The original idea for this golf vacation began with a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Sawgrass. I figured Florida would be my best chance for good weather in late November. When I realized Sea Island was only about an hour away from Jacksonville and had a comparable climate, then the vacation started expanding a bit.
It was pretty late in the planning stages when I took another look at the map and saw that Hilton Head Island was not really that far away either (only 120 miles from Sea Island). With my 50 states goal in mind and a longtime desire to play Harbour Town Golf Links, it was a side trip that was too good to pass up. Definitely worth adding another day to the vacation and a little more driving to the itinerary.
So here we are. It’s Friday, November 25. I’ve just finished a quick 36 at Sea Island and I’m heading further up the coast toward South Carolina. I rolled into town a little after 5:00. Still being light out, it made finding my next hotel destination nice and easy (Crowne Plaza Hilton Head Island Beach Resort—a great deal I got on Hotwire just a couple weeks earlier). It also gave me a chance to enjoy the drive into the area and get a small taste of what HHI is all about. Turns out, it’s a lot about golf! Everywhere I looked I saw golf courses. Some were public and some were very private as part of exclusive communities. Unfortunately, most every course I saw looked to be in pretty rough shape. Everything was pretty brown and dried out. I began to worry about this being too far into the “off season” here and my visit to Harbour Town could be a bit disappointing.
I checked in, took a nice invigorating shower and then looked for a good dinner spot using the UrbanSpoon app on my phone. I was in the mood for some pizza/Italian, so I found a place called Giuseppi’s just a couple miles down the road. It was Friday night and it was packed—definitely the place to be. However, they let me sit outside (it was a nice evening) right away, so it worked out well. I ordered a few slices that were really good and a great little side salad that really hit the spot. I recommend this place if you are in town. Seemed like a good family pizza/pasta place with reasonable prices.
I walked around a bit when I got back to the hotel and discovered that the beach was just a short walk down one of the paths. Right then and there I decided my next morning would be my “moment of zen” for this trip. I would get up before dawn and watch the sun rise over the Atlantic for the first time in my life. Being a native Californian, I’ve seen the sunset over the Pacific plenty of times, but never been on the other side of the deal. I went to bed early and got up around 5:30 am. I walked around on the beach for about 45 minutes as the sun slowly came up. I even waded in the water for a little bit and it was surprisingly warm. A very peaceful and enjoyable experience in the midst of all the golf and driving.
My tee time at Harbour Town was at 9:20. I got out there around 8:00. On the way, I drove by a few other golf courses (even one within the Sea Pines Resort where Harbour Town is) and they all looked pretty brown, so I was worried. But as soon as I got to Harbour Town, my worries subsided. I could see it was in perfect condition!
There was hardly anybody there, which surprised me because it was a nice morning (just a bit overcast, but not cold at all). I checked in early, but they made me wait until my time. There was a threesome they had me paired with and it’s policy that any non-members there must play with a designated forecaddie. A handful of members teed off during the time I was waiting and warming up, so I knew it would be a pretty wide open course and a relatively quick round. I didn’t mind waiting and enjoying the scenery around the clubhouse. It also gave me some extra time to shop for souvenirs.
I was paired with a couple from Pennsylvania and their twenty-something son, who lived in Myrtle Beach. They had played Harbour Town before, so they were a little less in awe than me. Yet, they still seemed to be really enjoying the unique experience on this top-notch course. I played the blue tees with the son (the “Dye” tees as they are named), which was probably a bit ambitious. The course was tough enough without the added length. Before we teed off, our forecaddie told us this course is all about positioning. Be in the right place off the tee, and you’ll have a shot. Be just a bit off and you’ll be stymied on many of your approaches.
Well, I was not hitting my drives too well this morning. Had a pretty big banana-fade slice going. I hit a decent number of fairways, but not always the ideal position and I left myself with a lot of long second shots. So I pretty much played bogey golf all day.
Harbour Town is no joke. It is a very tough and tight course, and the caddies are dead-on when they talk about positioning. If you are able to hit where you want to, then definitely pay attention to their advice. A lot of holes feel pretty wide open when you are standing on the tee, but when you look closely you can see the cuts of the fairways are pretty darn narrow and you don’t really want to be too far into the rough anywhere. The greens are well-protected. There are trees everywhere with really deep (impossible to get footing) pine straw patches throughout the course. There’s plenty of water, waste areas and bunkers. One of the gnarliest green-guarding bunkers you’ll ever see is on hole 13—one of Pete Dye’s most evil golf concoctions, and that’s saying something.
