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A Spring Ritual—The Heritage Golf Tournament

Spring on Hilton Head Island means three things: beach-goers, out-of-state license plates, and the annual ritual of the Heritage Golf Tournament at Harbour Town. But there was a time in our not-so-distant past when very few beach lovers or golfers (or anyone, for that matter) headed to the Island during this time of year.

Back in the late 50s, Sea Pines Plantation designer Charles Fraser set about to change all that.

In 1957 the 28-year old Fraser bought his father’s interest in The Hilton Head Company on the southern end of the island and began developing of Sea Pines Plantation. By 1960 he built the first golf course on Hilton Head, appropriately named The Ocean Course. Next came Harbour Town, with its iconic red-and-white striped lighthouse and circular marina, and in 1968 Fraser broke ground on the Harbour Town Golf Links, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye. 

But there was something missing after the links opened. Golfers

In a stroke of genius, Fraser planned a golf tournament on the new links, and gave the name a wry twist by dubbing it the “Heritage Classic,” with dates for play set over Thanksgiving weekend, 1969. Back in those days, though, Hilton Head Island was mostly unknown to anyone outside of the Lowcountry, and the looming question on every locals lips was: “Will they come?” And more importantly, would the world’s top players want to be challenged by a new course in an unfamiliar neck of the woods?

The answer was a resounding yes.

Arnold Palmer and the course’s two designers, Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye, were among the first pros to commit to the tournament. Many more joined them.

Palmer went on to win that first tournament, which he desperately needed since he hadn’t been at the top of his game for more than a year. Local coverage of the event and national press coverage went crazy for his victory, and newspapers laid down tons of ink praising Dye’s new course. Hilton Head Island was no longer just a dot on the southern tip of South Carolina…it was the hot new golf destination sensation.

Since the Heritage’s humble beginnings, the tournament has seen many changes. It was wisely moved from Thanksgiving weekend to the week after the Masters in April. The purse has skyrocketed from the original $100,000 to $5.8 million in 2014. Attendance has also exploded, with more than 100,000 fans attending each year. And with CBS and The Golf Channel streaming more than 15 hours of live coverage to the U.S., Europe, South America and the Far East, this exposure translates into tourism dollars that pump up the local economy to the tune of $80 million every year.

Now in it’s 46th year, the Heritage Golf Tournament takes place at the Harbour Town Golf Links from April 14-20, 2014. If you’re coming to Hilton Head Island then, start making plans to attend and  “Get Your Plaid On” as we like to say.

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