HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- If the Masters is the height of intensity as the year's first major championship, the RBC Heritage is perhaps one of the year's best parties.
Its casual atmosphere along the South Carolina coast, however, belies the test that Harbour Town is, even for the world's top-ranked player. For all of Luke Donald's success, he has never won on the Pete Dye-designed course.
"If you want to score well around here, you're going to have to short-game it pretty well," Donald said. "Hole some putts, get up-and-down when you miss greens."
To his point, Harbour Town features the smallest greens on the PGA TOUR, and the rest of the course requires a variety of shots that call more on accuracy than distance.
None are terribly long off the tee, but all are good ball-strikers who also roll it well.
Donald is no different. Though he's never slipped on a red Tartan Jacket, he has not finished outside the top 3 here in any of his last three appearances. That includes a runner-up here last year when he lost to Brandt Snedeker on the third hole of sudden death.
"This is the only golf course that I've ever played that you can hit an absolute straight ball and have no shot whatsoever," says Tommy Gainey, who was born and still lives in South Carolina. "You have to pull a Bubba Watson, curve it 25 yards right to left or left to right. It's the only golf course that I can remember that you have to work the ball like that."
Before Snedeker won here a year ago, Harbour Town was already one of his favorite courses for that very reason.
Translation: It's not a bomb-and-gouge venue.
"It's cool to go to a golf course that's really old school," Snedeker said. "We don't see it very often. I think it stands the test of time. The winning scores have been about the same for the last 35 years. The technology has changed a whole lot, so it shows you what kind of golf course it is."
That shouldn't be confused with the fact that Harbour Town can be scored upon, at least under the right circumstances.
In winning last year, for example, Snedeker birdied seven of his first 12 holes en route to a final-round 64.
Then there was Brian Gay lapping the field in 2009 when he finished 20 under.
Prior to the RBC Heritage, defending champion Brandt Snedeker talks about his 2011 victory and the quality of the course.
Gay's performance was an anomaly, though. It was the only time since 1998 the winning score was lower than 15 under.
Again, that speaks to the variety and creativity needed -- and the difficulty in being able to execute those shots.
"You have to play to a certain yardage, like 250 on certain holes," Gainey said. "If you hit it past that 250, it could either run left in the pine straw or right in the pine straw. If you don't hit it in the right spots, you're looking for a long day."
If that's the case, at least the legendary lighthouse behind the 18th green can serve as a welcome respite.
An escape from golf, in other words, can be much needed after a long week and can be easily achieved within the Sea Pines community that surrounds Harbour Town.
"It's so unique to have everything to close where you can just bump into so many people down at the harbor, having a good time, enjoying themselves, players out having a good time," said Kuchar, who is renting a house in the neighborhood. "This tournament is one of my favorite events of the year."