Harbour Town offers new look for PGA players

Sometimes Mother Nature just inflicts her will, with the results a blessing rather than a curse. Occasionally it is a matter of addition by subtraction.

That is the spin this week surrounding the RBC Heritage and the condition of the famed Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

There are some new corridors for play available for the 132 golfers who will tee it up beginning Thursday, thanks to the downing and then removal of some 200 trees after the area was hit full on by Hurricane Matthew in October.

The general consensus among the PGA Tour players who have been on the course for practice rounds early in the week is that Harbour Town retains the requirement for strategy and course management. What was good is still good.

What’s gone makes things even better because of Matthew’s work at thinning some of the trees that grew since the Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus-designed 7,099-yard, par-71 layout first opened in 1969.

There are still plenty of live oaks and pine trees that define the fairways and place accuracy before length. Add in the small, undulating putting surfaces, and it is easy to understand the need to put a premium on well-placed shots to create scoring chances.

This is the 49th RBC Heritage, regarded as one of the Tour’s most popular stops. The course is annually ranked among the country’s top tracks and has produced a winner’s roster including inaugural winner Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Love III, Greg Norman and Nick Price.

At stake this week is a total purse of $6.5 million, with $1.17 million and 500 FedEx Cup points going to the winner.

South African Branden Grace returns to defend his title after he garnered his first PGA Tour victory at the 2016 RBC Heritage, shooting a final-round 5-under 66 and coming from three strokes back to win by two over Scotland’s Russell Knox and England’s Luke Donald.

Donald has finished second at the RBC Heritage three times in the past eight years, so he fancies his chances in 2017. He likes the differences he is seeing in the golf course.

“I’m always excited to come here — I love this event,” said Donald, who was also the runner-up in 2011 and 2014. “This is a course that seems to suit my game. I’ve done everything except win. This course is like a puzzle — you have to think your way around it. It’s in the best condition I’ve seen it — the thinning out of the trees by the hurricane actually has helped things.”

Grace on Tuesday praised the work accomplished by residents of the Hilton Head Island area and everyone involved in the post-hurricane recovery effort. Thanks to their work, there will still be plenty of sumptuous pictures of the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse and Calibogue Sound, with hundreds of yachts bobbing in the waves that lap the shore near the 18th hole.

“It’s been a tough year for (tournament organizers), and you can see how they’ve really pulled together and got (the course) back to being one of the best stops on tour,” Grace said. “This is one of those places where you just fall in love the first time you come. Man, it’s good to be back.”

Not all of the downed trees were replaced, as players familiar with the layout have noticed some changes.

Five-time RBC Heritage winner Davis Love III, who will play his 100th competitive round at Harbour Town on Thursday, specifically mentioned the difference caused by missing trees that used to guard the right side of the green on the par-4 10th.

“I was hoping a few more on (No.) 10 were down,” Love III chided. “I made one comment out there today: ‘If they cut every tree down, it’d still be a great golf course because of the strategy still required.'”

Grace looks to join Payne Stewart (1989-90), Love III (1991-92) and Boo Weekley (2007-08) as the only back-to-back winners at the RBC Heritage.

Eight of the top 20 golfers in the FedEx Cup standings are in the field: Adam Hadwin (No. 5), Pat Perez (7), Russell Henley (11), Marc Leishman of Australia (13), Charles Howell III (17), Bill Haas (18), Luke List (19) and Kevin Kisner (20).

Likewise, eight of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking will tee off in Hilton Head: England’s Tyrrell Hatton (ranked No. 16), Matt Kuchar (17), Danny Willett of England (19), Grace (22), Brandt Snedeker (25), Knox (27), Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain (28) and Francesco Molinari of Italy (29).

Thirteen major championship winners are among those competing: Ernie Els of South Africa, Vijay Singh of Fiji, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley, Stewart Cink, Jason Dufner, Jim Furyk, Lucas Glover, Love III, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Geoff Ogilvy of Australia, Webb Simpson and Willett.