In a dolled-up swamp off the coast of South Carolina's low country and on an island with more dripping moss and crooked magnolias than you would find in a dozen Civil War novels, Jack Nicklaus made his debut as a golf-course designer last week before the toughest possible audience—his fellow touring pros. These included his friendly rival, Arnold Palmer, who seized the occasion to show Jack and everybody else how the magnificent course ought to be played.
It was a unique Thanksgiving holiday for professional golf. The fact that there was any sort of tournament being played anywhere in the midst of so much football frenzy around the country must have caught thousands of people by surprise. There was nothing in the TV log about it, right? Right. What was this Heritage Classic, anyhow? And where is this Hilton Head Island where Nicklaus had carved out a course among trees and marsh and where Palmer had done that thing he used to do so often? Like win.
Well, the Heritage was a regular PGA tour event played on a new layout called the Harbour Town Golf Links, and it was worth $100,000, as are many of those other classics that come and go. But aside from these things, it had a good many distinctions that are likely to make it a true-to-life miniclassic of the fall golf season, not the least of which is the simple fact that it will now be remembered as the tournament, course and resort where America's favorite hard body, Palmer, came back from bad times to win a tournament.
One of the more curious aspects of the week was that Palmer was able to win on a course that suited him about like a wig, thick sideburns and a protest poster. Harbour Town is some golf course, folks, just about the best new course that anyone has built in ages, a brutally narrow, abruptly twisting tangle of brooding pines, oaks, palmettos and magnolias with tiny greens guarded by wriggling bunkers and fierce marshes. Hit the ball just slightly off line at Harbour Town and you need Sheriff Rainey and them dogs to go fetch it. In an era when architects for some reason enjoy giving us 7,000-yard courses with greens the size of a supermarket parking lot, Nicklaus and his partner, Pete Dye, have done the opposite. They have used great imagination and given us nothing short of a work of art.
December 8, 1969
Harbour Town, first of all, is only 6,655 yards long. Merion size, you might say. Second, it is perfectly natural. There are no fake mounds, no elevated greens or tees. Nicklaus and Dye, a 43-year-old former insurance salesman and old amateur golfing chum of Jack's, simply took the land made available to them by the Sea Pines Plantation Company and did what they wished. "We did what was fun, interesting and different to us," Nicklaus said. "But we did what seemed natural, we tried to make each hole distinctive and give it a look that went with the land."
And this they surely did. Harbour Town winds up playing to a par of 71 with two finishing holes right on the bay similar to Pebble Beach. What Nicklaus and Dye may well have created, in fact, is Pebble Beach East.
"We were certainly influenced by Pebble," said Jack, who spent the week giving some chase to Palmer, making a film and mainly receiving raves from the pros for his architectural effort. "There's some Pebble here, but also some Scioto, Merion and Pine Valley."
There are even some gentle hints of Scotland on the layout, although Hilton Head, being 44 miles or so from Savannah, is about as close to the sacred grounds as country ham and red-eye gravy. For examples, there are what the architect would call wastelands, meaning hazards filled only with dirt, as one finds in Scotland, and there are bunkers pitched deep and right up against the edge of putting surfaces, the sides of which are walled with planks, as one also finds in Scotland, and there are bunkers outlined by railroad ties, which are very big in Scotland. Such things, set beneath the moss, give Harbour Town an eerie old-fashioned look. In a sense, there is a crazy bringing together of two unrelated old worlds on this course at Hilton Head, both of which fairly reek with charm.
There can hardly be a more fascinating 18th hole anywhere than the one Nicklaus and Dye conclude their masterpiece with. It is a rugged 458-yard par-4 requiring two shots over the bay to a hanging, thimble-sized green backdropped by a lighthouse. But as one leaves the green to stroll back through the foliage to the clubhouse, one comes across a rather miraculous landmark. It is a small decayed cemetery, ringed by a split-rail fence and almost totally covered by limbs and moss. It is dark even in brilliant sunlight, and high grass creeps up around the handmade gravestones of the black field hands who have been put to rest there. Winnie Palmer, seeing it for the first time as she followed Arnold's 68 in the first round, couldn't get over the atmosphere that the old cemetery gave to the final hole.
"It's really incredible," she said to a friend as she stood outside the clubhouse with one of her daughters, Peggy, 13. "Suddenly, you come onto this old colored graveyard."
"Oh, go, mom, go," said Peggy, taking offense at her mother's choice of words.
Several graveyards were needed to bury the golfers after Harbour Town had eaten them alive. They all agreed that they had used every club in their bags in 18 holes, that it was strictly a target course that afforded gamble after gamble both on tee shots and approaches, that it might be a bit too severe in spots but that, by gosh, it was about the most different thing they had ever seen on the tour.
Nicklaus was accused of having designed a course that is thoroughly un-suited to his own game, Jack being a big hitter who likes some room. "You've built a course for you to practice the talent shots on," someone told him.
