Revamped Harbour Town posing worthy challengeApril 12, 2012
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- There's an old saying in golf that you can't win the tournament on Thursday but you can lose it.
To that end, Mother Nature and a tough course setup were the only victors in the opening round of the RBC Heritage.
In blustery conditions, especially at the start of the day when the temperature barely cracked 40 degrees, scores were high on what is already one of the most difficult -- and most respected -- courses on the PGA TOUR.
Despite being one of the most scenic stops on TOUR, however, all anyone could talk about was how difficult the conditions were, and the course changes that were made to the short but venerable track.
"The greens are wreaking havoc on the field," Rory Sabbatini said. "They're probably the toughest greens we've played all year. I would equate them to U.S. Open conditions."
That might be a stretch, but not by much with only 23 players breaking par.
Taylor, who twice has finished inside the top four here and is playing on a sponsor exemption, said he's never seen the greens this firm.
It didn't take until Thursday for Furyk to notice.
"The greens are stressed," said Furyk, who added that it was difficult to get chip shots to spin. "They looked dusty [on Wednesday]. I was quite taken aback. Usually you go into the pro-am and the golf course is playing pretty mild and general. [Wednesday] it was a smack in the face. It did look like a late Sunday afternoon."
Because of that officials watered the greens overnight. It helped, but not much.
"We've been begging them for years to get it firm," said Ernie Els after a 72. "Well, they finally did it."
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The other thing officials did was make significant changes to the course -- perhaps a surprising move because the 7,100-yard, par-71 Pete Dye layout seemed to withstand all the advances in equipment and an increase in distance.
Only once since 1998 has the winning score been higher than 15 under. In 2005, Peter Lonard won at 7 under.
Yet seven teeing grounds were altered or lengthened, the most significant of changes being on the third, 16th and 18th holes.
The par-4 third is 32 yards longer -- though the old forward tee was used Thursday because of the windy conditions -- and the dogleg left 16th is 36 yards longer.
"The whole point [on 16] was whether or not to hit driver or 3-wood," Luke Donald said. "It takes the thought out of that hole. Now you just grab driver."
Slugger White, Vice President of Rules and Competition for the PGA TOUR, said the 16th was pushed back specifically for that reason, because Dye wanted to get the driver back in the hands of players.
In other words, it had become too easy to hit 3- or 5-wood on the hole because of increases in distance with equipment. And last year, White noted, a player hit driver, wedge into the par-5 fifth, which was also lengthened.
The par-4 18th, meanwhile, had an additional tee box put in back and to the left, bringing Calibogue Sound more into play. Because of the potential of the wind on that hole, however, White said that tee will not be used this week.
Other tees lengthened or altered include the sixth, eighth, 10th and 15th holes.
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Chad Campbell, Colt Knost and Vaughn Taylor share the lead at 4-under par.
The changes certainly seemed to get the attention of players.
"I think 3 and 16 are unnecessary, yes," Furyk said.
"Pretty unnecessary," quipped Donald. "It didn't need too much lengthening."
"I like the old course," Sabbatini said. "It made you think a lot."
Added Els: "This course has stood the test of time."
White and his staff were cognizant of the weather and the changes and they've been keen to get feedback from the players.
"We're tiptoeing our way through this," he said.
That's not to say Harbour Town has become a bomb-and-gouge venue by any stretch of the imagination or the course.
"It's never easy," Donald said. "You have to think on every shot."
Maybe just a little bit less in some cases.