Golf

Bob Gillespie

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Saturday at the Heritage: Home boy winning; Clad in plaid; Ready for Easter

Posted 4/19/2014 8:53:00 PM

No South Carolinian has ever won the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, the state’s only annual PGA Tour event, in its first 45 years. Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey came closest in 2011, when the Bishopville native finished a thrilling third, then bowed to the appreciative Hilton Head crowd on the 18th green afterward.

But Ben Martin, who grew up in Greenwood and played his college golf at Clemson, was positioned to change that situation after Saturday’s early completion of the tournament’s rain-delayed second round and a darkness-racing third round.

The 26-year-old, with parents Jim and Suzie and others from Greenwood following his every step around Harbour Town Golf Links, wrapped up a 3-under par 68 despite a closing bogey, and took a share of first place at 5-under par 137. He finished his final 14 holes of the second round early Saturday, and was grouped with K.J. Choi and former Heritage champion Jim Furyk when the third round began at 12:20 p.m.

Martin, in his second season on the PGA Tour, then stayed within range of third-round leader Luke Donald late Saturday. He knows what winning his first PGA Tour title, especially in his home state, could mean.

“That would be awesome,” he said. “This is one (tournament week) we circled at the start of the year. We rented a house months ago, got the whole family down. It’s a hometown event, you could say, since it’s in South Carolina. If there was any event I could pick to be my first win, it would be this one.”

Martin’s career to date has been something of a roller coaster. He qualified for the PGA Tour in 2011, but failed to retain his PGA Tour exemption. But he made the most of 2012-13 on the Web.com Tour, winning twice last year to return to the big time.

So far in 2014, “I’ve been a little inconsistent,” he said, with nine missed cuts in 13 tournaments, though he finished third at the Puerto Rico Open. “Last year was probably the best golf I’ve played over an extended period of time. So that’s really what I was looking to get back to.

“I felt like I was focusing a lot on results (earlier) this year. I just got back last week, thought a lot about staying focused on my process, and really controlling what I can control. If I give myself the best opportunity to hit good shots out there, that’s really all I can do.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Martin has little experience at Harbour Town. This week is only his second in tournament conditions, and “even growing up in the state, I’d never played the course before.”

Despite that, Martin says Harbour Town is a course that fits his game. “I’m a pretty analytical guy, so I like to get out on the course where you’ve got to kind of think your way around it,” he said.

“The ball just is kind of going where I’m seeing it. I think that’s what you have you have to do around here.”

If Martin continues doing that Sunday, he could make history.

Holding court, clad in plaid

Sir Willie Innes, the official ambassador of the RBC Heritage, has been a constant presence around Harbour Town this week, but Saturday – Plaid Nation Day, also known as Tartan Day – was special for the Scottish-accented actor, who dons Colonial-era costume and a Tartan jacket.

Tartan Day featured family-friendly contests including hole-in-one putting, fastest (contestant) dressed in plaid and best dressed. A centerpiece of the exhibits was Sir Willie, seated on a “throne” and posing for photos with fans. Spectators also had chances to win RBC Heritage goodies and tickets to the 2015 tournament.

“It’s been a fine day,” Sir Willie said in his trademark brogue, “some fine-looking lads and lassies.” A number of the latter took turns sitting on his knee, as if he were a Tartan-clad, beardless Santa Claus.

“I’m giving away things,” Sir Willie said with a laugh, “so you could say I’m the Heritage’s Santa.”

Ready for Easter

The Heritage’s annual Concert on the Lawn by popular local group The Headliners, scheduled for Saturday evening, had to be cancelled because the grounds around Heritage Lawn were too wet. Live music Saturday night was still planned for The Quarterdeck, a popular bar/hangout in the shopping village surrounding Harbour Town’s marina.

Sunday’s traditional Easter Sunrise Service remains set for 7:30 a.m. on the 18th green, featuring a local minister, music and non-denominational prayer. Greenwood’s Ben Martin and fellow PGA Tour player Richard H. Lee will lead a responsive reading, while player Chesson Hadley will give his testimony.

