Arnold Palmer put Hilton Head Island on the map.
When Palmer won the first Heritage golf tournament at Sea Pines in 1969, he gave instant credibility — and worldwide attention — to a fledgling resort on a little-known island.
Soon, there was a running joke among real estate agents. They joked that during the PGA Tour event now approaching its 50th edition, they sold every lot they had at least once.
The story was huge because it was Palmer’s first win in more than a year.
It was over the Harbour Town Golf Links that the hard-driving legend and his “army,” answered the stage whispers about being over the hill. He said the win at Harbour Town was as important to him as any other.
He had to beat the demons of a brand new course designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus. He rose above the chorus of complaints by Tour players who said its fairways were too narrow and its greens too small. Atlanta sports columnist Furman Bisher called it “Purgatory with 18 holes.”
Suddenly, Palmer made the audacious idea of inviting the world’s best golfers to a community without enough rooms in the inns to hold them seem like a brilliant idea.
And history has shown it was brilliant. The tournament, now sponsored by RBC with presenting sponsor Boeing, is televised worldwide and has given almost $34 million to charity.
But its golden star never claimed credit.
Palmer is remembered here as “everyman.”
During that first tournament, he popped into a Sea Pines maintenance shed where Dave MacLellan showed him a vise that he used to reshape an iron.
Others remember him sitting on the clubhouse steps, sipping something they’d never heard of — a Rolling Rock beer from his homeland in Pennsylvania.
And when Palmer returned in 2011 to christen the Wexford Plantation golf course that his design company had redone, the mayor proclaimed in Arnold Palmer Day on Hilton Head.
“I don’t know that I deserve it,” he said.
Yes, Arnie, you did.
And we thank you. Rest in peace.