely longer than the fairway cut – and shouldn’t impact your approach.
The trouble off the tee comes in one of three flavors: sand, trees, or angles. Many of the fairway bunkers at HTGL have been deepened recently to make them more penal. If you find yourself near a lip, either foot wedge it back a few feet or take your medicine and chop it out. Those bunkers are not the place for hero golf.
If you find yourself in the tree line, however, you may have the opportunity to put on your cape. The tree lines are mostly thin and playable, leaving you the option of going for the gusto.
The real calling card of Harbour Town, however, are the angles. On almost every hole, you can find places in the fairway from which you can’t play a clear shot the green. Again, the choice is yours whether you lay up, bail out, or jump out of a phone booth with plans to hit a low, cut 5I from 140 yards. Since HTGL is a once-in-a-lifetime round for most players, I strongly advise attempting the memorable shot.
Finally, one thing I really like about Harbour Town is that it forces you to use your entire bag. From the blues tees, there’s over a 100 yard difference between the longest and shortest par 4s. Even if you drive it consistently well, you’ll still hit everything from wedges to long irons into greens.
Greens & Surrounds
If you manage to hit your approach shot onto the green, you can exhale. Take a few minutes to relax before the challenge of the next tee shot. The greens at Harbour Town Golf Links are small and modest in their movements. Some have one larger feature – a shoulder or ridge – but even those are fairly easy to navigate. Three putting should be a rarity.
At a glance, the surrounds are fairly tame, too. There isn’t much undulation, and the rough is virtually nonexistent. The trouble comes from the sand. First, there’s the obvious sand. There are big bunkers that you can see from the fairway and should avoid. If you do land in one, especially the deep ones, getting out and onto the small greens can be stressful.
The sneaky difficulty comes from the small traps. There are little strips or pots of sand around nearly every green that you can’t see from the fairway. Having to fly these hazards can turn a routine chip into a testy pitch shot. This combination of sand and small greens requires you to have deft touch with your wedges if you want to get up and down.
If you haven’t gotten the message yet, Harbour Town Golf Links is all about precision shot making. You need to know where you’re going and demonstrate control over both your line and distance. Just as importantly, you need to show knowledge of your shotmaking abilities. No one is going to get through a round at HTGL without finding some trouble. Your score will be a reflection of your ability to handle that trouble well, whether that’s taking your medicine or executing a hero shot.
Finally, for those traveling to Sea Pines, be aware of how time of year will affect course conditions. If you’re headed down in the late fall, know that the courses are recovering from their busy season. This will mean over-seeded greens and cart path only rules. The positive side of late fall is that the weather is spectacular – we got 70 degrees and sunny for three straight days.
#4 – Par 3 – 200 Yards
I could have picked any of the par 3s at Harbour Town Golf Links – I think they’re the sneaky best part of the course. This green is surrounded on nearly three sides by water, but there’s loads of room to the right. If you’re feeling good, take on the flag. If your hands are shaky, play to the right and try to make a scrambling par.
#5 – Par 5 – 569 Yards
The second of three par 5s is the most fun. The tee shot gives you a little breathing room, but you need a draw to really maximize your chances for eagle. Even a huge tee shot will leave a daunting second shot because the green is small and well-guarded. Getting home in three is fairly easy if you can stay out of the fairway bunkers.
#13 – Par 4 – 373 Yards
This par 4 is fairly short, but it epitomizes the challenge of Harbour Town. You don’t need much distance off the tee, but you must be on the right side of the hole. Anything to the left is going to be blocked out by a large tree. The green is defended by a U-shaped bunker that’s about six feet below the putting surface. Being in there is…suboptimal.
#16 – Par 4 – 434 Yards
Picking either of the final two holes felt too obvious, so I’m opting for their neighbor. I like #16 for the same reason I like #4 – off the tee, you can take on the “right” shot, but there’s a lot of room to safely bail out. Even if you cut the corner too sharply, you end up in a waste bunker, not water. When you round the corner of the dog leg, you get your first look at the marsh, which is quite stunning.
Despite being an outlier among my favorite courses, Harbour Town Golf Links lived up to my expectations by delivering a tough, fair test of shotmaking. This course delivers eighteen holes of near-constant stress on your tee shots and approaches. A round here will give you an excellent idea of just how good the guys are that play for the big cardboard checks.
Visit Harbor Town Golf Links HERE
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The photo of the Mama and Baby gators is awesome, you should definitely get that in some photo contests. I have a similar attitude towards this course – that while I prefer wide open courses – there is something about Harbour Town that is so intriguing that’s its always been very high on my must play list. Great review, great photos.
Played it once. No need to repeat. It’s unique and challenging for the reasons you mentioned. I’m not a fan of being penalized with an obstructed approach from a fairway lie. Architecturally, it frequently lacks interesting land movement or more than one way to play a an unobstructed shot. Many holes are lined with condos well past their prime. Just not my cup of tea and I don’t understand why it’s rated so highly by some large golf publications.
Well said and I totally agree with everything you said. I enjoyed seeing some familiar holes and I think the par 3s are pretty great but the tee shots on the par 4s and par 5s are generally too penal and restrictive. I felt the same way about Caledonia and, really, most of the coastal South Carolina courses that are made way too narrow for my taste.
Also, I am fairly certain HT is cart-path year round, not just during the fall. Finally, I would disagree with Matt and I think Harbour Town takes driver out of your hand on a number of holes but maybe I am not as accurate as he is. On the plus side, I didn’t lose any balls out there!
One of my favourite courses in the world , have been lucky enough to play it four times now always in perfect weather and in pristine condition . Have never been able to do it or myself justice but this doesn’t diminish my love for Harbour Town or indeed Hilton Head . Amazing place !
I play Harbour Town every year, one of my favorites. Love the course design and strategy needed to play it. The par 3 holes are fantastic, with #14 my favorite. Holes 13-18 are a great closing to a round of golf.
Definitely want to play that course, a good friend of mine has played for there a few times , describing the target golf part like you did. Maybe next year.
Excellent review. Played HTGL several years ago before the new club house was built. This is one course you need to prepare for to play. We’ve played most of the courses on the island, but this is the top course with out any doubt. We noticed the wind effect coming into play on 17 and 18 where we didn’t have throughout the rest of the course. Brings out the variety of conditions the course presents.
I played it a few years ago the week before the RBC. Rough was pretty brutal for me – maybe it was just grown out for the tournament. I loved the course. Makes you think.
Heavenly experience- television does not do the course justice. It’s breathtakingly outstanding.
Going to Hilton Head in June of 2023. Want to play it but very expensive. I have a handicap of 23and a senior golfer. Still debating if I want to play it