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The first major of 2021 is in the books and now the PGA TOUR will relax with a laidback event, heading to Hilton Head Island for the RBC Heritage.
The course is Harbour Town Golf Links and it's one of the more iconic venues on the PGA TOUR. It's known as somewhat of a plodder's paradise and it's easily identified with the signature lighthouse lurking in the background.
The event is bucketed as an "invitational" which means a smaller field size. The target for the week is 132 golfers but they overdid the booking with 135 golfers currently set to peg it this week. That is following the Monday-morning WDs of Bryson DeChambeau and Joel Dahmen. There won't be any alternates added to the field unless the field size dips below that 132 target number.
As for the cutline line, it returns to the typical PGA TOUR criteria which is top 65 and ties after 36 holes played.
Harbour Town Golf Links has played host here since the inaugural 1969 edition. It was originally a 6,657 yard test but now plays right around 7,121 yards as a par 71. Length has never been one of the course defenses.
This heavily tree-lined Pete Dye design will often force golfers to hit irons and woods (less than driver) off the tee. When you talk about a position-based course, this is one of the first that comes to mind. Even if you hit the fairway you may find your approach shot blocked by overhanging trees.
Creativity becomes a key attribute because everyone will find themselves in a few sticky situations over the course of the week at Harbour Town. Some will take their medicine and accept bogey. Others will showcase that creativity and pull off some miracle birdies or par saves. Lastly, some golfers will attempt those creative shots but only dig themselves in a deeper hole when they don't execute.
The test gets even tougher when you factor in the green sizes. At an average of 3,700 square feet, they are some of the smallest targets on TOUR. In fact, this is the key attribute that shows up when looking at crossover success between the Heritage and other PGA TOUR venues. More on that in the Correlated Courses section. That means golfers will miss plenty of greens this week but if they do land the greens then they likely have a good look at birdie.
The course typically provides a tough scoring environment but a June date in 2020 saw the field go low. The field scoring average was nearly two shots under par and the Webb Simpson eventually won the event by reaching 22-under, the lowest winning score in this event's entire history, and just the second time the winner had reached 20-under or better. I personally think that was a product of the June date and COVID-19 policies preventing the grounds crew from doing their normal prep in the lead-up.
Speaking of the June date, one major change in April this year will be the return to overseeded conditions. Last year the field saw pure bermuda from wall-to-wall but this time around the lead-up weather has not been kind to bermuda growth. They will see ryegrass overseed from tee-to-green and poa trivialis on the putting surfaces. The target stimp is 11.5 feet which is around TOUR-average speeds.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Luke Donald: "the guys that can scramble well and have good course management, it’s not a course you need to be a long hitter. Certain holes it helps, obviously, but the long hitters, it’s taking driver out of their hands a lot. So I feel like the playing field’s leveled out."
Jim Furyk: "Long or short, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about do you like to shape the ball, and can you imagine some different shots, and do you find that style of golf fun?"
Webb Simpson: "The fairways really do pinch in as we get closer to the green, so guys have to lay back to the wider part of the fairway. I think guys will be shocked here that you can drive it in the fairway and be blocked out to the green or blocked out to that side of the green where the pin is on. So there’s plenty of holes here where we look at the pin sheet before we tee off because we’re aiming at the right side of the fairway or left side of the fairway, which I don’t know if we have any of those golf courses on the TOUR."
Wesley Bryan: "It’s not overly long. You have a fair amount of short and mid-irons in out here. The par-3s are really tough. So you’ve got to be really precise with your irons. And traditionally the guy that putts the best out here usually has a lot of success. "
Sam Saunders: "I’ve always enjoyed golf courses where if you hit a shot into the trees you have an opportunity to curve the ball. And I love that there’s not long rough here. Even if you’re stuck behind some trees you have a chance to peel one through the trees or hit a big high cut or low hook. It makes it fun, because I feel like there’s always an opportunity to recover from an errant shot here."
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead Course
A major theme of these courses is green size. Most of these courses have tiny targets which means around-the-green play and once you reach the greens you are probably going to have a pretty good look at the hole. Not too many lag putts.
Thursday: Light rain with a high of 77 degrees. Winds at 7 to 14 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 70 degrees. Winds at 5 to 10 MPH.
There is some early-week rain to dodge but looks pretty steady otherwise with temps in the upper 60s and low 70s for most of the week. Playing on the coast, winds can always become and issue so keep an eye out for the wind numbers as the event draws nearer and the wind forecast gets more reliable.
Golfers to Watch
If Simpson ever gets into course architecture, I would imagine his courses being modeled after Harbour Town and other classical designs. "Yeah, this is one of my favorite golf courses of the year. I feel like it’s a little bit thrown back in time with the way the golf course is. It’s really a shot maker’s golf course. I love that about it." The results match up, as well, as he's entered the final round positioned T13 or better in each of his last four Heritage appearances.
DJ faded on Friday to miss the cut last week in his attempted Masters title defense. Johnson's game was shaky in the lead-up and he's now hit fewer greens than the field in three straight stroke-play events. Next up he heads to a course that somewhat mutes his power. Will that help him focus and find his game or will it be another early trunk slam? He was the 54-hole leader here in 2019 before fading with a closing 77 to finish T28.
The Englishman has called this one of his favorite courses on TOUR for years now but the results didn't match up in his first three trips (T23-MC-MC). He's rattled off top 15s in two of his last three appearances so the results are starting to line up with his quotes. He arrives with top 20s in six of his last seven worldwide events.
It's a home-state event for him this week. He lost in a playoff here in 2015 and calls this one of his favorite courses on TOUR. "I love it here. It’s probably the top three on Tour for me. Every year I come I love this weather, love in atmosphere. I just feel like it’s a great shot maker’s course. You can be in the fairway and have to carve shots into the pin. It kind of suits my game. I love to see the picture and try to hit the shots."
The field is surprisingly deep this week which means the rankings got tough for me when looking at the names after the top 15 or so. There are dozens of golfers that deserve a mention but didn't find the top 20. Perhaps that means it's a good week to target the mid-range on the betting board or DFS salary sheet? Grace is a good example as the long-term stats don't put him inside of the top 20 for me but he's flashed his old game lately and he's a past champ at Harbour Town (2016).
Another name with a long list of good results at this event. Gamers will need to decide whether they trust his performance at the WGC-Match Play as a sign of his return to form or whether last week's missed cut at the Masters proves the WGC result was just a one-off. Kuchar is 16-for-17 at the Heritage with a win and five other top 10s on his resume.
Ranking the Field
1. Webb Simpson
2. Tyrrell Hatton
3. Dustin Johnson
4. Matthew Fitzpatrick
5. Daniel Berger
6. Patrick Cantlay
7. Will Zalatoris
8. Corey Conners
9. Russell Henley
10. Abraham Ancer
11. Cameron Smith
12. Paul Casey
13. Sergio Garcia
14. Si Woo Kim
15. Collin Morikawa
16. Tommy Fleetwood
17. Patton Kizzire
18. Ian Poulter
19. Kevin Kisner
20. Brian Harman