RBC Heritage

RBC Heritage: What it really means to Hilton Head

Large crowd gathers Saturday behind the 15th green at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C., during the 50th playing of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing PGA Tour event.
Large crowd gathers Saturday behind the 15th green at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C., during the 50th playing of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing PGA Tour event. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

The world is still our oyster.

From Arnold Palmer winning the first one to Satoshi Kodaira of Japan winning the 50th one on Sunday, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing is still a plump, sweet, salty slurp for Hilton Head Island.

Sea Pines put out a brochure — you remember those — about the first Heritage saying ticket sales would be "limited to a mere 5,000."

To the locals, it was a joke. You wouldn't get that many fans if you counted all the fish in Calibogue Sound.

But during the sun-baked third round this Saturday, it seemed like a mere 5,000 fans surrounded the 15th green alone.

It seemed that at least that many were waiting to catch a bus to or from the Harbour Town Golf Links and its annual parade of PGA Tour golfers that have shown the world a Lowcountry pearl.

Jim Chaffin, this year's honorary tournament chair and a member of the Sea Pines team when Charles E. Fraser dreamed up the first event in 1969, said it at opening ceremonies abbreviated by rain: Not 5,000 people had ever heard of Hilton Head when this all started.

So, at 50, this much we know. They have heard about us. And they have come. The tournament has worked.

Fraser's widow, Mary Wyman Stone Fraser, stood beneath the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town Sunday morning and looked at the Harbour Town Lighthouse with red plaid covering its candy stripes.

The last time she was there, she all but offered an altar call at her husband's funeral in 2002.

"It continues the tradition of the plaid," she said. "It's a wonderful time. And it's a happy day. Charles is with us."

The plaid was part of the Heritage's instant tradition. And now it's in the fabric of a place with so many newcomers and visitors that some feel it has neither fabric nor community.

No, it's not a normal small town. Sataoshi Kodaira is living proof.

And who would dream that an oversized airplane called a Dreamliner, made solely by Boeing workers in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and bound for Singapore Airlines, would one day swoop across Harbour Town to the thrill of mere thousands down below?

The Heritage did more than anything to push all the change the island has seen over the past 50 years.

Three-time champion Hale Irwin came back for the 50th opening ceremony.

"I thought I was on the wrong island," he said.

It's true.

No longer do islanders know everyone at the tournament.

But, to many of us, better than all the golf is that the Heritage gives people a chance to slow down, check out, visit each other, to sit on the porch and chat, to see old friends and the children and grandchildren of old friends.

At this milestone, a lot of people are cheering tournament director Steve Wilmot for 25 years of keeping it all cobbled together. They praise the Heritage Classic Foundation, the nonprofit that stages the tournament, for giving away $38 million to charity since 1987.

But it seems to me more people at the Heritage were interested in who was wearing what, or who owns the big yacht in Harbour Town, or who they want to visit next.

The fabric of the tournament, they said, was shown by the Love family of nearby Sea Island, Ga. Davis Love III, the five-time Heritage champion, was a small boy when his father played in the first Heritage. He was in the field again this year, and so was his son, Dru Love.

That's a warm story, but it also shows the sharp elbows of golf.

The fairy tale ended when the young Love missed the cut by a mere stroke. His father made it to the weekend — also by a mere stroke.

Heritage watchers have seen that movie before. The whole plaid fairy tale almost crashed when the Heritage lost its title sponsor and scraped by for a year — until the Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing turned their international eyes to our oyster.

Golf, we have learned, is a meritocracy. You either do it right, or move on. You earn your lunch anew every day.

We know that. Satoshi Kodaira knows that.

But at 50, also know that the world is our oyster.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale