Big week for small ball at RBC Heritage
Long driving not much of an advantage at Harbour Town Golf Links
April 17, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
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Strength matters in sports, golf is a sport, ergo strength (distance) matters in golf.
But at courses like Harbour Town Golf Links, home of this week’s RBC Heritage, it just doesn’t matter as much as it normally does on the PGA TOUR. Quirky but good—that’s what Xander Schauffele calls the course, a par 71 of only 7,099 yards and with greens that average just 3,700 square feet. Others call it a throwback to old-school, target golf.
“This property historically suits sort of a shorter hitter that's very precise, putts well and wedges it pretty well,” said Schauffele, who is coming off a T2 finish at the Masters Tournament last week. “You can sneak a few extra drivers off the tee, but you don't really have to.”
Schauffele is no one’s idea of a shorter hitter, but neither was five-time champion Davis Love III, and he did OK here. “I wouldn’t show up if I didn’t think I could win,” Schauffele said.
Neither would RBC ambassador Dustin Johnson, who is in the field this week and looked comfortable in finishing T16 here last season. This, despite the fact that the roster of champions at the RBC Heritage is full of highly skilled but not particularly long players. Loren Roberts (1996), Brian Gay (2009), Jim Furyk (2010, ’15) and Graeme McDowell (2013) are among those who are average- or even below-average in driving distance but have worn the plaid coat.
“Just need more golf courses like this on the TOUR,” said Kevin Kisner, who lost a playoff to Furyk here in ’15.
Precision players love cozy courses. Then again, if the wind blows, it helps to have the strength to power through it.
“The golf course is really good,” said Johnson, who finished a career-best T2 at the Masters, his fourth straight top-10 there and sixth top-10 (including a win at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship) in nine TOUR starts this season. “It's tight. It's tree-lined. It's kind of position golf. If you're playing well, or if I'm playing well, I enjoy any golf course.”
Harbour Town, with the second smallest greens on TOUR, featured the shortest average driving distance (273 yards, behind only Pebble Beach) last season. Accuracy off the tee and pinpoint iron play are more important that brawn. Witness defending champ Satoshi Kodaira, who led in Strokes Gained: Proximity-to-the-Hole as he averaged nearly six feet closer than the field average of 35 feet, 5 inches last year. Or the success here of 2014 RBC Heritage champion Matt Kuchar, the FedExCup leader, who is seventh in SG: Approach-the-Green this season.
Kevin Kisner on his game and being "home" before RBC Heritage
The type of player who thrives at Harbour Town also tends to do well at El Camaleon Golf Club (Mayakoba Golf Classic) and Waialae Country Club (Sony Open in Hawaii), which is why you have players like Kuchar, who has won on all three courses. All told, he’s made 197 total birdies at RBC Heritage since 2003, second only to Stewart Cink (217).
Then there’s McDowell, who like Kuchar has won Mayakoba and RBC Heritage but also at Pebble Beach (2010 U.S. Open), the only course with greens smaller than Harbour Town. He’s not a bad pick this week, either, having just ended his win drought at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship three weeks ago.
That leaves the bombers to remind themselves about the success of Love, one of the longest hitters of his era but also a pinpoint iron player who twice won THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, another Pete Dye design that largely negates the usual advantages of length.
Luke List and Bryson DeChambeau, who tied for third at the RBC Heritage last year, aren’t short, either.
“If I'm hitting the ball where I want to,” Johnson said, “it doesn't matter what kind of course it is; I like it. And this is the kind of golf I grew up playing. It's something I'm used to.”
He even likened Harbour Town to Augusta National, one of the TOUR’s most wide-open and bomber-friendly tracks.
“It's actually a good preparation for this week as far as because you've got to hit your numbers,” Johnson said. “These greens are really small. Last week the greens were big, but very small quadrants. There's a lot of similarities, even though the golf course may not look anything alike.”