Also set for Sunday is the Heritage Easter Egg Hunt, beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Heritage Lawn. Children ages 10 and younger are invited to bring their ticket-holder parents; those 5 and younger, and those ages 6-10, will be grouped separately. Each child can hunt up to 10 eggs, plus one golden egg, each with a ticket inside good for a special RBC Heritage prize.
 
 

Friday at the Heritage: Love, Sanford, Choi and Watson return to Harbour Town

Posted 4/18/2014 4:49:00 PM

From 1986-2011, Davis Love III never missed an RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. It didn’t hurt that he won the Hilton Head tournament in 1987, the first of his five titles in South Carolina’s lone annual PGA Tour event.

Before Friday, Love had only missed the cut five times, or once for each victory at Harbour Town Golf Links. Clearly, his fondness for the Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus design has endured the test of time.

So when Love shot 80 Friday – his highest score ever in the Heritage; his previous worst was a 79 in 1993 – it somewhat soured his return after missing the past two RBC Heritage events due to a series of back issues. That span also coincided with the tournament’s affiliation with RBC and Boeing.

Love was interested to see how his favorite event has evolved under new sponsorship, and he said he was pleased with the union.

“Obviously, there for a few years (before RBC and Boeing), they were on a tight budget,” Love said. “Now, they’ve really stepped it back up and are doing a great job. And now, with the plans for the new clubhouse and other stuff, RBC and Boeing have really put new energy into the tournament.

“I played with the Boeing guys on Pro-Am day (Wednesday), and it’s nice to see both companies excited about golf and about the Heritage.”

Love turned 50 this past Sunday and is anticipating his future on the Champions Tour, but says he likely will keep the Heritage on his schedule. “I see guys like Tom Lehman and Corey Pavin, who have won the Colonial, they skip the Senior PGA to play there,” Love said. “As long as I feel like I can compete, I’m going to play some out here.

“If I feel like I can’t, then I’ll stay over there (Champions Tour). I definitely won’t be one to take up a spot just ceremonially to play the Heritage. But yeah, this will be one on my list, for sure.”

Love said he saw some changes to the course since 2011. “A couple of new tees since I played last, but other than that, it’s the same old good golf course,” he said, adding with a grimace, “You hit it bad, you shoot a bad score.”

Sanford shaking hands

Former S.C. governor and current U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford was among the gallery Friday, shaking hands near the putting green and later visiting the media center. He said visits to Harbour Town are nothing new for him.

“I’ve been coming here just about every year since high school,” said Sanford, who grew up near Beaufort and now lives in Charleston. “It’s a rite of passage in South Carolina to come here every spring.”

He also called Harbour Town “a one-stop shop for meeting people from all over the state – I’ve seen folks from Greenville, Greenwood, Rock Hill, Columbia, Sumter – and also a place to talk to visitors about what makes South Carolina a great place to invest. I’ve done that since I was governor and I’m still doing that in Congress.”

Friday’s rains were no impediment to that, he said. “Liquid sunshine,” he said, laughing.

Choi takes the lead

K.J. Choi shot a 4-under par 67 for a 5-under 137 total, and assumed the tournament lead before heavy rains forced suspension of play at 2:54 p.m. Friday; play is to resume Saturday at 8 a.m. The Korean star, using a translator during parts of his interviews, made sure he was completely understood as to why he likes Harbour Town, where he tied for 18th a year ago.

“This course if you just hit it beneath the trees, it’s a good course to play,” he said. “It has very small targets and this course is working well for me, because I like those situations.”

Watson making memories

Tom Watson didn’t expect to be around for weekend play after shooting 75-73 his first two rounds – “my game was pretty sporadic, but I made a few birdies out there,” he said – but he didn’t rule out another return as a two-time pat champion (1979, 1982).

“My game doesn’t support me coming back,” said Watson, who as 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain came mostly to scout potential team members. “(But) if the sponsor wants to use (a sponsor exemption to invite him), that’d be great.”

