It’s easy to pick out the new trees at Harbour Town.
For one thing, they’re typically a bit shorter than the surrounding timberland. Not as much as one might think, but there’s a difference. And if that wasn’t enough, the straps to keep them stabilized are a dead giveaway.
There figures to be fewer boats in the Harbour Town Marina, too, though perhaps not as few as first feared. Repairs continued through the weekend, but will stop for Heritage Week.
As for anything else that might catch the eye of those attending this week’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing — well, pack a little extra sunscreen.
“There’s definitely a little bit more sunlight around here,” said Jon Wright, the superintendent in charge of getting Harbour Town ready for the PGA Tour’s annual visit.
Though a few local pros have tested Harbour Town in recent weeks, Monday’s practice rounds will mark the first time most entrants will get a look at the venerable course since Hurricane Matthew tore through the Lowcountry six months ago.
It’s not going to make the course any easier, let’s put it that way.
PGA Tour agronomist Bland Cooper, discussing trees lost at Harbour Town
Ditto for patrons, though they’re obviously not as trained to notice differences in the topography. It certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings if folks went away wondering what all the consternation was about.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to know we had a hurricane in here,” said Cary Corbitt, vice president of sports and operations at Sea Pines Resort.
As far as the PGA Tour is concerned, Harbour Town has lost nothing from the tight, tough challenge it usually provides. The winning score has hovered between 9- and 14-under par in six of the past seven years.
“I really don’t think it’s going to make any difference at all,” said Bland Cooper, the PGA Tour agronomist who keeps tabs on Harbour Town’s preparations each year. “It’s not going to make the course any easier, let’s put it that way.”
The official count is 268 trees lost at Harbour Town during Hurricane Matthew, though tournament prep has added a handful of casualties that were OK during cleanup but since have died. Less than two dozen of those, though, were considered intrinsic to the challenge of the course.
It was only a week after reopening that Sea Pines was importing trees to replace the critical losses. Nineteen mature live oaks and tall palms went into the ground just before Thanksgiving; seven loblolly pines were planted in December, along with a magnolia tree near No. 3.
“People around here have been trying to get rid of trees,” tournament director Steve Wilmot quipped, “and they’re out planting trees.”
Total number of additions: 22 trees. More than a third were planted at Harbour Town’s 10th or 16th holes, which suffered the worst damage as those fairways created a mostly open funnel for winds howling off Calibogue Sound.
“There’s really no protection coming down that little chute from (No.) 17 on the Calibogue,” Wright said. “Those trees really took a beating.”
A half-dozen trees that separated the 10th fairway from the 16th were damaged, along with a handful of oaks that protected the green’s left side.
“It was a tremendous investment replacing those trees,” Cooper said. “The trees they brought in were not small trees that you buy from the hardware store. These were gigantic, 30,000-pound trees that were brought in by a tremendous piece of equipment. Some of them were 50 or 60 feet tall.”
Impressive, but still smaller than the surrounding trees. And with root systems still working their way into the Lowcountry soil, they remain attached to large straps keeping them from shifting.
“That’ll probably grab (fans’) attention,” Wright said. “They look a little more juvenile than the 100-foot trees.”
As for the other tree losses, those mostly took place away from the playing area, along and behind where spectators walk. Only the most wayward of drives would be affected, and fans in those areas may not even notice until their skin turns an extra shade of pink.
“We’re getting sunlight in some places that never saw sunlight before,” Wright said. “So in the long run, it was nature’s way of just cleaning house a bit.”
Indeed, the general consensus among principals is that losing trees might actually help — improved sunlight and air flow will allow those trees that survived to flourish even more. That might have been more difficult to achieve if permits were required.
“It took out some stuff you couldn’t have taken out otherwise,” Cooper said. “It’s non-selective. Mother Nature does not follow any laws, other than the laws of physics.”