Par for the course
Story By B.C. Rausch + Photos Courtesy of The Sea Pines Resort / Rob Tipton
When the highest-rated course on Hilton Head Island plays host to the top players in the world this month, you’ll surely recognize the holes, the backdrop and the beautiful island. But will you be able to relate to the course setup that the pros are playing?
Harbour Town Golf Links is a par-71 course that plays to 7,099 yards from the championship tees, which is relatively short for a PGA Tour event. But rather than brute strength, this Pete Dye design places a premium on finesse, imagination and shot-making, much more so than most courses players face week in and week out.
But how different is the course that the PGA Tour pros will play from what resort guests face the other 50 or so weeks of the year? According to John Farrell, director of sports operations at The Sea Pines Resort, the gap has been narrowed tremendously. “Given our agronomic practices and ownership’s commitment to course conditions, our goal is to provide tournament-type conditions on a year-round basis.”
According to Farrell, two features that will be very different for the pros — green speeds and rough heights — are mandated by the PGA Tour.
Bland Cooper, the Carolinas-based competitions agronomist for the PGA Tour, oversees the conditioning program for the RBC Heritage and nine other tournaments. He says the most significant change to a PGA Tour course set-up is firmness — from tees to greens, and everything in between.
“There is big difference with what the average golfer thinks is firm and what a pro golfer thinks is firm,” Cooper explained. “An average amateur golfer can’t really manage firm conditions, especially what is found from Thursday to Sunday of a PGA Tour event.”
PGA Tour agronomists work closely with golf course superintendents to determine how challenging a venue should be.
At The Sea Pines Resort, golf course superintendent Jon Wright and his team start making the necessary modifications per the PGA Tour course set-up specifications after fall overseeding. Growing the rough starts three months before the tournament, and greens receive extra attention, including fertilization, top dressing and aeration. As spring and tournament week approaches, the greens roll faster and faster, following a graduated plan prescribed by the PGA Tour.
For regular resort play, greens are usually between 11 and 12 on the stimpmeter. The PGA Tour is aiming for 12.6 to 13, but it’s all based on weather conditions.
The processes used to make the greens faster — which is a combination of fine art and a dance with Mother Nature — include rolling, precise fertilization, top dressing and increased frequency of mowing. Local humidity and winds can help or hinder the process. Daily stimpmeter and moisture readings on all greens during the week before and during the Tournament help the staff maintain putting consistency.
Cooper says the “worst thing in the world is we have wind, and the ball moves when guys are addressing it on the green.”
Fine-tuning occurs in the last few weeks leading up to the event. The course is closed to outside play the week before the tournament.
“Closing the course to regular play for two weeks is a significant financial consideration from our ownership,” Farrell explained. “They realize that our course and resort are being showcased to a worldwide television audience, let alone a sold-out gallery, so the effort is well worth the return.”
Other areas along and near the course also need attention. As early as February, grandstands, tents and merchandise pavilions start going up around the golf course. Pine straw needs to go out early enough to break down so balls aren’t easily lost.
Farrell said the “energy and excitement of setting up for a PGA Tour event is a badge of honor for our resort and the golf staff. With the depth of the professional fields today, the talent level is off the charts.”
After many years of hosting the PGA Tour, Farrell says tournament week is like a big reunion, renewing long-standing relationships and giving the entire community a shot of energy.
“Watching the guys treat the driving range kid or bag room attendant the same way as they do the chairman of RBC is really a joy. There’s a buzz around the island and the resort – fresh paint, Heritage week reunions among high school and college buddies, new flowers and plantings around the resort. There are more hugs than handshakes and a great deal of excitement when the tournament comes to town.”
The course is put “on hold” the Monday immediately after the tournament in case an additional round is needed. But by Tuesday the tear-down has begun, and the players, the trailers and the tents are on their way out of town.
Click here for a hole-by-hole guide of Harbour Town Golf Links, one of the most celebrated courses on the PGA Tour.
The Greenery celebrates 50th anniversary
This year, The Greenery, Inc. is celebrating a huge milestone with its 50th anniversary on Hilton Head and many years with the RBC Heritage. The Greenery has maintained a long-standing partnership with the tournament by providing exceptional landscaping services at the golf course and resort areas in Sea Pines. Each year their efforts include planting over 3,000 geraniums plus a variety of other flowers. The Greenery crews work more than 100 hours just planting to prepare for the tournament. In addition, once play begins, the crews work tirelessly to keep everything in top shape for the thousands of spectators during the tournament including overnight “fixes” of plant beds and watering. The Greenery serves as one of the great ambassadors of the Lowcountry to the many guests that our island welcomes each year for the iconic RBC Heritage, creating a beautifully landscaped environment that is second to none.