Bob Gillespie



Heritage Thursday: Powerful field chases RBC Heritage title

Posted 4/18/2013 12:34:00 PM

Ever since the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing first established its place on the annual PGA Tour schedule as the week after the Masters, Harbour Town Golf Links has become a favorite stop for players looking to decompress from the pressures of competing for a green jacket at Augusta National.

Rarely does a Masters champion make the roughly 2 ½-hour drive to play at Hilton Head the next week. Zach Johnson was the last to do so, in 2007 (he finished a solid sixth at Harbour Town that year), and only Bernhard Langer in 1985 pulled off back-to-back wins. Perhaps the most famous week-after RBC Heritage appearance was by Greg Norman after his Sunday meltdown in 1996, a visit that included a run-in between Norman’s caddie and an abusive (drunk?) fan.

Others in each year’s Masters field, though, look forward to the soft ocean breezes, warm temperatures, resort surroundings – and a testing Harbour Town layout – as a sort of anti-Masters. Historically, that has led to some strong Heritage fields and Hall of Fame winners (see: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart, five-time champ Davis Love III, etc.).

But that’s not the only lure, nor the only reason the 2013 RBC Heritage features one of its most potent fields of contenders in years. Fourteen of the top 30-ranked players in the world teed off Thursday morning, including No. 5 Brandt Snedeker, No. 6 Luke Donald and No. 9 Matt Kuchar. In 2013, that ranks third of 14 tournaments, not counting two World Golf Championship events or the Masters.

Just ask Snedeker, the 2011 RBC Heritage winner and third-round co-leader at Augusta a week ago, why he’s back at Harbour Town, and happy about it.

“There’s two really big reasons (players love to come to Hilton Head),” he said. “One, this is a great relaxing week after the Masters. It’s a great week to come down and bring your family, especially (after) a week when you’re so high-strung. It’s a great week to have a good time on the island.

“And the golf course is fantastic. Guys love it. It’s a golf course we don’t see very often on Tour. It’s not a long course (but) you have to place your ball off the tee, and you have to think your way around this golf course. And I think guys are seeing that, enjoying that on Tour.

“I think … you’re going to have a world-class leader board on Sunday. That’s the way it’s going to be. Those (top-30) guys seem to find a way to work their way to the top of the leader board. All those guys in the top 30 are going to have a chance on Sunday.”

Another factor in drawing top players is the Royal Bank of Canada connection. Snedeker, Kuchar, Donald and Ernie Els, among others, are members of Team RBC, which makes them more inclined to play this week. For Els, who also is sponsored by Boeing, it’s a win-win.

“A lot of these (RBC) guys have come down here for years,” said Els, the world’s No. 24 player, who first played in the RBC Heritage in 1994. “It’s a tournament that just makes all the sense in the world to come and play.

“You’ve put so much work into Augusta, and whether you’ve had a good week up there or not, coming here is just a wonderful feeling. You just kind of feel the relief; the pressure leaves you a little bit. It’s just a great environment after the Masters. I wish we had more of these events after majors.”

Jason Day, who like Snedeker had a disappointing finish to a promising Masters, is playing his fourth RBC Heritage. “It’s fun to be here with the family, and my coach, my caddie, he actually lives here off the island in Bluffton,” the 25-year-old Australian (No. 25 in the world) said. “It’s kind of a like a home game for him, as well.”

Day says he was first enticed to play Harbour Town after seeing fellow Aussies Peter Lonard and Aaron Baddeley win there. “I had to check it out, because if those guys were playing well here, and I played on similar golf courses to those guys, it must suit me.”

Then Day laughed. “When I got here, unfortunately, it didn’t suit me,” he said. “I had to re-do the course strategy and I’m working the kinks out now.

“This is the kind of course you need to play three or four times to understand how to play it, where to hit it. … It’s an old-school course. It makes you think, and you have to be patient around it.”

And, more and more, the world’s best players are deciding: You have to play it.