OPENING ACT

The Masters perfect warm-up for RBC Heritage

Special to the Island PacketApril 11, 2012 

It's too bad Phil Mickelson didn't decide to join the thousands flocking to the island this week for the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, for a couple of reasons.

First, he'd be playing a Harbour Town Golf Links course his peers ranked as their second favorite course on Tour, behind only Augusta National, in a winter survey by Golf World magazine.

It's a course he ranks even higher, even though he hasn't played here in more than a decade.

"My favorite golf course out here is probably Hilton Head," said Mickelson, who has skipped the RBC Heritage since finishing third in 2002. "I don't play there anymore because it's the week after the Masters. The kids are out of school, we go on a family trip that week, and I'm really tired from the Masters."

Certainly, winning at Augusta is a life-changing event. And Phil's got company in passing on a trip to our island paradise in recent years.

Bubba Watson's not coming this week. In fact, Zach Johnson is the only player to bring his green jacket to Hilton Head since Vijay Singh in 2000, though Zach finished sixth here the week after Augusta in 2007 and Vijay was third following his Masters win.

Then there's the second reason Mickelson might have wanted to join the line of cars coming across the bridge this week. One of the 30-or-so fellow pros who played for the green jacket this past weekend and made the trip is likely to be fitted for a tartan jacket Sunday.

Only five times since the Heritage was moved to spot right behind the Masters in the schedule, 30 years ago, has the winner at Harbour Town not at least teed it up at Augusta National the week before.

Could it be, in a bit of only semi-twisted logic, that the Masters is a great tune-up for the RBC Heritage?

Three of the five "out of nowhere" Heritage champs have come in the last six years. Aaron Baddeley had missed his two previous cuts and only had one top-20 finish in 2006 before his Easter Sunday testimony and eventual win.

Boo Weekley announced his presence on the Tour in 2007 (just before his win here) with a playoff loss at the Honda earlier in the season. He defended in 2008 off a 20th-place Masters finish -- his first trip to Augusta guaranteed by his '07 win here.

And Brian Gay had already had two top 10s and had made 9 of his 10 cuts before blitzing the field by 10 shots in 2009.

Otherwise, the formula has been simple: playing Augusta can lead to a title under the lighthouse.

Last year, Brandt Snedeker followed his 15th-place finish at Augusta with a fourth at the Valero Texas Open before rallying to beat Luke Donald, who'd taken the week off after his fourth place finish at the Masters. Heritage winner Jim Furyk missed the Masters cut in 2010, as did Peter Lonard in 2005 and Jose Coceres in 2001.

Playing the weekend at Augusta is even a better predictor of success here. Stewart Cink, Davis Love III and Justin Leonard finished in the top 20 at Augusta before their Harbour Town wins in 2004, 2003 and 2002.

Before that, only Love's win in 1987 and Bob Tway's win in 1995 came after missing out on Masters week.

Though Bernhard Langer is the only player to sweep the Masters/Heritage duet in 1985, green jacket winners Sandy Lyle (1988), Nick Faldo (89-90) and Langer (1993), as well as Johnson and Singh, all finished in the top 20 at Harbour Town, refuting any "Masters Hangover."

And since it began following the Masters in 1983, more Heritage winners have gone on to win again that season on Tour than Masters champs.

So maybe there's a reason Mickelson might want to come back to Hilton Head someday. While his three Masters wins came after he stopped coming, in those three seasons, it was his last win of the year.

And Sunday's winner will punch the first winner's ticket to next year's Masters.

Contributer Bob Stevens covers the PGA Tour for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio.

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