RBC Heritage celebrates its 50th staging and on the Harbour Town Layout that launched the storied design career of Jack Nicklaus
Compiled by staffs of the RBC Heritage and Nicklaus Companies
It’s no secret that Hilton Head Island will celebrate a monumental milestone this week. After all, turning 50 doesn’t exactly sneak up on you. When the RBC Heritage tees off today, this iconic golf tournament will officially celebrate its 50th playing on the Harbour Town Golf Links course that ignited the design career of Jack Nicklaus.
Today, Hilton Head Island golf courses are known around the world for challenging play and outstanding resort amenities. But in 1969, Hilton Head Island was just a little-known Lowcountry treasure. When Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser announced a PGA TOUR-level tournament to be held at the newly created Harbour Town Golf Links over Thanksgiving weekend, people had their doubts. An unfamiliar course on a little-known island on a holiday weekend? There was no guarantee that the big names in golf would be there for the first Heritage Classic.
Even Nicklaus, who collaborated with Pete Dye on the acclaimed layout, was caught off-guard by Fraser’s announcement.
“We were halfway through the project when Fraser came to us and said he had convinced the PGA TOUR that his new course was worthy of a tournament—at Thanksgiving,” Nicklaus recalled. “Pete and I really had to hustle to get Harbour Town Golf Links ready and it turned out to be a great golf course and a very successful tournament.”
When both Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer committed to play in 1969, people began to realize that the Heritage Classic was going to be something special. Palmer went on to win the inaugural event, his first victory in 14 months, drawing even more press coverage than expected. Commentators and journalists praised the new links course and soon everyone knew that Hilton Head Island was the new resort destination.
It also launched one of the game’s most acclaimed design careers, as Nicklaus now has topped 300 golf courses worldwide, and the firm he founded, Nicklaus Design, has a total of over 415 courses in 45 countries and 39 states.
“I’ll always be grateful to Charles Fraser because he was among the motivations that helped launch my golf course design career,” Nicklaus said. “Charles called (IMG Founder) Mark McCormack in 1968 and said he wanted a name to design a championship golf course for him, and Mark suggested me. I told Charles I was very interested and would love to do his golf course, but I didn’t feel at this time in my career that I had the ability to do it properly. But I told him I knew of someone I had been working with, Pete Dye, and that he would be very helpful. Charles had not heard of Pete at that time, but was willing to bring him in.
“Charles did and Pete and I had the opportunity to collaborate—the first of four projects we worked on together early in my design career. I made 23 visits into the project, so I tried to be as involved as my playing career would allow me. I think Charles paid us a $40,000 design fee, and I believe every penny of it went back into the golf course. But that was ok, because the experience I gained there was invaluable.”
The RBC Heritage, now held the week after the Masters, is one of only five PGA TOUR events to achieve the 50-year milestone and is the only PGA TOUR event in South Carolina. The original purse of $100,000 ($770,000 in today’s dollars) has jumped to $6.7 million. The fan base has grown, too, thanks in part to extensive TV coverage by both CBS and The Golf Channel. Today, the RBC Heritage packs a major economic punch, generating $96 million each year while contributing $38 million to local charities. With more than 150,000 spectators expected to converge on Hilton Head Island for the 2018 RBC Heritage, this year’s event will surely make its mark on history.
The list of past winners is a veritable who’s who of golf’s greatest players—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Davis Love III and Payne Stewart are just a few of the names inscribed upon the champions’ trophy.
“I had the good fortune to come back many times and play the Heritage tournament, including 1975—that was after the play dates had moved to the spring of the year—when I won it,” Nicklaus said. “I was certainly pleased I was able to win that tournament—on a golf course I had helped design. It’s still a great course today and I’m proud to have been a part of Charles’ vision.”
Beyond the talented golfers who commit to the tournament each year, the love of the game reverberates throughout Hilton Head Island every April.
“The community truly embraces this event,” said Simon Fraser of Hilton Head, nephew of Sea Pines Founder Charles Fraser. “Here on Hilton Head, everybody knows this is the biggest event of the year.”
Sea Pines, in particular, was developed as an environmentally responsible community on more than 5,000 acres at the island’s south end by Charles Fraser. In fact, Charles and his brother Joseph Fraser, Jr., former vice president at the family-owned Sea Pines Plantation Company, were instrumental creating modern-day Hilton Head Island. The pair worked hard to balance the community’s natural beauty, a perfect convergence of forest and ocean, with strategic growth and smart development.
The Frasers’ foresight and vision proved invaluable. Today, this lush island, and the Southern hospitality extended to PGA TOUR players and their families, is a major draw. While the tournament itself is, of course, the primary reason they’re here, it’s the destination itself, the warm welcome they receive and the high level of excitement generated by spectators that have them coming back year after year.
“These players are traveling most of the year, with many weeks spent in hotel rooms in big cities,” said RBC Heritage Tournament Director Steve Wilmot. “They come from the pressure of the Masters to the relaxation of Hilton Head Island, with great weather, beautiful beaches, water sports, biking and fantastic restaurants. Above all of that, it’s the sense of community on Hilton Head that is so unique and special on the PGA TOUR.”
Wilmot is proud of the tournament’s history and remains optimistic about its future.
“I hope Hilton Head Island is still blessed to host the event in 50 years,” he said. “We are fortunate to hold a PGA TOUR golf tournament in such a small community. We need to continue to work hard and make sure the tournament evolves and grows in order to attract new fans and business partners.”
The RBC Heritage’s outstanding record of success can be attributed to a range of reasons, but Wilmot believes it’s mostly because tournament organizers are committed to doing things better each year. And that keep the fans returning to Sea Pines, year after year.
“Once you come to the tournament, you want to come back,” Wilmot explained. “It’s more than just a golf tournament—it’s a time to catch up with friends and family and have fun while enjoying the other activities happening on the course and in Harbour Town. There is truly something for everyone to enjoy, even if you’re not a golfer.”
ABOUT THE HERITAGE:
What: RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing
When: April 9-15
Course: Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head Island; Par 71, 7,099 yards. Designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye, opened in 1969.
TV coverage: Golf Channel – 3-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. CBS – 3-6 p.m. April Saturday and Sunday.
Purse: $6.7 million
Defending champion: Wesley Bryan
More Info: Call 843.671.2448 or visit www.rbcheritage.com