After 49 golf tournaments, Bruce Tuttle reflects on what makes Hilton Head’s iconic PGA tour event so special
This year will be the 51st edition of what began as the Heritage Golf Classic in 1969 at the famed Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. I will date myself in noting that it will be the 49th tournament that I have attended, which includes that inaugural event won by Arnold Palmer.
It just so happened that my grandmother purchased a home in Sea Pines in March of 1968. Our family came down for our first vacation in June of 1968, and we were there for the first tournament the following year. The Heritage name came about through research done by Charles Fraser, the original developer of Sea Pines Plantation and the primary motivation in bringing a PGA tour event to the island.
His research found that golf was first introduced to a very young United States in Charleston, SC by Scottish immigrants. The very first organization for golfers was founded there in 1786, the South Carolina Golf Club. The members would gather in an area known as Harlston Green for competition, but membership was more about being social and imbibing at the nearby clubhouse.
That time with Lee Trevino and Charlie Sifford …
What makes The Heritage golf tournament unique is that the Harbour Town Golf Links was not built solely as a resort community golf course. It was meant to host a professional PGA Tour event. The golf course was almost not completed in time for the inaugural tournament during the Thanksgiving weekend in 1969. Rumor has it, Pete Dye himself was still out laying sod on the course as early professional arrivals were playing their practice rounds.
There were very few attendees for that first Heritage golf tournament — mostly just island residents with visiting family and friends. Harbour Town and the Yacht Basin were still under construction, including the now iconic red-and-white striped lighthouse.
The golf course itself was carved out of the wilderness, sometimes with nothing more than a single file pathway to walk from a green to the next tee. During a practice round, I remember bumping into a tree branch walking down a narrow path from the 7th green to the 8th tee. Immediately, there is laughter behind me and I hear a voice say, “That boy needs glasses.” (At the time, I did, indeed, wear glasses) When I turned around, I saw Lee Trevino and his playing partner Charlie Sifford. Trevino, again laughing, says, “He has glasses. I guess he needs blinders.”
Timing is everything
Over time, The Heritage has had a few schedule changes. During the first few years, the tournament fell over Thanksgiving weekend. Then, it moved to late March on the week before the Masters in Augusta, GA. Finally, in the mid ‘80s, the venue moved to the week after the Masters where it is held to this day.
During the ‘70s, while attending Michigan State University, my spring break always fell on the week of the Heritage. While all my other fraternity brothers beat a path to Fort Lauderdale, where 6 to 7 of them crammed into a motel room and they paid out-of-pocket for every expense, I headed for Grannie’s house on the island — free room and board in an oceanfront home with tickets to the Heritage. A college education helps in making decisions like this!
A memorable experience during one of my spring break visits occurred at the 1974 Heritage tournament. At the time, there was a national trend called “streaking.” And, of course, on Sunday during the final round of the tournament and on national TV, there were streakers. They jumped out of the crowd on the 18th hole, ran down the fairway and through the crowd by the 18th green, jumped into the Harbour Town yacht basin, swam across to the docks on the opposite side, and jumped into a waiting getaway vehicle. It was not until much later, after moving down to the island, that I found out one of the streakers was my best friend’s older brother.
Where the locals go
After experiencing more than four decades of Heritage golf tournaments, I think it’s safe to say I have a good lay of the land. No matter where I am on the course, I know the quickest and easiest ways of getting from point A to point B. As we all know, the Heritage is the social event of the year on Hilton Head Island. There are places to “see” and “be seen.” First, you need to know your way around the course. For example, Plantation Drive is a premium “thoroughfare” on the course during Heritage week. The road cuts through many of the primary holes of the Harbour Town Golf Links. Starting from one end off of Lighthouse Road and heading westerly, you will pass by #1 green and #2 tee, then on to #8 green and #9 tee. Going further, you reach #10 green and #11 tee, then finally you reach #15 green and #16 tee. From any of these locations you can reach all corners of the golf course.
Now that you know how to get around the course, do you know where to go for the adult beverages? This is where local knowledge comes in handy. Some holes have beverage outlets, and some don’t. There is one thing any local will attest to: all roads lead to “The Triangle,” the area between the 17th hole and the 18th tee that literally forms a triangle. During tournament week, this area fills up wall-to-wall with corporate boxes in addition to food and beverage outlets.
As we like to say down here, someone decided to throw a great big cocktail party, and suddenly a golf tournament broke out.
‘The Greatest Show On Earth’
The growth of The Heritage Golf tournament has been remarkable. It has grown from a few thousand spectators standing behind the ropes with a few manual scoreboards to the incredible corporate venue it is today. More than 130,000 people attended the 2018 RBC Heritage, keeping up with the tournament leaders on electronic scoreboards, as well as multi-level spectator stands and corporate skyboxes that dot the landscape.
Workers are spread out throughout Harbour Town Golf Links’ course over a month in advance to begin the construction of grand stands, corporate tents and hospitality venues. When I see the trucks roll into town and the crews begin to construct the event, I can’t help but think of the classic 1950s film, “The Greatest Show On Earth” about the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. There is so much work involved to assemble this temporary entertainment venue for a one-week extravaganza. When it’s over, they take it all down and move on to the next town. The only thing missing are the elephants!
Without a doubt, though, the greatest beneficiaries of this event are the local organizations and charities. In 2018, more than $3.3 million was distributed to charitable organizations, the arts, medical institutions, and college scholarships. Since 1987, when the Heritage Classic Foundation was created, more than $41 million has been donated to those in need in the Lowcountry. Each year, the RBC Heritage pumps more than $96 million into the South Carolina economy.
For me, this truly is “The Greatest Show On Earth.”