April is here! The island is abuzz with spring flowers in full majestic bloom dancing in the coastal breezes off the ocean.
A unified “Get Your Plaid On” intensifies as the island prepares for the next week’s 47th RBC Heritage. Even the local non-golf enthusiast gets caught up in the flurry of activity and hype that sweeps through the Lowcountry.
The tournament began back in 1969 when the tourism concept of Hilton Head was little more than a flicker of Charles Fraser’s (developer of Sea Pines) imagination. The inaugural tournament was won by golf legend Arnold Palmer. He still holds the tournament record for the highest finishing score by a winner of 283. Hmm… now is that a good thing?! The lowest score after 72 was set by Brian Gay, the winner in 2009 with a finish of 264. Davis Love III holds the record of most wins with 5 wins spanning from 1987 to his last PGA Heritage win in 2003.
A lot of change has come to both the RBC Heritage and needless to say, to the island as well. Charles Fraser knew the Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus designed Harbour Town Golf Links held great promise to lure tourists and publicity to this island enclave draped in lush oaks, pines and palmettos. And he was right!
The early years of its conception were not boasted about by the PGA professionals in circuit. During the first couple of years the Heritage was scheduled during one of the least desirable PGA spots in the calendar. And during late fall season – cold weather golf! Crowds were understandably sparse. Charles Fraser required all of his employees to attend and at the relatively few holes where there was TV coverage to make things appear successful to the viewer. Always the marketer! The last two days of the 1970 tournament were brutally cold for our island. Despite being in the 30’s, employees were asked to wear short-sleeve golf shirts on those 2 television broadcast days. Must present the persona of a warm island paradise! The entire Sea Pines Company was sick for a week recovering from two days braving the temperatures – all to provide the appearance of an alluring subtropic golf tournament paradise!
In 1973, the tournament dates shifted to mid-September. From 1974 – 1982 the tournament was moved to a more opportune season, being the second week in March, and two weeks prior to the Masters in Augusta, GA. 1983 – through current day, the tournament has been held the second week in April, one week after the Masters.
National television tunes in via the Golf Channel with the final two days of competition still being televised by CBS Sports with sweeping aerials of Harbour Town Marina, the lush green island foliage and miles of sandy beach – all proclaiming the surreal beauty of our island to the nation and the world. As a native local, it was always something my parents and I enjoyed tuning in to. There’s a pride that would stir seeing my local haunts broadcast on national television.
Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County have opted to let the public school children out for Spring Break during the Heritage as far back as my days as a girl with buck-teeth, pigtails and constant skinned elbows and knees go. Even the private schools like the one I attended followed suit. Schools adjusted the spring break schedule with the tournament shift from March to April.
In the early days living in Sea Pines Plantation, my father, brother and I rode our bicycles to the 9th hole back behind the Harbour Town Links Clubhouse. We favored the tiny green at the 17th hole. It has a pond that wraps halfway around the entire hole, a full beach amount of sand hazards, the marsh beyond with its distinct salt marsh scent wafting over the green and breezes that ran the full gamut of heaven or hell for a golfer! Other years, I looked forward to donning the red Heritage t-shirt provided to volunteers and helping corral traffic in the grass make-shift parking lots inside the Sea Pines front gate. By the end of the day my face and arms had sunburn to rival the red of my shirt!
The tournament has grown immensely over the years! It’s gone through different sponsors – MCI, Worldcom, Verizon and as its current sponsor through 2016, the Royal Bank of Canada [RBC] and Boeing. The purse size alone has grown from $100,000 in 1969 to $5.9 million in 2015 with this year’s winner walking away with $1,062,000! The RBC Heritage generates more than $96 million annually for the economy of South Carolina. 1,200 volunteers work the tournament and over 100,000 spectators attend.
The Heritage Classic Foundation guides the tournament direction and since 1987 it has distributed more than $28 million to a wide variety of charitable organizations! The Foundation has some creative and fun ways to get the community and RBC Heritage enthusiasts to participate in giving charitable dollars to the hundreds of charities it partners with. Personally I enjoy the “Birdies for Charity”. You can check out more about the Heritage Classic Foundation and how you can and will be helping support hundreds of non-profits in South Carolina by supporting the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.
Monday April 13 the Opening Ceremonies commence with the Citadel Pipe and Drum band clad in tartan skirts and the defending champion (Matt Kuchar) driving a ball across the Calibogue Cay in unison with a cannon shot. This firing of a cannon tradition dates back to golf’s conceptual roots in Scotland. Fraser disputed historians’ beliefs that golf dated to New York (from Scotland) first in 1886. He hired a top golf writer Charles Price and famed golf historian Dr. George C. Rogers Jr. to delve into South Carolina’s ties to golf’s birth in the United States. Outside of Charleston, exactly 75 miles from Hilton Head Island (per Fraser’s meticulous measurement), sat the original Harleston Green and clubhouse built in 1786. It was indeed the first in America and was planted by Scottish and English immigrants.
The RBC Heritage Pro-Am takes place Tuesday-Wednesday with the first round of the PGA tournament beginning early Thursday, finishing Sunday early evening. The Golf Channel broadcasts the first two days of the tournament, CBS the last two. I’ve never been a fan of golf but there was a lure that drew me to the tournament and still does. It’s part of me. It’s part of my Scottish heritage. It’s part of my island! I am a proud part of #PlaidNation.