Bob Gillespie



USA Today perfecta: Myrtle Beach, Kiawah top readers’ vote for top golf trips

Posted 4/23/2014 3:54:00 PM

When it comes to a national audience, few publications these days exceed the coast-to-coast reach of USA Today. So when its readers were asked to pick their favorite golf destinations in the world, it speaks volumes that a pair of South Carolina locations ranked 1-2 in the newspaper’s month-long voting.

Myrtle Beach, aka “America’s Golf Getaway,” led the balloting for USA Today’s “Readers Choice 10 Best,” and Kiawah Island followed close behind, while North Carolina’s Pinehurst area was No. 3. USA Today called that a “Carolina trifecta,” but let’s just call it the “South Carolina perfecta” – a perfect pair, very different but both rating high among tourists and golfers.

The Grand Strand, home to about 100 golf courses plus the nearby Atlantic Ocean and countless restaurant, accommodation and entertainment options, paired with Kiawah – site of the famed Ocean Course and four other Kiawah Island Resort courses, plus numerous nearby courses – to lead the Southern U.S.-dominated poll. After Pinehurst, host to this year’s U.S. men’s and women’s Open Championships, come Sea Island, Ga., and Naples, Fla.

Rounding out the Top 10 are Bandon, Ore. (home to Bandon Dunes and several other top courses); Maui, Hawaii; Pebble Beach, Calif., Scotland, the home of golf; and Scottsdale, Ariz.

“South Carolina has a winner on its hands in (the) 10Best and USA Today’s Readers’ Choice contest for Best Golf Destination,” USA Today said. “Because the nominees were carefully selected by an Expert Panel and then voted into winner spots by the public, this is a win with real meaning.”

It’s hard to argue with that last statement. Though, in fact, it sounds like the state has TWO winners on its hands. USA Today’s print and digital editions will profile the poll and each destination on Friday, April 25.

After 2014: The state of the RBC Heritage; Kuchar wows and beyond

Posted 4/20/2014 9:26:00 PM

In his 28 years with the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, tournament director Steve Wilmot has banked countless fond memories from South Carolina’s only annual PGA Tour event. He added another this week during a pre-tournament party held at the Inn at Harbour Town for guests of sponsors Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing.

“(Defending champion) Graeme McDowell and (Golf Channel host) Rich Lerner were talking about the Ryder Cup, the Europeans and their (recent) dominance,” Wilmot said. “All of a sudden, everyone heard ‘Boo!’ coming from the balcony – it was Tom Watson.”

Watson, captain of this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, and McDowell, a European team regular, then engaged in a vigorous but good-natured debate over the likely outcome of this year’s matches in Gleneagles, Scotland. The reactions of the attendees to the performance by the 2010 U.S. Open champion (McDowell) and Watson, a Hall of Famer?

“The RBC folks called it ‘awesome,’” Wilmot said, laughing.

In its third year under the sponsorship of RBC and Boeing, the RBC Heritage appears healthy, prosperous and assured of a long, steady future and more memories to come. That was hardly the case four years ago, when the PGA Tour event – begun in 1969 and celebrating its 46th year – seemed to be on life support.

The history is well-known: sponsor Verizon ended its affiliation with the tournament after 2010, forcing the Heritage Foundation to dip into reserve funds (with assistance from the community and others) to stage the 2011 event. Those “bad old days” sometimes seem long ago, but Wilmot takes nothing for granted after that two-year scare.

The RBC/Boeing contract runs through 2016, but “we can’t wait until the end to figure out” what happens after that, he said. This week, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was at Harbour Town Golf Links to talk with officials from both companies.

“We need to get working on the future,” Wilmot said. “RBC has been a great partner, and their (PGA Tour) Ambassadors – who aren’t obligated to be here – have been great to have here.” Those include past Heritage champions McDowell and Brandt Snedeker, Ernie Els, Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald most prominently.

As with any contract renegotiations, there are uncertainties. Gordon M. “Gord” Nixon, president and CEO of RBC, has been a major golf supporter (through the RBC Canadian Open and the Heritage), but will retire soon. “We hope before then, he’ll do something for the future,” Wilmot said. Boeing, meanwhile, appears positioned to step up should RBC diminish or end its role.

In the past 12 months, Sea Pines Resort and Hilton Head in general have upped their games, too. Some $100 million in improvements to the resort have been made (a new Plantation Clubhouse, a dredging of the Harbour Town marina) or will be. By next year’s tournament, a new Harbour Town clubhouse will have replaced the current building, set to be razed starting this week, and Sea Pines’ new Beach Club should be completed this summer.

Add major renovations to the nearby Westin and Sonesta hotels as well as upgrades at the Omni, and Hilton Head is putting its money where its future – and the Heritage’s – can be. “Some (tournament) sponsors sometimes want something new after 12 or 13 years in the same place,” Wilmot said.

“Now, this is not the same venue that it has been.”

Other, less dramatic changes were in evidence this week. When heavy rains left Sea Pines’ temporary parking lots flooded, officials moved parking outside the resort to paved locales and transported fans to the golf course by bus. “The Friday weather was a blessing in disguise,” Wilmot said. “We were going to do something next year anyway.” Reaction from fans was enthusiastic.

What likely won’t change, Wilmot said, are the RBC Heritage’s tradition week-after-the-Masters dates. While not set in stone, that week is set for 2015. In 2011, the tournament was forced to move a week later.

“(That week) works for us. It really works,” Wilmot said. While some players skip the week following a major, others enjoy the tension-reduced atmosphere of Hilton Head, treating the Heritage like a working vacation. “We had 80-90 players’ kids in our daycare,” he said.

Some things might change by 2016, but Wilmot is confident the RBC Heritage has a solid future. Having seen the other side four years ago, he has no complaints.

Kuchar comes back

Matt Kuchar started the RBC Heritage just the way he would've wanted on Thursday. He ended the week even better, holing a bunker shot on the difficult par-4 18th hole beneath Harbour Town Golf Links' iconic lighthouse.

Kuchar, who shot an opening 66 -- his best round to date in the RBC Heritage -- outdid himself again on Sunday with a closing 64, 7-under par and good for a one-shot victory over third-round leader Luke Donald. At one point Sunday, Kuchar trailed Donald by four shots but charged down the stretch.

His winning shot was a hole-out from the bunker in front of the 18th green, a dramatic finish in a week full of them. "I heard the crowd (around the green) go crazy," Kuchar said. "Then I went crazy."

The victory ended a string of close-but-no-cigar Sundays for Kuchar, including a late slump a week earlier at the Masters. Kuchar, one of RBC's "Ambassadors" (players sponsored by Royal Bank of Canada), said he couldn't imagine a better place to end that streak.

"You have a couple of days to unwind after a major, and then Thursday starts and then you've got a chance to play another PGA Tour event," he said Thursday. "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."

Local favorites lead off, take off

Two local favorites, popular Bishopville native Tommy Gainey and Beaufort product Mark Anderson, had the dubious pleasure of leading off Sunday’s final round, the result of having the worst two 54-hole scores. Neither was interested in dragging out things: both finished quickly and left Harbour Town before reporters could find them.

It wasn’t all bad news for the duo. Anderson shot a closing 70 to finish 6-over par 290, while Gainey (who finished third at the 2011 Heritage) fired a 3-under 68 – his best score this week by four shots – and finished at 289.

Another South Carolina product, former Columbia resident Jonathan Byrd, also had his best round of the week (67) to finish even-par 284. William McGirt of Boiling Springs, the first-round leader, matched his Thursday score with a closing 66 to conclude at 5-under 279.

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 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.