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.
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."