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What a Little 'Instant Character' Can Do

In the lagoons there are alligators on the alert for marsh-mallows. No one knows why they like them, or why anyone ever thought they might. Live oaks and elms are so thick in places that even in brilliant sunlight one finds corridors of astonishing darkness. Out on the edge, a white beach curves for 16 miles, smooth enough to race bikes on, and the Atlantic is warm and clean. This is Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, where the action isn't, in terms of bright lights and late hours, but where it surely is for the golfer.

Hilton Head is not new to vacationers, or even golfers. Since Charles Fraser began to develop his Sea Pines Plantation Company there 14 years ago, it has earned a reputation as one of the Deep South's prettiest, quietest and best retreats. What is new is that with all its other pleasures, Hilton Head has now produced a golf course—one of six on the island—which is one of the most unusual to be built in America in years. Soon the Harbour Town Golf Links of Sea Pines may well become known as one of the 10 best courses, old or young, in the entire country.

This is saying a lot, to be sure, about a course that opened only a year ago—just in time for Arnold Palmer to win the Heritage Classic. But it is not really stretching too much to put Harbour Town in that illustrious category with, say, Merion, Pine Valley or the Augusta National, which have won their fame over a period of years. The reason is that Harbour Town was designed and built with a kind of "instant character."

Harbour Town is the product of architect Pete Dye and a touring pro named Jack Nicklaus. Dye was a highly successful insurance man until, in his early 30s, he went into the golf-course-design business. In the last 12 years he has built more than 30 courses, most of them bearing his distinctive stamp. What Dye and Nicklaus have rendered at Hilton Head is a sort of Pine Valley in a swamp, a St. Andrews with Spanish moss, a Pebble Beach with chitlins. The golfer here must be constantly wary of areas of waste and marsh, on the order of Pine Valley. The Scottish flavor comes from the use of railroad ties and planks to support greens and bunkers. And finally Harbour Town finishes as Pebble Beach does, with shots that must carry the water.

By modern standards, the course isn't long (only 6,655 yards from the blues, to a par of 71), but Palmer had to play some of his best golf to win with 283 a year ago. Also, unlike most modern layouts, Harbour Town's greens are tiny and its fairways pinched. Thus, the premium is on judgment and accuracy. "It's different," says Dye, "but then, so was Garbo."

Many holes are memorable. A couple of par-3s seem to have been parachuted into a swamp. The 13th is an island in the sand, framed by trees, supported by cypress planks. The 16th has the world's longest fairway bunker. The 17th, a par-3 of heroic quality, goes out to sea and features a "basket trap." And the 18th heads toward a lighthouse, demands two carries dangerously near the water, and takes the player, prophetically, past an old graveyard.

Moody, scenic, mossy, watery, creaturish, inventive, demanding—all of this is Harbour Town Golf Links, a course to strike the old golfer with new fantasies. What better can happen to the game?