While the RBC Heritage leaderboard was jam-packed with stars and superstars, the real entity that shined throughout the event was Harbour Town itself. So often the PGA Tour goes to mammoth ballparks that shrink the circle of players who can win the golf tournament to a tiny number. Here, while the big boppers still have advantages, it took a full skillset for four straight rounds to contend and win the tournament. This is good for the Tour and great for golf.
It also doesn’t take away from the stars of the game, the Rory McIlroys and Dustin Johnsons of the world. While shortening — not lengthening — courses is actually the path forward for the professional game if you’re looking for equality, there are still plenty of opportunities (maybe more opportunities) for the longest drivers of the ball to be the best players in the world.
Take the 9th hole for example, the 329-yard par 4. Look at how Brooks Koepka — who finished 7th after shooting 68-65 on the weekend — played it compared to how the final pairing of Abraham Ancer and Tyrrell Hatton played it. Koepka took on the bunker in front of the green with a driver to 3 feet, and he was rewarded with an eagle, his second on the front nine. Ancer and Hatton laid back with irons at around 225 yards but still were able to make runs at birdie (Ancer made his, Hatton did not). When courses contain myriad ways to play them, it benefits all parties and makes the Tour more interesting overall.
Look at the leaderboard. From Webb Simpson — who is very average off the tee — to Koepka — who is very not average off the tee — it had everything you could ever want from a Sunday close. Daniel Berger, Sergio Garcia, Joaquin Niemann, Bryson DeChambeau, J.T. Poston and Justin Thomas — all such different golfers, all in the top 10. This is not the only course at which something like this happens, obviously, but it does seem like it’s easier for it to happen at a place like Harbour Town than most other tracks.
When tournaments are held at Erin Hills or Bethpage Black, I’m sorry but Abraham Ancer is just not going to win or contend like he did on Sunday. While length is a skill that should be rewarded, it shouldn’t be rewarded disproportionately to all other skills. The stylistically-diverse leaderboard we got at Harbour Town was fascinating and fun for viewers. That last 100 minutes of golf on Sunday on an empty course, well, that was as good as it gets in non-majors on the PGA Tour.
Harbour Town is not the shortest course on the PGA Tour, but it’s in that group of smaller ballparks. At 6,934 yards on Sunday, it is one of the few on the Tour that can play under 7,000 yards. What you really need, though, is not a lack of length but rather a glut of risk-reward holes like the 9th. Holes that McIlroy and Koepka can go after and be rewarded if they conquer and holes that Ancer and Hatton can play a different way with a set of skills more suitable to their games. That, more than anything, is what makes golf so interesting.
Sometimes, short courses neutralize everyone in the same way. That is, if you have a 300-yard par-4 that includes a massive dogleg, everybody from Rory to Zach Johnson has to hit 3-iron off the tee to the same spot. From there, it becomes a wedge-fest, which is obviously unfair to Rory. But if you have holes like the 9th at Harbour Town, well, that’s beneficial to both parties as well as what every viewer wants to see (not that every hole at Harbour Town is great, but enough are to keep it interesting). As long as the risks and rewards are equivalent and high, the golf remains great.
And the golf was great on Sunday at the RBC Heritage. This was because the field was great but also because the course was, too. I want players to have to think about taking holes on and what kind of strategy they want to employ. I want them — in lieu of just ripping the hell out of every drive — to have to use their full arsenal of skills when trying to win the golf tournament. That’s what we saw on Sunday, and hopefully that’s what we see more of as the distance debate rages on and we move into the next decade of professional golf.