Watson, whose last RBC Heritage was in 2001 (he shot 71-75 to miss the cut), said the course was pretty much as he recalled it. “It plays a little longer, (especially Nos.) 3 and 8, but otherwise the course plays just about the same,” he said. “The greens are a little faster and firmer, but it’s everything I remembered and everything I loved. I truly love this golf course; it’s a great test of golf.”
 
 

Thursday at the Heritage: Kuchar on top; Driver a proud pop; Volunteer sees past photo op

Posted 4/17/2014 5:03:00 PM

Matt Kuchar struggled in the final round of last week’s Masters after challenging winner Bubba Watson and runner-up Jordan Spieth, but the former Georgia Tech player found a sure cure for the post-major blues: a visit to Hilton Head and Harbour Town Golf Links.

Kuchar, whose 5-under par 66 Thursday put him atop the RBC Heritage, said the change of venue was just the ticket. “You have a couple of days to unwind after a major, and then you’ve got a chance to play another PGA Tour event – not just a PGA Tour event but the RBC Heritage classic at Harbour Town.

“It’s a fantastic venue, fantastic tournament. It’s pretty easy to get excited for this.”

The golf course obviously suited Kuchar’s game Thursday. But he said it’s more about the overall island experience rather than just a favored golf course.

“We love it,” he said. “We have some good friends of ours from Atlanta (who) have a home out towards South Beach, so we stay with them, really enjoy spending the week with them. We just feel like it’s a home away from home for us. The kids come and play on the beach, play in the pool.”

Kuchar, who lives not far away at Sea Island, Ga., knows the oceanfront lifestyle, and says it suits him. Hilton Head fits into that as well.

“It’s a nice, relaxed lifestyle. It reminds us of where we live at Sea Island, just a very family-friendly (life). To see families riding bikes ... you see all families doing a bunch of activities together. And we find ourselves doing sort of similar things, a lot of family activities together while we’re here.”

Sounds like just the place to put the disappointments and pressures of Augusta behind.

Driver is a proud papa

Carl Johnson Jr. is in his first year driving a media shuttle van at the RBC Heritage, ferrying reporters and others from their parking lot to the media center. And he was on the job Thursday – though few would’ve begrudged him if he’d called in sick.

Johnson, 27, became a father for the first time late Wednesday. Daughter Carly was 19.1 inches long and weighed in at seven pounds, four ounces, he said with a huge grin.

“I was going to cut the (umbilical) cord, but I kept having to wipe my eyes,” he said, “and they finally said, we can’t wait for you.”

Johnson, known around the Heritage as C.J., said he never considered not showing up for work. “Got to be here,” he said as he dropped off a busload of media. “It’s my job.”

Volunteer sees pros as they really are

Dave Pearsall, a Long Island native who moved to Hilton Head in 1994, is in his 18th year as an RBC Heritage volunteer. His first year, 1995, he helped run a U.S. Golf Association survey on putting, the forerunner of the PGA Tour’s current Shotlink system, which provides statistics on shot distances and other esoterica.

He then spent 12 years as chairman of volunteer shuttles, in charge of getting volunteers from a parking lot at Hilton Head Prep School to their jobs at Harbour Town Golf Links. These days, he’s assistant chairman.

That’s meant a lot of Aprils at Harbour Town – and a lot of memories.

“I remember late on a Saturday, (player) Lee Janzen was on the putting green with his little son – who’s now a big son, 10 years later,” Pearsall said. “They were having a putting contest, and the kid stopped one of Lee’s putts with his foot, and said, ‘You missed, Daddy.’”

He also recalled Brad Faxon, a longtime PGA Tour regular who played college golf at Furman, riding a bicycle with his two children in a trailer behind the bike. “They had their poles and were heading to the pond at (hole) No. 10,” Pearsall said.

