INSIDE THE ROPES
By TOM LaMARRE
The Sports Xchange
After nearly two years of uncertainty, the Heritage finally saw the lighthouse at the end of the tunnel.
Royal Bank of Canada stepped up as title sponsor, so instead of fading away, what is now called the RBC Heritage will be contested for the 44th time this week on the famed Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C. For a while, it seemed that Brandt Snedeker would be the last player to don the winner’s plaid jacket on the 18th hole below the iconic, candy-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse on the shores of Calibogue Sound.
“It scared me to think about that,” Snedeker said recently at RBC Heritage Media Day, nearly a year after he came from six strokes back in the final round by shooting 7-under-par 64 and then beat Luke Donald with a par on the third playoff hole.
“It didn’t really sink in at that time, but when I saw the cover (of a golf magazine) the following week with ‘Uncertain Future of the Heritage’ (in a headline), it sunk in.” Snedeker and several other players on the PGA Tour contacted commissioner Tim Finchem to let him know how important the tournament, which has been played at Harbour Town since Arnold Palmer captured the first one in 1969, is to the pros and their families.
Snedeker and the others also worked with tournament director Steve Wilmot trying to find a sponsor until RBC agreed to put its name on the tournament and Boeing also came aboard as presenting sponsor.
“I think the tour had never run into that kind of support for a tournament before,” Snedeker said. “We love coming here. We think that at the end of the day, if the players support something enough, the tour should be able to work out whatever minor details, and, luckily, that’s what ended up happening.”
Not only is the Heritage safe for at least five more years, it is back in its traditional spot one week after the Masters, which gives players the chance to wind down from the first major of the season with their families while competing in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Last year, the tournament was moved back a week because of a scheduling conflict involving the Valero Texas Open.
“We were very happy that it was put back in the original place behind the Masters on the PGA Tour schedule,” said Snedeker, who claimed the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year for his third PGA Tour victory. “It is such a great venue to relax and unwind after a stressful week at the Masters.
“… This place has always been special. I think a big reason why it’s here is because of the history and the player support and the support from the community.”
Snedeker joined a champions list that includes, in addition to Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Fuzzy Zoeller, Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart and Justin Leonard.
Davis Love III, who went to college a little ways up Tobacco Road at the University of North Carolina, has claimed the title a record five times.
“It’s just such an iconic tournament,” said Love, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, who will miss the event for the first time since 1985 because of a cracked rib. “If we didn’t have such a bad economy, it would be one people would be standing in line for.
” … Obviously, if you played in Atlanta the week after the Masters, it wouldn’t be quite as fun as going to the beach. You get to go to Hilton Head and it’s a fun week for the kids, it’s a fun week for the wives and it’s a great tournament for the players.
“One, it’s a great golf course. Not a whole lot of tournaments have had their whole history on one golf course, a great golf course like this. And this is one when people say what are your favorite courses on the PGA Tour, they always list Pebble Beach and they list Harbour Town and they list Colonial. They list classic golf courses.”
One player who won’t be missing this week is Ernie Els, who failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since 1993 but hopes to continue his climb back up the rankings at Harbour Town.
The Big Easy never has won the Heritage but has finished in the top three on three occasions in his 12 appearances.
“The whole place is just great,” Els said of Hilton Head a few years ago. “It’s so beautiful here. We come with the family, we rent a house, we have the bikes and go down the beach. Do all the tourist things. It’s really a very nice, relaxing week.
“It’s one of my favorite tournaments of the year.”
And to think it almost disappeared.
INSIDE THE ROPES