Bob Gillespie



Something old, and new: Pete Dye turns tired course into heralded new Heron Point

Posted 6/23/2011 7:39:00 PM

It’s a matter of modern economics reality: The days when new golf courses seemed to be constantly popping up in resort areas and elsewhere are over, done, finis.

That fact was brought home earlier this year when Golf Digest did away with its annual “Best New Courses” listing – for the simple reason that fewer than a dozen new courses nationally had come on the market in the previous year.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no new golf adventures. The wave of the future, says Sea Pines Resort director of sports Cary Corbitt, is exemplified at Heron Point by Pete Dye, which was added to Sea Pines’ three-course lineup in 2007 and received a “tweak” in the past year as well.

If you haven’t visited Hilton Head Island in, say, five years, perhaps you recall Sea Pines’ “other” golf courses (besides nationally-ranked Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the annual Heritage PGA Tour tournament). Those were the Ocean Course and the Sea Marsh Course – solid layouts, but not in Harbour Town’s class.

Now, Sea Marsh, originally built by Gary Cobb and updated in 1990 by architect Clyde Johnston, is gone. In its place – literally, built on the same piece of Lowcountry property – is Heron Point, conceived and built by Dye, whose credits include (with Jack Nicklaus) Harbour Town.

Corbitt, who has been at Sea Pines Resort nearly 30 years, stresses that Heron Point isn’t merely an upgrade of the existing design. “There is no resemblance to the former course,” he says. “It is a total reconstruction, no different that taking a virgin piece of land and sculpting a new golf course.

“The only difference is that the corridors were there already between the foot print of the houses. But we changed as much of that foot print as we could within the corridors.”

Dye, renowned for his wizardry with even the worst pieces of land, built a 7,103-yard parkland-style beauty on largely flat terrain, with thickly forested borders, mounding in the fairways and around greens to create elevation changes, and Dye’s trademark bunkering featuring small pot bunkers and wide expanses of sand. Six sets of tees accommodate all levels of players, all the way down to Family tees at 3,743 yards.

“We came in and tried to contour the fairways – everything we could possibly do so as to make it look different from the other courses” at Sea Pines, Dye said in a recent interview. “Golfers all like brunettes and redheads and blondes, so if you can get something different in there, you try to get their attention.

“We tried to make a resort golf course – one that looks a lot harder than it plays – and tried to give it a definition (to the land), and I think we did a wonderful job with the fairways.”

The golf world agreed. Golf Magazine, shortly after the 2007 debut, named Heron Point as the 15th best public-access course in South Carolina, the only course less than a year old to make the top 15. Golf Digest got on board as well, including Heron Point in its 2008 “Best Places to Play” list and awarding it a four-star rating. Travel + Leisure Golf, Links Magazine and USA Today also heaped praise on the design.

Today, Heron Point is on Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play” list, and is No. 13 in South Carolina on Golf’s “Best Courses Near You.” And a plus for families: Golf Digest ranks the course among its Top 50 Courses for Women.

Closer to home, the S.C. Golf Ratings Panel, four months after the course opened, ranked Heron Point fourth among the state’s public-access courses – trailing only Harbour Town, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course and Bluffton’s May River Club at Palmetto Bluff – and No. 25 overall.

So what’s it like playing Heron Point? For lovers of Dye designs, and especially those who have played “older sister” Harbour Town, the feeling is familiar, yet unique. Like Harbour Town, the greens are generally small, but more of Heron Point’s putting surfaces sit above the fairways – or, thanks to Dye’s subtle contours and visual tricks, appear to do so. There is somewhat more water in play, in particular at the challenging par-4 18th hole, which doglegs left around a large lagoon, demanding accuracy off the tee, and finishes at a long-but-narrow, flat-to-the-earth but tightly-guarded green.

On all his holes, Dye has specific landing areas, often surrounded by mounding that can penalize wayward shots. That’s especially true of the greens, which sit like sand- and grass-protected fortifications. “Pete doesn’t like it when you miss a green and a mound sends your ball back toward the green,” Corbitt says. “He believes if you miss a green, you shouldn’t be rewarded, that some type challenge should be there.”

Heron Point starts players gently with the generally benign par-4 first hole, though slicers face a long bunker and water beyond all down the right side, plus a green guarded by bunkers on its right. Then the challenge picks up; the course’s wicked par-3 holes, in particular, force players to pull off accurate shots. And on several holes guarded by water, Dye’s traditional grass-and-wooden-board fronts create intimidating visuals.

“It’s a great combination of holes out there,” Dye said in an online interview. “We didn’t change the routing so much as we filled in some areas and made it more playable. We think a lot of the holes have more shot values than they did before.”

Bottom line: Dye took an aging Sea Marsh Course and transformed it into a modern layout that can excite both scratch players and high-handicappers. It’s all about keeping up with the times, he says.

“Sea Pines has such a great golf image, so you’ve got to keep all your golf courses up to date … to keep competitive,” Dye says. “You’ve got to stay ahead of the game.”

No question, at Heron Point, the architect has shown once again that he is one of the premier designers at intriguing and occasionally baffling all levels of players. Not bad for an 80-something.

“It’s been fun to be a part of Sea Pines,” Dye says with a laugh. “It’s been 40 years, and they haven’t fired me yet.”

In an era of forced creativity for golf, and with results like Heron Point, that’s not likely to change.

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