Golf

Bob Gillespie

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

RBC Heritage: For S.C.’s PGA Tour landmark, the future is now

Posted 4/5/2012 10:13:00 AM

For the 2012 RBC Heritage, the drama is over. Now, the mindset of tournament officials, sponsors, PGA Tour players and fans is: Let the fun begin.

With about a week to go before the world’s finest golfers descend on Hilton Head Island for South Carolina’s annual professional sports “spring break,” April 9-15, everyone from new sponsors Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing to tournament director Steve Wilmot and even tournament mascot Sir William “Sir Willie” Innes is gearing up to welcome the fans and especially the players, who look forward to time on the beaches and wandering the shops and other attractions of Sea Pines Resort almost as much as they anticipate playing one of their favorite courses.

Sir Willie, dressed as the Revolutionary-era figure that always has represented the Heritage, said it best during the tournament’s media day in late February.

“We’ve got a lot of celebrating to do,” he boomed in his best Scottish accent. “We have a tournament!”

A year after the grim prospect of the tournament perhaps ending, Wilmot – the tournament’s “godfather” for nearly a quarter-century – was all smiles that day as he welcomed newspaper, TV, radio and Internet representatives.

“There’s such a sense of pride of ownership – not just for me, but everyone here,” Wilmot said. “The efforts of everyone” – in particular he mentioned Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and the Heritage Classic Foundation – “all came together. And here we are.”

Ever since Haley and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced the Heritage will continue, it’s been all smiles for everyone. RBC vice president Jim Little, like Wilmot wearing the tournament’s traditional red-plaid jacket, shared the mood.

“(The tournament) needed someone to step in and take it to the next level, and we’re thrilled to do that,” he said. “It’s a great platform for our brand and our business. This is a great partnership we’ll cherish.”

Boeing South Carolina vice president and general manager Jack Jones echoed Little’s sentiments. “Once we did understand the importance of the tournament to the community and the state, and the fact we’re new here – what a great way (to be involved with South Carolina),” he said.

With RBC and Boeing signed on for at least five years, the good news keeps on coming for the tournament, set for its 44th straight year. The players’ love of old-school Harbour Town was demonstrated in a recent GolfWorld poll, when they named Pete Dye’s 1969 design as their second-favorite course on the Tour schedule, behind only storied Augusta National.

That’s fitting, since the RBC Heritage this year returns to its usual week-after-the-Masters dates. Once again, players will make the short drive from Augusta to the S.C. coast, where the pressures of the year’s first major will melt away in the laid-back lowcountry lifestyle for which Hilton Head is famous.

Ask Brandt Snedeker, this year’s Farmers Insurance Open winner and RBC Heritage defending champion. Snedeker, wife Mandy and their young daughter “always try to get a place near the beach,” he says. “We want to be on the beach relaxing, (or) walking around the Quarterdeck (the iconic bar/restaurant overlooking Harbour Town’s yacht slips), watching the boats (and) hanging out down there.

“Being on an island … we live in Nashville, so it’s relaxing to come here, ride bikes, whatever we want to do in the outdoors. We have a lot of fun, especially being the week after the Masters. This is a great place to come to relax.”

Snedeker admits he worried last year even as he was slipping on the plaid jacket that goes to each Heritage champion if there’d be a tournament to defend. “It was a scary feeling that (the Tour) might leave a place like this,” he said. “I know how special this is to the players, and how much we love being here.”

Now Snedeker and his fellow Tour players can enjoy another fun-filled week, starting Monday, when tournament week officially begins with a parade starting at the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town and winding its way to the course’s 18th hole. There, Snedeker will use a classic hickory golf club to drive the tournament’s first shot into Calibogue Sound, accompanied by a cannon’s blast echoing across the water.

The rest of the week will be full, starting with Tuesday’s Coca-Cola Youth Day, which features a putting contest on Harbour Town’s putting green, followed by a “draw party” for Wednesday’s RBC Heritage Pro-Am. The week’s second pro-am each year draws a long list of celebrities, among them South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier. Awards receptions will follow both morning and afternoon waves of teams, held at Harbour Town’s Conference Center.

During the week, while 120 or so players are competing on the cozy, 7,100-yard Harbour Town course, fans will have plenty to do besides watch the golf. A Palmetto State Reception, hosted by Haley, will take place Friday at 7 p.m., and on Saturday from noon-2 p.m., the tournament’s Expo Village will host judging of Tartan Day.

Sunday’s 7:30 a.m. church service held at the 18th green beneath the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse kicks off the final day. Late Sunday afternoon, players making their way up the No. 18 fairway are cheered by partying spectators at the tent village between the 17th green and 18th tee, and from condominiums running the length of the fairway’s right side. After the final putt, the tournament winner gets saluted by tooting horns from boats anchored in Calibogue Sound. It’s a finish unlike any other in professional golf.

After the new champion dons his plaid jacket on the 18th green and hoists the RBC Heritage trophy, thousands of weary but happy fans will head back to their normal lives, knowing they’ve seen a Sunday spectacle that’s the best the PGA Tour, Harbour Town, Hilton Head and South Carolina can offer.

And they’ll start waiting for next year – when the fun begins all over again.