HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | The distance from Augusta National Golf Club to the Harbour Town Golf Links on the toe-end of this shoe-shaped island is 143.7 miles, according to Google.
It’s a pleasant enough drive, one that winds through an old nuclear-power site where there used to be signs instructing travelers not to stop or slow down while passing through.
As golf journeys go, it’s the most dramatic 143 miles in the game, the stressed-out energy of Masters week slowly melting away as the miles go by and the pine trees are replaced by moss-draped live oaks.
Fitting the RBC Heritage into the week after the Masters is a bit of brilliant simplicity, like a cool drink after a long, hard workout.
“This week is so much more relaxed than last,” Billy Horschel said. “I (was) talking about it early in the week where you’re just so excited to get to Augusta, can’t wait to play, and by maybe the middle of the week or after the first week, gosh, this place just drives me insane. You know, like we can’t wait for the week to be over.
“Then we have that same feeling for about a month or two and next thing you know, man, we can’t wait to get back to Augusta. It’s just one of those weeks where it drives you a little insane with the way the wind can be, the way they set it up.
“It just requires a lot from you as a golfer. So, it’s nice to come over here.”
At Harbour Town, the winner gets a plaid jacket, not a green one.
At Harbour Town, the fairways are slender and the greens are relatively flat, the opposite of Augusta.
At Harbour Town, a beach, a bike ride and a gator lounging on the bank of a lagoon are never far away.
They have been playing the Heritage since 1969 when Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event on a golf course that was unlike anything else. Electricity didn’t arrive on Hilton Head until 1950 and telephone service on the island was less than a decade old when the first Heritage was played.
It’s different now. The island, with its famous red-and-white-striped lighthouse, has become world famous and the days of wild boar roaming the woods have been replaced by crowded traffic circles and restaurants with names like Aunt Chilada’s and the Old Oyster Factory.
What Hilton Head has done right is grow into a vacation spot without losing its charm. There are sign and building ordinances that have helped maintain the island ambiance. But if you’re in the market for ocean-going yachts, there are plenty to admire in the marina that sits just a wedge shot away from Harbour Town’s 18th green.
If there is a timeless element to the surroundings, it’s the golf course itself. Designed by Pete Dye with help from Jack Nicklaus, who was making his entry into the course design business, Harbour Town is hardly changed from the course that was so unique that Sports Illustrated featured it over several pages.
“I like the vibe, the chilled vibe, and I like the trees. I mean, it’s pretty cool that you’ve got all the roads in between the trees and the shrubs, the dense growth … I like playing here.” – Matt Wallace
A few tees have been added, the par-5 15th green has been enlarged and the par-5 fifth green moved slightly but otherwise it has stood the test of time better than many courses. It asks simple questions: Can you keep it between the tight tree lines and is your iron game sharp enough to hit the tiniest greens on tour?
There is one notable change this year. In anticipation of Bryson DeChambeau’s appearance this week (he withdrew Monday after previously committing), a second net was added atop the huge net at the end of the driving range to catch some of DeChambeau’s missiles.
It’s a sign of the times, one of the few at Harbour Town.
“I really don’t hear many guys complain that they don’t like … Harbour Town,” Charles Howell III said.
Listen to London-based Matt Wallace, among the first-round leaders, talk about being here.
“I like the vibe, the chilled vibe, and I like the trees. I mean, it’s pretty cool that you’ve got all the roads in between the trees and the shrubs, the dense growth … I like playing here,” Wallace said.
Wallace, you may recall, is one of the players featured in the terrific European Tour video poking fun at angry players, his role being to apologize to the many caddies he has fired.
This week is different. Well, maybe just the surroundings are different in Wallace’s case.
“Tournament golf is not decompression for me,” Wallace answered when asked about the laid-back lowcountry vibe here.
Stewart Cink has been playing here for more than two decades and has won a pair of plaid jackets over the years. He’s so comfortable here that when he started his first round in the cool, gray morning, he yank-hooked his tee shot into a pond left of the 10th fairway. It never came close to land.
That snapped Cink to attention and he went on to shoot 63, the lowest score in his long Heritage history. There’s just something about the place.
“I feel so relaxed here. I think it’s the vibe,” Cink said. “Is it the week after the Masters vibe or is it the Hilton Head Island vibe? Maybe a little bit both. Coming after the grindhouse that Augusta National can be – especially this year, conditions were pretty tough – it’s nice to come here and relax a little bit, exhale.”
For those who need just a little bit more, the concession stands sell champagne.
Because it’s Hilton Head.
Top photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
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