But his favorite story is about Ernie Els and Vijay Singh walking to their cars one afternoon. “Vijay gets in his car, and Ernie ducked down behind another car,” Pearsall said. “As Vijay is driving out, Ernie jumps out and slaps the side of his card, hard. Vijay slams on brakes, and Ernie looks at me, grins and says, ‘Pretty good, huh?’

“That’s the great thing about this job. You get to see the players as people, up close.”

This and that

Lucky kids age 15 and younger can attend the RBC Heritage this weekend for free when accompanied by a ticketed adult. ... The official merchandise tent, which in previous years was located just outside the main spectator gate to the golf course near the clubhouse, is now located between the first and ninth fairways, in front of the Heritage Expo Village. ... The tournament has situated ATM machines where they’re most needed: at the merchandise tent, the RBC Fan Experience Tent near the 18th tee, and the Michelob Ultra 19th Hole located behind the 18th green.
 
 

Wednesday at the Heritage: Head Ball Coach, glory days and more

Posted 4/16/2014 10:06:00 PM

South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier participated in his 10th RBC Heritage Pro-Am on Wednesday, teaming with USC booster Joe Rice and Daniel Island-based PGA Tour player Russell Henley to shoot a 12-under par score.

“Hit the driver pretty good, but didn’t hit many greens,” the Gamecocks’ coach said afterward of his first competitive round of golf since his team completed spring drills on Saturday.

Greenville businessman Rick Vieth, Spurrier’s regular caddie, was more generous. “He hasn’t been playing lately, but he was right down the middle all day,” he said. “He’s so competitive. But we always have fun.”

Spurrier’s wife, Jerri, who laughingly said “I’ve been following him (around golf courses) for nearly 50 years,” added that her husband “hit some beautiful drives.”

Spurrier has participated in every Heritage pro-am since taking over at South Carolina in 2005. “After that many years, I’m going to get one of those jackets someday,” he said, referring to the traditional Tartan coat awarded RBC Heritage winners. “That’d look OK, I guess; a garnet Tartan, right?”

Reliving the glory days

A couple of veterans of past RBC Heritages are making returns to Harbour Town Golf Links this week. Both would love to show the form that won titles here, but mostly they figure to enjoy memories of those victories.

Nick Faldo, winner of six major championships (three Masters, three British Opens) and now top analyst for CBS-TV’s golf coverage, won his first PGA Tour on American soil 30 years ago in the 1984 Heritage. Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens and eight majors overall, won a pair of RBC Heritage Tartan coats in 1979 and 1982.

Faldo will pull double duty this weekend, working from the 18th-hole tower for CBS’s Saturday-Sunday coverage. Watson, as U.S. Ryder Cup captain, will use this week to build his knowledge base of potential team members.

“A few things (about Harbour Town) have changed in the last 30 years (but) I can’t think what,” Faldo joked Wednesday. “This was the first event I won in America, so I thought (playing this week) would be pretty cool.

“And I thought Hilton Head is in theory perfect for me. It’s through the trees (and) it’s dead flat. I pick the flat courses now because I’ve got dodgy ankles.”

Watson recounted how he first played the golf course in 1971 – though not the tournament itself. “They had five spots to qualify for on a Monday to get in the tournament. And I missed qualifying by a shot,” he said.

“I shot 72 (1-over par) on the Harbour Town course. I played a heck of a round. I couldn’t believe I didn’t qualify.”

Watson also recalled good times away from the golf course. “It’s a great environment and great party tournament,” he said. “I’ve been known to be at The Quarterdeck (a well-known bar that overlooks Harbour Town’s yacht anchorage) a few times. I remember I just had a lot of great memories here.”

Faldo, who plays only a few times a year these days, said he wasn’t concerned about his pay interfering with his TV duties – meaning he didn’t expect to make the cut for the final two rounds. If that happened, though ...

“Well, Jim (announcer Jim Nantz) likes talking,” he said, chuckling. “I won’t hold him back. He can cover for me until I run in.

“I’m sure there will be a plan, but we’ll worry about that Saturday morning. I’ll call Nantz and say, ‘Hey guess what?’”