Most people tend to think of the signature 18th hole (and to a lesser extent, the 17th) when they think of Harbour Town. These finishing holes are out along the Intracoastal Waterway and framed by a tidal marsh (reminiscent of the Seaside course I had just played at Sea Island) and the 18th green has the famous red-and-white-striped lighthouse behind it to create a very memorable scene. These are great holes, but not representative of the rest of the course. The rest of the course is inland, framed by trees and perfectly designed with a nice variety of holes and challenges.
The best comparison I can make for those of us on the West Coast is Spyglass Hill, where holes 1-5 offer the spectacular waterfront views, but the rest of the holes (all inland) are what make it great. Harbour Town is the same way. The finishing holes offer a great feast for the eyes, but the first 16 offer something truly special for the golf purist.
Some pictures from Harbour Town Golf Links (11/26/11):
The Hole 13 bunker, with an extra-diabolical pin placement right in the front this day!
I was also excited that I finally saw my first alligator on a golf course at Harbour Town. I would have really been bummed if I didn’t see one on this trip!
A cool turtle, as well:
After finishing Harbour Town in the afternoon, I hit the road for the longest drive of my trip—all the way back down to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida for my “finale” stay at the Sawgrass resort. I decided to take a more scenic route, heading directly south off of Hilton Head and through the city of Savannah. I always thought this would be a neat town to see someday and it really wasn’t out of the way that much. I only stayed for a short time there. I did a quick drive through the historic district, then parked briefly for a brisk walk down one of the streets. I took some cool pictures and walked through a very old downtown cemetery (where many historic Georgia figures are buried). It really was a neat place and I’m glad I took this route back.
Some pictures from Savannah, GA (11/26/11):
The drive went well and I made it to my ultimate destination, the Sawgrass Marriott. They had a great winter stay and play package going, which included three nights at the Marriott and three rounds of golf at TPC Sawgrass (two on the Dye’s Valley course and one on the famous PLAYERS Stadium course). It was only $730, which I thought was an incredible deal.
One of the Dye’s Valley rounds, though, was considered a free “arrival day” bonus round, which meant it had to be a twilight round (after 12:30 this time of year). I had my first Dye’s Valley round booked for 2:05 the next day, so I was considering playing another round at a different local course early Sunday morning. I had been scouting the two World Golf Village courses in St. Augustine (about a half-hour away from Sawgrass) and decided the King & Bear course was the one I wanted to play.
That night, I booked a GolfNow time on my phone for Sunday morning. I went to bed a little early and got up the next day to head down the road to St. Augustine. The weather was a lot gloomier this morning and I even got a little rain by the time I was at the course. The weather apparently scared some people away because there weren’t too many people out there. Just a few hardcore members and regulars.
I was paired with a course regular (a local veterinarian) and we teed off on time. I was happy it was going to be a relatively quick round since I had another one to play that afternoon and wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to drive back, eat some lunch and explore the Sawgrass grounds.
What makes the King & Bear course special (as its name would suggest) is it was co-designed by golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Other than the name and the pictures of these two icons everywhere in the clubhouse, you wouldn’t notice much more of their influence on the actual course. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice course and different than anything else I played on this trip, but I didn’t see anything that represented the distinctive design style or either Arnie or Jack.
The course itself was solid. Lots of water, a smattering of trees and a number of big waste areas. It was pretty long and I wasn’t playing that well, so I found it fairly challenging. I don’t think it was as tough as I made it, though. One feature I did like on the course was that several of the greens were elevated above the water hazards with cool rock walls. If you are in the area, this course is a worthy stop (you can also consider the other course there, Slammer & Squire, co-designed by Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen). I would love to play here when the sun is shining and the courses are in perfect shape. I’m sure that would improve my perception drastically. The dreary photos I took definitely don’t really do the course justice, but that was the weather I was dealt. Overall, the course was in good shape from tee to green. Just a little dried out and brown in the rough, which looks worse in the gloomy weather.
Some pictures from King & Bear Course at the World Golf Village (11/27/11):
Well, that concluded Part 2 of my story. Stay tuned for Part 3, where I will chronicle my adventures at the famous TPC Sawgrass and also talk about my visit to the World Golf Hall of Fame.