Jack laughed and said, "The truth is, this is the kind of course I really like. The kind that makes you play good golf shots. You have to play a definite side of the fairway depending on where the pin is or you haven't got a shot. You have to play to the side of the green where the pin is or you'll have to use a wedge over a bunker from one side of the green to the other. You've also got the option of going with a driver and, say, an eight-iron to a certain hole, or going with a one-iron and five-iron. This is what golf should be."
Nicklaus is so delighted with the way Harbour Town has turned out—he and Pete Dye will change only four holes when they get time—he might select a third or fourth homesite for himself along that 18th fairway not too near the graveyard but reasonably close to the yacht basin by the lighthouse. And here is another thing that Harbour Town is all about—resort development.
The Sea Pines Plantation Company, headed by a friendly Southerner named Charles Fraser, would very much enjoy turning Hilton Head into the greatest place on the Eastern Seaboard, and the worst thing that Florida ever heard of. The Fraser brothers, Charles and Joe, started developing the island only 13 years ago after it had languished as nothing more than a couple of vast plantations for nearly 300 years since that day in 1663 when Captain William Hilton, master of the good ship Adventure, discovered it. The Frasers first built the Sea Pines Plantation Club with its two golf courses and then they started selling homes and home plots to a variety of retired generals and admirals, or anyone else who loved golf, the good air and white beaches of the Gulf Stream and the crab soup.
The idea for Nicklaus and Dye to design a third course at Sea Pines was Charles Fraser's, who understood the publicity value of having a Nicklaus golf course. He also wanted a tournament to attract further attention, something different, and the Heritage Classic, a Thanksgiving week affair, small and intimate, is what he came up with. Hilton Head is so exclusive the Heritage Classic didn't even want people. The sponsors limited the gallery to a sparse 5,000 for the week at $20 to $30 a ticket. As a result, it was the easiest golf tournament anyone ever tried to watch, and the smallest army Arnie ever had rooting for him.
This was something of a shame, as it turned out. The fact is that Arnold Palmer has rarely played better golf than he did on that tight little island. He drove the ball beautifully straight through those confined fairways and sent his short irons high and biting into the small patches where one hoped a green might be. He did not putt so well. If he had, he might have won the tournament by a dozen shots, for he seemed always to be nestled up close to the flag.
Arnold was also feeling good. Since late August he has been doing 50 sit-ups every morning and 50 sit-ups every evening for the old hip hurt, and he was in a very pleasant frame of mind about his golf—almost as if he had reconciled himself to the fact it would all come back sooner or later if he only stopped pressing so hard and worrying about it.
Finally, however, he was fired up about playing on Jack's course, and on a course that he wasn't supposed to be able to play well. Arnold chose to joke about the course as much as anything. "Jack and Pete are very big on railroad ties," he said. But in a serious moment he admitted he thought that what they had done was pretty special. And he enjoyed the challenges that Harbour Town presented. When Palmer opened the tournament with a three-under 68 that might easily have been a 64 or better, Winnie said, "I've got a feeling this might be the week something happens."
The second day in a dreary mist Arnold got away from Harbour Town with a commendable 71 and he was tied with Tom Weiskopf for the 36-hole lead, Weiskopf having shot a fantastic 65. "I stole a good score with a bad round," Arnold said. "That's what you have to do on a course like this." Weiskopf's round, meanwhile, bewildered the pros. "A 65 on that thing," said Art Wall, has to be one of the great rounds of all time." Weiskopf grinned and explained, "I wasn't living in a very real world today."
On Saturday Palmer played his best golf after a shaky start, simply drilling the ball into the pins, shooting a 70 and moving three strokes ahead of the field, thanks to a double bogey by Designer Nicklaus on his scenic 18th.
All that remained was for Palmer to beware of the magnolias and moss, the railroad ties and waste bunkers, the ocean lagoons, a meandering alligator here and there, 12 million or so pines and oaks and a graveyard. This he did with only one real moment of suspense as the Harbour Town course continued to bewilder the field. Palmer went out on a cool clear Sunday and shot a three over 74, which was plenty good enough to win with a 72-hole total of 283. This was one under par and three strokes ahead of his nearest pursuer, Dick Crawford and Bert Yancey.
Palmer and Crawford were paired together, and the gradual eroding of Arnold's good putting stroke—he three-putted three times—coupled by some excellent scrambling by Crawford had slowly drawn them within one stroke of each other when they reached the 71st tee. By this time no one else was close and practically the entire island of Hilton Head was in their gallery.
Both players failed to reach the green on this marvelous par-3 hole, which sort of goes out forever to a little plot of ground floating in the sea. It was Arnold who hit the better approach, and here his putting stroke returned. He rammed down a six-footer for a par while Crawford bogeyed, and he then played safely past the cemetery for his first victory as a 40-year-old trooper and his first since September of 1968. Arnold Palmer was the real Arnold Palmer again, and on a Jack Nicklaus golf course.