Arnie the ambassador: At 92, Burdick continues to tout RBC Heritage

mmccombs@islandpacket.comApril 11, 2012 

Arnie Burdick didn't want the job full time.

Heck, Burdick didn't want the job, period.

The longtime Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal sports editor and columnist, who had retired to Hilton Head Island with his wife, Mimi, received a phone call before the 1986 Heritage from former tournament director Mike Stevens.

Stevens, now the head of the Champions Tour, went to Penn State where he and Burdick knew some of the same people.

Stevens and the Heritage needed a media relations guy. He asked Burdick.

Burdick said no.

He asked again. Burdick said no, again.

Stevens finally convinced Burdick to come to his office and talk about it.

"He said 'I need somebody. How about helpng me out for a year?' And I said, 'Oh, all right. I'll do it for a year,' " Burdick said. "And I'm still here. Mike is gone, and I'm still here."

What initially was a hassle that Burdick wanted no part of has become one of the longest chapters in his life.

"I've had fun. And the more I think about it, it's been good for me," Burdick said. "You've got to keep your mind going. You've got to do something. You can't just sit home and watch the tube."

What Burdick has done is become a fixture at the Heritage.

Though he has cut back, the 92-year-old Burdick is working his 29th Heritage this week. Each year at media day, the tournament awards the Arnie Burdick award to a media member who has excelled in their coverage of the tournament over time.

The prize is a pair of thick glasses frames, similar to those Burdick has long worn.

Burdick lost his wife to cancer several years ago but still lives in the house they bought together back in 1984.

Since he's made Hilton Head Island and its most famous golf tournament his home, it might be surprising to learn that he doesn't even play golf.

"I used to play a lot of tennis, but my knee gave out and I can't play anymore," Burdick said. "I don't play golf. I guess I'm one of the nuts that works for a golf tournament that doesn't even play golf."

Burdick may not play golf, but he's seen a lot of it at the Heritage. And he might even know a little bit about it.

Here's what Burdick had to say about several topics related to golf and the Heritage:

Question: On Brandt Snedeker's playoff win last year over Luke Donald and where it ranks all time among Heritage finishes:

Answer: Donald needed to win to be No. 1, and Snedeker won and took the big pot. It's tough to beat a tournament like that.

Donald has been 2-3-2 here the past three years, right there, but he hasn't kicked the door down.

It would be close to the top. It was one of the more thrilling, exciting tournaments that we've had, with a lot at stake. Natonally, internationally, everything else, with Donald going to No. 1 if he wins.

But I think the most dramatic tournament I can remember was '88 when Greg Norman won or rallied to win.

A young kid by the name of Jamie Hutton, a cancer victim, was idolizing Norman. He was a little kid for his age. He walked the last 18 with Norman.

Norman had a 66, and he came from behind and won it by a stroke. TV went wild and they knew the story and they told the story repeatedly for three hours.

It was touch-and-go between Norman and Gil Morgan. Norman won his only Heritage. Everybody was talking about it for the whole year.

Q: On why the first Heritage and Harbour Town were different from the start and why that was important:

A: The first tournament was Thanksgiving weekend. We played in November back then, the only dates that they would get.

We had a darn good field with a new golf course. Pete Dye had just finished it. It was a super golf course, a links course with all kinds of unique twist and turns and railroad ties that were different. And very small greens and narrow fairways. Lots ot trees and lots of tough territory.That's why the golfers like it.

One of the reasons they like the course, you really gotta play the game or you're gonna get a big score here. You've got to be able to shape the ball, you've got to be able to put the ball in the right spot on the fairway and depending on wherethe flags are and such, hit to the green or else you're going to be in trouble.

(Arnold) Palmer won it and Palmer hadn't won in 14 or 15 months or something like that. It was better than a year. And all of a sudden the King came out and won the tournament, and everybody got all excited.

And it focused on Hilton Head. And it focused on Dye's new course. And it focused on Pete Dye, who at that time was not very well known, compared to today where he's built so many courses all over and he's become very established. That was 44 years ago.

As a footnote, Palmer won $20,000. It was a $100,000 purse back then, compared to over a million today.

Q: On what's changed about golf since he became involved with the Heritage:

A: The money, of course, has gone out of sight all over. But these golfers today are more dedicated than they were back then. I think it's more professional than it used to be.

Years and years ago, I think they were amateurs who would turn pro. Now these kids are pros when they're in college, practically, when they're on scholarship. And that's what they have in mind. I'm going to turn pro and that's going to be my livelihood. And they're dedicated that way, a good many of them.

Of course a lot of them fall by the wayside and don't make it, naturally, because you've got to be damn good to stay out there and make the cuts. But I think that's the one thing. The competition is much more keen than it used to be and the fields are much deeper. The quality of the fields.

The course itself is groomed better, probably, becasue you have more modern equipment, more people doing it. They know what they're doing.

The top golfers 30 years ago would still be top golfers today. The major winners and those like that, but the quality of the fields is much better. Coming out of college, they're more advanced. The coaches are better and they work them harder.

Q: On what makes the Heritage special for the players:

A: One of the things that makes the Heritage for the golfer and his family, it's an intimate area, small. They can see each other. They go out to a restaraunt and they run into each other.

It's a family affair. (The wives) can come down and bring the kids and shop or go to the beach or whatever. It's good compared to a lot of other events where they never see each other.

Q: On the legacy of the Heritage:

A: One thing that sticks out in my mind. I was going over the history of it the other day.

Of the first 24 tournaments, 23 of the first 24 winners won majors. Now that's ... I don't think any other tournament can make that statement.

All the names like Johnny Miller and Hale Irwin and Palmer and Watson, and on and on and on -- 23 of the first 24 have won majors.

The tournament is well established. It's on its 44th year on the same course. How many tournaments can make that claim? Because they move them around here and there.

Also, we've done a swell job as far as charity, and giving to local charities and state charities and so on. Over $22 million, which is not small change.

We have a swell scholars' program, and that's been going on since 1993. It's a terrific inspiration for high school kids here.

(The media doesn't) focus on that, but they should.

Another thing that's very important, especially for this community. Hilton Head is a tiny commnity when you consider the sites for all the other PGA Tour events, Most of the are in big cities or metropolitan areas.

This is either the smallest site or one of the smallest. And the econimic impact for the week is $82 million for Hilton Head and the state of South Carolina.

The other thing is, I think a lot of people forget, because of all the TV that we get, the global exposure, it has an economic impact throughout the year.

Because you never know, maybe somebody is watching the Heritage. He could be in South America. He could be in the Orient. He could be in the United States. He could be anywhere.

He sees the beautiful golf course in South Carolina and the amenities and he decides, "that's where I want to take my family."

He might come in November or May or June or some other time. He doesn't have to come during the tournament, he could come any time throughout the year.

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