RBC Heritage opens vault to secret of success

June 16, 2011 

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When the first Heritage golf tournament was announced as "a Thanksgiving family festival" in 1969, there was an asterisk.

It came after the claim that the PGA Tour event would be played on the Harbour Town Golf Links designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus on the southern tip of Hilton Head Island.

At the bottom of the page was this: "

  • If the course is ready."

    The course was ready, as it turned out. But volunteers were tamping down sod by headlights the night before the first round. Pete Dye was raking a sand trap right up until the first pairing interrupted him, and a couple of lonely fans stage-whispered that the Heritage had seen its first drunk.

    Thus the $100,000 Heritage Golf Classic, sponsored by Delta Air Lines and the hosting Sea Pines Plantation, chugged into being like a Wright brothers' plane.

    And even though the jet set we see at the $5.7 million Heritage today makes it appear otherwise, our signature event has flown low to the trees on many occasions.

    In 1986, community business leaders were corralled by Angus Cotton to promise lines of credit to save it. For the 1987 tournament, the MCI Communications Corp., fresh off a year in which it lost $500 million, staggered to the podium, its leader Bill McGowan in desperate need of a heart transplant, and announced it would sponsor the Heritage for four years, kicking in $400,000 for that first year.

    Not until Thursday have we seen such a white-knight moment at Harbour Town. After two years of searching for a title sponsor, the Royal Bank of Canada stepped up to guarantee us the RBC Heritage for the next five years, with help from Boeing and the Town of Hilton Head Island.

    Gov. Nikki Haley welcomed them with open arms.

    But the grand news comes with an asterisk. The asterisk is us. Our generation must remain true to the hospitality those islanders rolled out in 1969. We must remain a clean, quiet, welcoming community with the audacity to invite the world to our door and the warmth to make sure it's worth their effort to come. We must do that, Heritage or no Heritage.

    PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem described the Heritage this way: "... it's about the overall texture, scope, feel, tradition, of what we are all about."

    He's talking about us -- the asterisks.

    Jim Little, RBC's chief brand and communications officer, told me his first trip to Hilton Head in the 1990s came with an asterisk. He was a 20-something on vacation in Port Royal Plantation. "We were nobodies," he said, "but we were treated like royalty."

    Flash forward to Thursday. Before he stood in the spotlight as the white knight, his 12-year-old son, Jack, got a special buzz of Lowcountry hospitality. He shot a 52 on the front nine at Harbour Town.

    Welcome to Hilton Head.

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