Posted April 16, 2014

Lowcountry Vibe Makes RBC Heritage The Perfect Masters Hangover Cure

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Harbour Town Golf Links

No. 18 at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. (Credit: Rob Tipton / Boomkin Productions)

Everybody exhale. The Masters is over and it’s time to breathe again. There’s no better place to do it than at the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island, S.C.

For many years now, the Heritage stop on the PGA Tour has followed the Masters, and the two tournaments could not be more different. They’re both marvelous, but for completely different reasons.

Being at Augusta National for the Masters is like being in church. You’re in awe of the place. Its beauty is stupefying. Its traditions are reverential. It’s joyful just to bask in the aura of anything related to the tournament. But you’re also quite conscious that you must be on your best behavior. No running, or they’ll yank your badge. Get caught with a cellphone and away you go. There’s a host of other rules that MUST BE OBEYED. And then there’s the nearly suffocating pressure that accompanies the actual tournament competition, where players’ lives can be changed forever with one good or bad bounce.

That’s why the RBC Heritage event on Hilton Head is so perfect. It’s where players and spectators remove their starched collars and dress shoes and slip on the t-shirt and flip-flops. It’s a week-long party — perhaps not on the grand scale of what they do in Phoenix — but it’s more like a backyard barbecue. One of my favorite intersections in tournament golf is where the right side of Harbour Town’s 10th fairway meets the right side of the 16th fairway. It’s a sea of smiling faces, of golf fans celebrating the good things in life, such as great golf, balmy weather, cool cocktails and an easy-on-the-eyes Lowcountry backdrop. It’s a scene as sweet as South Carolina iced tea.

The RBC Heritage deserves a better field for sure, but the Masters hangover is pretty intense. Not everybody can gear up again that quickly. Certainly the venue is a plus. Its Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus-designed Harbour Town Golf Links ranks among the top 3 players’ favorites on Tour and continues to hold a spot in Golf Magazine’s Top 50 courses in the U.S. More than any course on Tour, Harbour Town favors no single style of play. It simply rewards the best player that week. Yes, this is one narrow golf course, yet power hitter Davis Love III has reined in his strength to win here five times. Fuzzy Zoeller certainly wasn’t short off the tee in his heyday, and he won here twice. What Harbour Town favors is shotmakers with all-around games. That explains why Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Payne Stewart each won twice. That also explains why Hale Irwin could win in 1971 and 1973 — and then again in 1994 at age 48. Craft and cunning usually prevail at Harbour Town. So does a mellow vibe.

Jordan Spieth has to be considered the favorite this week, even if his vibe wasn’t so mellow down the stretch at the Masters. He slammed his clubhead into the turf after a missed approach to the 10th, rolled his eyes and waved his hands and finished shots with one hand — or no hands — on the club. Whether you consider his actions to be fiery passion or misplaced temper, it’s undeniable, he’ll relax at Harbour Town.

If nothing else, Spieth will compete this week under the watchful eye his 2014 Ryder Cup Captain, Tom Watson. Old enough to be Spieth’s grandfather, the 64-year-old Watson is the only Watson in the field this week. You can’t blame Bubba for skipping the Heritage, though it sure would be fun watching him curve his ball around all of those gnarled, but sturdy live oak limbs that encroach into the fairways. Tom Watson is competing for the first time at the RBC Heritage since 2001, though it will be his 23rd appearance.

Another senior citizen adding buzz to the field is 56-year-old Nick Faldo, the 1984 Heritage champion, who has entered a regular PGA Tour event for the first time since 2006, when he played here. Faldo has played here 17 times, picking up his first PGA Tour win at Harbour Town exactly 30 years ago. Faldo was renowned for his thoughtful, strategic approach, and with his ability to execute, he was the game’s greatest tactician during his years at the top, ideal attributes to conquer Harbour Town.

Many top names are missing at a tournament that has also seen Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman don the tartan-plaid jacket as victors. What the RBC Heritage does have this week a compelling mix of young stars and old legends, set against a Lowcountry backcloth that is unique in golf. Pass me the ice, please.

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