RBC Heritage: Course Insight

Every year we know what to expect. 132 players make a post-Masters trek to Hilton Head. Tour pros compete for a chance to slip on some tartan swag. The iconic 90-foot red and white striped lighthouse behind the 18th green guides the eventual champion to victory with the sun setting over the Calibogue Sound.

Sure, it’s not the green jacket, and it’s definitely not Augusta, but the RBC Heritage has a rich history of producing quality champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and inaugural champion Arnold Palmer. Major champions Jason Dufner, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, and defending champion Branden Grace headline the field this year that includes 19 of the top-50 players in the world

The event is played on Harbour Town Golf Links, a 7,099-yard, par-71 Pete Dye designed track that’s widely respected as one of the finest shot-making courses on the PGA Tour. It’s considerably shorter than most venues on Tour, but that doesn’t mean we should be on another 59 watch. Legions of pine and oak trees line fairways as narrow as bowling alleys, and in many instances even hang over into the fairways. Accuracy off the tee is more important than distance. Finding the right spot on the fairway is equally important, with trees blocking direct shots into the green on more than half of the holes. Getting lost in the trees might not have been disastrous at Augusta but it will be at Harbour Town.

Diminutive postage stamp greens are nearly twice as small as the average green size on Tour, and historically produce the lowest greens-in-regulation percentages for any event all season. The last 10 champions here hit greens at an average rate of 64 percent. The greens themselves are raised and relatively firm with very little undulation. Menacing bunkers protect almost every hole, and on five holes, water prominently comes into play. If coastal winds start howling throughout the course, scorecards can be ravaged. Last year’s final round produced 44 scores over par and only 24 scores below (queue maniacal Dye laughter).

Like all Dye courses, Heritage is intimidating, beautiful, and terrifying all at the same time. A perfect example is the risk-reward par-3, 192-yard 14th hole. Last year No. 14 surrendered only 31 birdies, but dished out 143 bogeys or worse. A dramatic railroad tie lined lagoon meanders from tee to green along the right side, and branches hanging over the putting surface can be obnoxious for wayward shots. The green slopes down and right towards the water, and only the absolute best shots will be rewarded with birdie opportunities.

Greenside view of No.15 
The dogleg-left, 588-yard 15th hole is the last par-5 on the course and requires perfect shot execution off the tee to avoid perils on approach. Water to the left of the green and bunkers closely guarding both sides demand shots be placed within a table clothed size area on the putting surface. Players should also be aware of the resident alligator that calls No. 15 home.

Harbour Town saves its signature hole for the last dastardly hurdle on the course, the par-4, risk-reward 472-yard No.18. The safe play off the tee is an extremely wide landing area on the left side of the fairway that extends out to the Calibogue Sound. More aggressive players can get a lot closer for their second shots with a forced carry over marsh and sand dangers where the fairway severely tightens up. On approach, there’s a bailout on the right side of the green, but when the wind starts howling the small green becomes even tougher to hit and par is always a good score.

Players To Watch
Russell Henley comes in as the hottest player on Tour with a dramatic win at the Shell Houston Open and a strong T-11 finish at The Masters. He’s one of the strongest players in the field in Strokes Gained: Approach, and Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, which will be the two most crucial statistics in determining the winner. Look for Henley to finish top-10.

Luke Donald has six top-3 finishes at Harbour Town in the past seven events, including a T-2 here last year. If anyone’s a horse for the course it would be Donald. However, the former No. 1 player in the world is ranked near the bottom on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, and has generally struggled this year overall. Donald will need to grind it out just to make the cut.

Winner Prediction
This is a tournament that’s always been won on second and third shots, and Kevin Kisner is statistically the best in the field in that department. Kisner’s been crisp with his iron play this year, ranked eighth in Strokes Gained: Approach and 10th in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green. Seven of the last eight winners at Harbour Town had at least one top-5 finish leading up to victory here, and Kisner’s second place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational less than a month ago checks that trend off the list as well. Kisner should find himself as the newest champion in Tartan Nation come Sunday.

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