Jeff Shain

Palmetto Pride: South Carolina pros itching for Harbour Town breakthrough

Aiken’s Kevin Kisner putts his ball on the 18th hole during the second round of the 2015 RBC Heritage.
Aiken’s Kevin Kisner putts his ball on the 18th hole during the second round of the 2015 RBC Heritage. Staff file

Where’s Dustin Johnson when you need him?

OK, this week probably isn’t the best time to pose that question, considering the slip-and-fall incident that forced Johnson to remove his name from the Masters last week. But if anyone could break the South Carolina hex at this event, you’d figure it would be the Columbia native sitting atop the world rankings.

They’ve played 48 previous editions of what’s now the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. And after 48 years, South Carolina’s premier sporting event is still waiting for its first homegrown winner. Or at least somebody with firm state connections.

“It needs to change, doesn’t it?” said Aiken’s Kevin Kisner.

“There’s no better time to start than right now,” said Wofford alum William McGirt, born in North Carolina but now living outside Spartanburg. “It’d be flat-out awesome. I’d love to be the first. I’ve said if I couldn’t get a green jacket, all right, give me a tartan jacket this week.”

Hey, you can’t say there isn’t enthusiasm for the endeavor. And you might say the Palmetto Staters are starting to gang up on it.

Kisner came the closest, chased down by Jim Furyk’s closing 63 two years ago that sent the event to a playoff. Furyk prevailed on the third extra hole.

Hartsville’s Tommy Gainey, the iconic “Two Gloves,” finished one shot out of the 2011 playoff that Brandt Snedeker won. Three years later, Ben Martin (Greenwood/Clemson) tied for third. Greenville native Lucas Glover has two top-12 finishes on his portfolio.

Still, no tartan jacket.

“We’re getting closer to it,” Martin said.

“I wouldn’t call it a curse or anything like that,” said Mark Anderson, the most local of locals who grew up in Beaufort and still calls it home. “It’s just hard to win.”

By comparison, though, Australia has produced four Heritage champions. Four.

Granted, that’s a list topped by Greg Norman, whose run at No. 1 in the world rankings is second only to Tiger Woods. And Aaron Baddeley has four PGA Tour wins. But it also includes Graham Marsh (1977) and Peter Lonard (2005), whose Harbour Town triumphs stand as their only PGA Tour trophies.

Argentina is represented (Jose Coceres). So are Sweden (Carl Pettersson), Zimbabwe (Nick Price) and the Florida panhandle (Boo Weekley, twice).

Still, no South Carolina.

“I don’t have a theory, except there’s a lot of good golfers from all over the world,” Kisner said. “But we’ve got a lot of opportunity. We’ve got a lot of guys with South Carolina ties that play here every year.”

That wasn’t always the case, of course. Henry Picard called Charleston home for many years, though he won his two majors while based in Pennsylvania. Plus, Harbour Town was still 60 years from being built at that time.

Fred Wadsworth, raised in Columbia, captured the 1986 Southern Open but played in only two Heritage Classics. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the tour started to see such Palmetto products as Clemson teammates Glover and Jonathan Byrd. Johnson turned pro just 10 years ago.

Geography may have a little to do with it, too. The Heritage may be South Carolina’s event, but it’s also at the southern tip of the state. For Upstate guys like Glover and McGirt, that’s a longer drive than Charlotte or Greensboro.

“This is more coastal golf,” Kisner said. “On a lot of traditional South Carolina courses, we don’t often get 20 mile-an-hour winds. That could be a big part of it.”

Surmised Glover: “I can’t imagine anybody plays here any more than this week.”

The exception, of course, being Anderson. He typically plays Harbour Town with friends three or four times outside Heritage Week.

“It’s a place I’ve grown up around, coming here as a kid as a spectator,” he said. “It’s a tournament I’m very fond of, very familiar with. So to win it would be an amazing accomplishment.”

It’s not just Anderson, though. Kisner, after coming so close two years ago, wants another chance. So does McGirt, coming off a tie for 22nd in his first Masters. Russell Henley, a recent transplant to Kiawah Island, captured the Shell Houston Open just two weeks ago.

“It’s got to be your time,” Kisner said, “and it hasn’t been one of our times yet.”

When it happens, though, the celebration could have a little extra kick.

“Put it this way, there’s would be a lot of happy people,” McGirt said. “There might be one helluva party Sunday night. I don’t think anybody would go home. And then when we got back to Spartanburg, we’d have another one. It’d be pretty darn special.”

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain