Lessons Learned at Harbour Town

Golfer looks up after swinging his golf club

On the weekend of December 9th, most of the International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA) students teed it up at the IJGA Invitational at Harbour Town, hosted by the IJGT. A great event to end the semester, as students were preparing to leave for the holidays to reunite with family and friends near and far. Great in that Harbour Town is not just any golf course, and this was not just any event.

Best known for hosting the PGA Tour event RBC Heritage, which has a rich 48-year history in Hilton Head and often featuring on “Best Courses” lists, Harbour Town has been named one of the most demanding courses in the U.S. There is no doubt that Harbour Town is a challenge for any golfer in the best of conditions, but IJGA juniors, some as young as 12 years old, in uncharacteristically cold weather, took on the challenge with great courage. From tee to green players must think their way around the golf course, with its narrow fairways and tight greens, demanding accuracy and precision at every turn. The IJGA Invitational, closing out the semester, put all the hard work and effort of the year to the test, challenging not just technical skills, but strategic thinking and mental resilience of the IJGA students.

The 8th hole par 4 is the test of the front 9, and consistently ranks among the toughest holes for the Tour players to contend with during the pro event. At 473 yards and 10 feet of elevation over sea level, many players battle to reach it in two. The dogleg left, and the green surrounded by a bunker and water hazard on the left, are daunting.  On the back nine there is the challenge of the closing holes, which are magnificent but intimidating, especially the last two holes.  The 18th, a 472 Par 4, is one of the most beautiful and well recognized holes on the PGA Tour, with the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse behind the green and the Calibogue Sound on the left, often bringing high winds off the ocean that intimidate even the best of competitors.  There are lessons to learn from Harbour Town, and the end of the year is a good time to reflect on those lessons and keep learning from them.

4 Key Takeaways:


Expectations are often overlooked, because they operate under the surface on an unconscious level.  The expectations that we have of ourselves, and those we feel from others, are important to understand and manage. Many juniors who attend an academy for example, have the expectation of high performance because of the time and effort that goes into the game in the competitive academy environment. These expectations can be outcome driven and create unnecessary pressure that inhibits performance.  Healthy expectations are grounded in a strong value system, and create drive and motivation for high personal standards.  It is important to examine our expectations and ensure that they do not set us up for failure and sabotage our success. Alternatively, if we have high expectations in all the areas of our lives that we can control such as preparation, attitude, effort, communication and planning, then we will be managing our expectations to set up for success.  Demanding high standards of yourself is necessary to perform at a high level and to achieve any great levels of success.

  • Do I have healthy expectations or expectations that often leave me disappointed and frustrated?
  • Was there a time when my expectations were too focused on results and outcomes instead of the things I can control?
  • What would be the result of managing my expectations more effectively in the process?

Keeping expectations realistic and within our control is very much determined by your mindset and your mindset determines your ability to learn and grow. Many people believe brains and talent to be the precursor for success, but in fact mindset is far more important.  With the research available to us today, there is no doubt that we can develop our brains by the actions we take such as asking good questions, sleep habits, good nutrition and good strategies.  The definition of a growth mindset is a belief that with hard word and effort, a person can learn, grow and develop in all areas.  When faced with challenges and difficulties, a growth mindset is solution oriented and motivated to work hard on a problem, versus a fixed mindset which believes that basic qualities like talent or intelligence are limited to what we have been given. When we operate from a fixed mindset we tend to be more judgmental, critical and defensive.  Those with a fixed mindset try to justify and excuse their failures and spend time documenting their talent instead of developing it. If learning truly is the goal, then we can take on any task, tournament, challenge, and at the other end know that we are better off from the lessons learned.

  • Do I get excited with challenges, and find myself curious and excited about learning?
  • Alternatively, do I get defensive if my performance is poor and feel I must cover, justify or defend myself?
  • When I have a setback, do I ask myself good questions to promote learning or do I judge and criticize myself harshly?
  • If my mindset changed to be more open, positive and willing to learn, how would that change my result and my state?

The weather during the tournament brought record lows to Hilton Head, with temperatures barely getting out of the 40s.  Preparation cannot be underestimated when you are taking on a challenging course, knowing that the weather is going to be cold and rainy. There are several things a player can do in preparation, such as anticipate the impact to your swing, knowing the cold can make you hit the ball harder.  Hitting it harder can have an impact on your swing, so important to make any adjustments as needed in the set up and pre-shot routine. The cold can also influence putting, impacting your ability to feel putts as you may do in normal weather. Being aware of these factors allows you to adjust as you go and with a growth mindset can improve with each hole and you start to adjust to the conditions. The other important areas of preparation may be clothing and equipment for the cold; sufficient nutrition and hydration, despite the cold; and appropriate footwear.

  • Have there been times when you were not as prepared as you could have been, and what impact did it have on your performance?
  • What can you do in the future to better prepare for difficult conditions?
  • What adjustments did you make or did not make, and what can you learn from this?

Harbour Town is a great teacher, bringing unique lessons in grit and fortitude, and challenging the resilience of those players who take it on.  The attributes of those who are successful on this golf course are good at strategic thinking, knowing what Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus wanted from the player when standing on each tee.  There are hundreds of decisions to make in a round, and a good strategic game plan allows you to play smart golf by managing yourself around the course, and not allowing your ego to make the decisions for you. Playing confidently to high probability targets, versus tentative swings to aggressive targets, will allow a player to strategically get around the course. Developing a good game plan in the practice round is an important part of preparation, and sticking to your plan whenever possible should be the goal.

  • How effective am I at managing myself (game plan, emotions, attitude) around the golf course?
  • Do I use the post shot routine to learn and grow or do I become emotional and frustrated with my performance, which inhibits learning?
  • Do you see the obstacles and challenges on a course, or the opportunities and design that the course architect wanted you to see?

Harbour Town was an incredible opportunity for IJGA students to stretch their mental muscles and see what they are made of. Playing a course like Harbour Town demands the best from us – manageable expectations, a positive growth mindset, excellent preparation and a solid game plan. We know that golf is not a perfect game, and there are few perfect shots in any round, but what sets the learners apart from the non-learners is the ability to learn from mistakes and the discipline to do the right things consistently to get better, stronger and wiser.

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