Cherry Pickers

This is the week that the ball strikers come out. The ball strikers are the PGA Tour players who don’t necessarily hit the ball a long way, but they hit it very solidly and they hit it “where they’re looking.” The bombers’ “hit it and go find it” modus operandi just isn’t very effective.

Why? Because the Tour rolls into Hilton Head Island in South Carolina for The Heritage, which begins today, on the Harbour Town Golf Links. And why do they do that? Because the course is designed by the diabolical Pete Dye, he of the punitive consequences should you hit a loose shot. The tree-lined fairways are very narrow, the greens are blocked by strategically saved trees and the greens themselves are the smallest on Tour. So small that I read somewhere that Harbour Town has the lowest Greens in Regulation statistic; could it have been something like 54%?

A reader sent the following comment in response to this week’s Dartboard picks:

Using the words “Harbour Town” and “Dartboard” together in your post is more appropriate than you may realize. For many years we had a home at Hilton Head and walking distance from Harbour Town. I played the course many, many times….  Anyway, those greens aren’t much bigger than dartboards – the smallest I’ve ever seen. You won’t see many three-putts because it’s hard to be more than 20 feet from the hole and still be on the green (except maybe for No. 18). 

Pay close attention to No. 9 – a short but tight hole; the green is not only tiny, but is in two halves, and unless you’re lucky you can’t get from one half to the other without a wedge! By the way, the par-threes may be the toughest those guys see all year in terms of tiny targets and difficult up-and-downs.

This tournament has been around since 1967. It’s an institution. Winners over recent years are the epitome of good ball strikers, with such names as Payne Stewart, Davis Love III, Hale Irwin, Loren Roberts, Nick Price, Justin Leonard, Boo Weekley, Brian Gay (who singed the course with a record 20-under par) and Jim Furyk.

All of these guys share the trait of being able to place their drives on the correct side of the fairway in order to have the best angle around the trees defending the greens. And then, even though the GIR percentage is low, putt from off the green to save their pars and, often as not, for birdie. It’s no wonder Brian Gay was so successful here: last year he was 2nd in Scrambling (getting it up and down from off the green) and this year so far he’s 1st.

So the tournament is fun to watch for the strategic shotmaking, but also for the contrast of moving from the protection of the narrow, tree-lined fairways out into the open of the 17th and 18th holes where the winds whipping off the Calibogue Sound have ruined many a round.

The other undercurrent of this year’s tournament is that it no longer has a sponsor. It’s so important to the area that a spokesman for South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, said, “The Governor understands the importance of the Heritage and what it means not only to this area and to this region but the entire state. We will find a sponsor. We will make that happen. We cannot fail—it is not an option.”

For the sake of one of the Tour’s true institutions, let’s hope so.

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