Taking one for the team

Jordan Spieth, last week’s runner-up at the Masters, perhaps saw his RBC Heritage chances flash before his eyes before the tournament began. Playing the 18th hole during Wednesday’s pro-am, the 20-year-old Texan was standing off to the side in the fairway when one of his amateur playing partners shanked a shot, hitting Spieth in the back of his knee.

Asked if it was a minor injury, Spieth cracked: “I don’t know. I was looking for the Advil afterward.”
 
 

‘Spring Break’: PGA Tour departs Masters, heads for ‘decompression’ at RBC Heritage

Posted 4/14/2014 3:12:00 PM

Late Sunday, after the 78th Masters had anointed its latest member of the Green Jacket Club, nearly 40 percent of the field at Augusta National was en route to the perfect remedy for stressed-out PGA Tour players: a weekend at Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the RBC Heritage.

Since 1969, when “The King,” Arnold Palmer, kicked off a run of great champions at Harbour Town, the RBC Heritage has been a family-friendly getaway for professional golfers. During most of its history, the tournament’s dates have followed the Masters – the perfect counterpoint to each year’s first major championship.

Leading the pack on its 3-hour journey from Augusta to Hilton Head was defending RBC Heritage champion Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner, who a year ago outlasted 2012 U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson in sudden death to claim the Heritage’s trademark plaid blazer. As are many of his compatriots, the Northern Ireland native (who now lives in Orlando) couldn’t wait to kick back at the scene of the highlight of his 2013 campaign.

But as much as a return to a course that he says he long believed fit his game and offered a chance at victory, McDowell anticipated a chance to bring the family and enjoy both a challenging Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus design and the pleasures awaiting them away from the competition. A year ago, a beachfront rental, runs along the beach and dinners in quiet, non-invasive local spots were the perfect backdrop for his winning performance, he says.

“Harbour Town ranks as one of the best (Tour stops) in cuisine, entertainment – it’s just a great environment for families,” he said recently. “The general hospitality, the food, all those are factors that enter into ranking (the tournament) highly.

“I just love the vibe of the tournament. It’s the week after a major where you go from the sort of massive cauldron of pressure … I really enjoy that unique kind of contrast in the atmosphere coming from Augusta to the beauty and relaxed environment of Hilton Head.”

It’s Hilton Head’s “relaxed environment,” in fact, that has lured a who’s-who of past champions over its four-decades-plus run, starting with Palmer and including Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart and Davis Love III, and more recently luring such stars as Ernie Els, Luke Donald and Jason Day, not to mention 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzl and Open winners Simpson and McDowell.

This year’s RBC Heritage, in fact, will offer some of the best of both the present and the past, with some glances to the future. Two players with a combined five Masters victories (not to mention three Heritage titles) between them – Tom Watson and Sir Nick Faldo – will make rare PGA Tour appearances this week.

Talk about past and continuing star power: Watson, who captured the Heritage in 1979 and 1982, owns a pair of Masters among his eight majors titles, and nearly won his sixth Open Championship at age 59, is still deeply involved with the current game in his role as this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

Faldo, who won at Harbour Town in 1984 and captured the Masters in 1989-90 and 1996, will split time between the golf course and the CBS-TV booth, where he will join Jim Nantz in the network’s weekend coverage of the RBC Heritage. Faldo also is a past European Ryder Cup captain.

The tournament won’t lack for current wattage, either, with McDowell, Simpson and Schwartzl joined by other majors’ winners Vijay Singh, Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk. As for the superstars to come, the RBC Heritage can offer Day, Greenville native Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker and the hottest young players in Patrick Reed, Scott Brown and Jordan Speith, the 20-year-old wunderkind at this past weekend’s Masters.

It all adds up to a special week of golf – and fun – at Sea Pines Resort, home of Harbour Town. It’s the perfect way to follow up the excitement and tension of the Masters, with great players, a golf course rated just behind Augusta National by PGA Tour players in a 2013 poll, and an island resort second to none. For ticket information, visit www.rbcheritage.com, or call (843) 671-2448.