By BOB GILLESPIE
For at least 30 years, Davis Love III has had a soft spot in his heart for Sea Pines Resort, especially Harbour Town Golf Links and its annual PGA Tour event, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. And that’s not just because Hilton Head Island is a short drive from his home on Sea Island, Ga.
In 1987, Love won the first PGA Tour title of his career at Harbor Town – it was the MCI Heritage Classic then – and took home a tournament-record five tartan jackets as champion (1991-92, 1998, 2003). The last was the 17th of his 21 Tour victories.
Love, now 53 and winding down his PGA Tour playing career, most recently serving as U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2014 and 2016, still plays the Heritage each April. But the past two years, he and members of his Love Golf Design firm spent even more time there, crafting Sea Pines’ third golf course – formerly the Ocean Course, Hilton Head Island’s oldest – into Atlantic Dunes, a creation that complements Harbour Town and the resort’s other Pete Dye design, Heron Point.
How good a job did Love, his brother Mark and design associate Scot Sherman do? In August, Atlantic Dunes was named Golf Course of the Year by the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association, ahead of Isle of Palms’ Wild Dunes Links Course (built in the 1980s by Tom Fazio) and Myrtle Beach’s Man O’ War, a Dan Maples project.
Both Harbour Town (2004) and Heron Point (2015) also previously won the award. Not bad company.
“(Course design is) a fun way to extend your career,” Davis Love said at the course’s opening last November, after a month delay due to Hurricane Matthew. Atlantic Dunes is Love’s 21st design, three in South Carolina.
Sherman, a Furman University graduate and Greenville, S.C., resident, also had personal ties to Hilton Head, being a Pete Dye protégé and former associate of Irmo, S.C. native Bobby Weed. Atlantic Dunes totally re-imagined a 1995 renovation of the old Ocean Course by former Tour player Mark McCumber.
Sherman says Love’s goal was to “improve playability” on what had been an old, flat layout, upgrading the infrastructure to “make it more memorable.” Some 500-600 trees were removed and 55,000 cubic yards of dirt moved, as well as adding 14 miles of drainage pipes and 19 miles of irrigation – oh, and 15,000 tons of sand, which is apparent in the course’s numerous dunes.
The Love team added 50,000 native plants, seaside grasses and coquina shells to the site’s 42 acres, which is twice the footprint of Harbour Town. “We replaced everything: grass, irrigation, drainage, and moved three acres of water,” Sherman said. Total cost: nearly $11 million.
Cary Corbitt, vice president of sports and operations for Sea Pines, calls Atlantic Dunes “the ideal complement to Harbour Town and Heron Point. We’re honored to receive” the SCGCOA award, he said. Atlantic Dunes previously was named No. 7 in Golfweek’s “Best Courses You Can Play in South Carolina.”
Sherman says Atlantic Dunes reflects Love’s philosophy (shared by Dye) of making a golf course that looks tough but plays easier than it seems.
“The course can intimidate you visually,” Sherman said, but in fact, its fairway corridors are the widest of the Sea Pines courses. “Alice (Dye, Pete’s wife and an architect herself) always says you want to give every level of player a place to go,” he said.
Difficulty for better players is a result of the extensive use of water, which is around or in play on most holes, plus 81 bunkers and plenty of large dunes that frame most fairways.
When it was the Ocean Course, “it didn’t feel like it was near the ocean, and we wanted to evoke that in the Atlantic Dunes feel,” Sherman said. “Even the bridges have rope railings.” The course’s variety of holes requires a variety of shots, but the designers say playability is the main ingredient.
“We (golf course architects) have made the game so hard for the average guy, but you have to make a fit for everyone,” Love said, referring to the resort clientele. “We’ve dialed back the degree of difficulty.”
That said, the threat of water reveals itself early and continues to the course’s last four holes. The signature hole is the uphill, par-3 15th, playing 137 to 205 yards, and with the beach backing the green, it’s one of two oceanfront holes on Hilton Head.
The short (323-394 yards) dogleg right 16th demands accuracy to avoid dunes, and then Atlantic Dunes has two long, water-guarded finishing holes: the par-5 17th, which ends at a peninsula green, and the muscular par-4 18th, which plays up to 462 yards and was a par-5 in its previous life.
“I have a reverence for Harbour Town,” Sherman said. Of course, everyone knows how Davis Love feels about the island and its courses. For information about Atlantic Dunes, visit www.seapines.com/golf, or call (866) 561-8802.