Perspectives on The RBC Heritage
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: Emily J Novitski
“Then, good fortune smiled on the Harbour Town Golf Links when Palmer went on to win that initial Heritage…the media did the rest by cranking out volumes of glowing copy about Arnold’s victory, Dye’s superb new links course as well as Hilton Head Island.”
So says the RBC Heritage website (RBCHeritage.com). Anybody who lives around Hilton Head Island knows the story about that earliest incarnation of the biggest, most important, and most eagerly anticipated event in the Lowcountry…maybe all of South Carolina…and how it, more than most anything else, put us on the map.
Hilton Head has three rites of spring: Wine & Food Fest, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and RBC Heritage. Okay, four if you count tourist invasion, but I think most of us would rather think about the others, of which RBC Heritage is clearly king of the hill. For four days, Hilton Head Island becomes a worldwide television star in a public relations bonanza that must have Bill Miles doing cartwheels around the house.
Here at home, though, RBC Heritage is more than that. It’s not just four days of PGA golf and television coverage. Heck, it’s not even just four days. It’s a full weeklong (Steve Wilmot and Co. excepted) celebration of…well…us! Our beloved little island home. Some folks even think it should be a holiday (or holiweek?) since so many treat it as such anyway, to their employers’ dismay no doubt.
Imagine that. A whole week where everybody closes up shop to party and enjoy the tournament. On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea. “We can do upwards of 10 percent of our annual business that week,” said Dennis Jaworski owner of apparel boutique Palmettoes in the Shops at Sea Pines Center, just a short iron down the road from Harbour Town. “Because of the loyal following of people who come to the tournament each year, we’ve developed those relationships and become part of their week’s activities.”
Palmettoes has an especially unique interest in Heritage, as it supplies those famous tartan jackets and other apparel worn by volunteers and officials; but the importance of the tournament’s economic impact is shared by hundreds of local businesses. “It’s hugely important to us,” Jaworski said. “We were devastated when we lost the Family Circle, which was an even bigger producer for us. But Heritage certainly comes in a close second for bringing customers and business to us. Now it is truly our number one week in the year.”
Tom Reilley takes a longer view of Heritage’s significance to the business community. He notes that its impact is felt year round and year-to-year, thanks to that fateful day in 1969 when Arnold Palmer won the inaugural Heritage Classic, as it was then known, thus launching Hilton Head Island on its way to becoming a household name nationwide. “The advertising, the television, the people from out-of-state who show up for the tournament. It’s a huge impact on the island,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a good week, but we also have Easter, St. Patrick’s, Fourth of July…” In other words, that we have such a fruitful tourism industry on Hilton Head Island at all can be traced back to the success of that first Heritage and the 45 editions since.
Reilley’s daughter Erin Reilley Booth, who manages the family-owned Reilley’s Grill & Bar, agrees. “That whole month of April, with Easter, Heritage, Spring Break, keeps us consistently busy.”
As testament to his high regard for the tournament, the elder Reilley serves on the Heritage Classic Foundation’s board of trustees. Ask him why and he’ll look at you as if to say, what kind of a question is that? “To be on the board is a privilege,” he said. “There’s an elite group of people that get asked to be on the board. I think someone would be a little bit crazy to say no!”
Alan Perry whose family has been on Hilton Head Island since 1972 will soon assume the role of announcer at the ninth green, stepping in for his father, Charles, who has held that position for almost 30 years. “He’s grooming me to fill his golf shoes,” he said. The family owned the former Perry Printing Company, which produced Heritage pairing sheets and other documents for years. Today Alan’s brother Reid handles that assignment for the Kennickell Group. “The Heritage has been a way of life for us since we’ve been here, from a personal and a business standpoint,” he said.
Announcers, starters, marshals (those people who hold up the QUIET paddles) and folks in myriad other roles; no golf tournament happens without them. RBC Heritage volunteers are a hearty and loyal bunch, as many of them stay with the tournament for years and even decades once they’ve had their first taste. Henry Pratt started as a marshal, announced at the tenth tee for about 15 years, then moved to the first tee eight years ago. He’s the guy who starts the whole round for all four days of the tournament plus two pro-ams. You might think somebody who spends so much time on the course would see a lot of golf. Not so. “People ask about crazy things I’ve seen and stories I’ve got, but I don’t have any!” Pratt said. “I’m right there on the first tee, and that’s where I sit for the whole tournament.” Pratt’s wife, son, and grandson have all volunteered in various roles over the years as well. “We’ve had all three generations of our family involved with the Heritage,” he said.
One great thing about RBC Heritage is that it’s not just for golf fans. Everybody has a blast. Just look at all the parties going on in Harbour Town around the marina, and you’re sure to spot more than a few folks who wouldn’t know an eagle from a pelican having a great time. On the other hand, avid golfers we have aplenty, and who among them wouldn’t love to actually play in the Heritage? Local realtor Kevin King has…four times.
A few years ago, a player had to drop out of the tournament and King filled in as a marker for the final round. But in 1989 and 1990 he was in the field as an amateur, and played as a professional in 2007 after qualifying for the Champions Tour. “I actually made the cut in ’89,” said King, who spoke of the thrill at seeing his name on the leaderboard with such luminaries as Payne Stewart and Greg Norman. “I’ve still got that picture,” he said. “It’s always been a highlight of the year, so playing in it was just an awesome feeling.”
Like so many of us, Patrick Baldwin started out as a regular visitor to Hilton Head Island and eventually stayed. He’s a golf lover who gets his fix of the RBC Heritage caddying for the pro-am tournaments. The biggest upside for him? Full access to the tournament. “I was on the range one day and saw Graeme McDowell, so I went up, introduced myself and told him that my mother was born in Belfast. We must have chatted for about 25 minutes. Just the nicest guy,” he said.
While RBC Heritage is a big boost to the local business economy, the Heritage Classic Foundation also annually makes sizable donations to local charities from tournament proceeds. The Deep Well Project, Programs for Exceptional People, Coastal Discovery Museum, and Hospice Care of the Lowcountry are among the many beneficiaries. “Of course we appreciate every contribution, but to be part of such an important community institution is very special,” said Hospice Care’s marketing director Darlene Schuetz. “It’s an honor that the Foundation recognizes what we do.”
Erica Sullivan of Macon, Georgia will make her first visit to RBC Heritage this year, and she’s going first class all the way. As the winner of the Plaid Nation Celebration contest, the Heritage Classic Foundation will treat Sullivan and a guest (her father) to a VIP experience including a ride in the MetLife blimp. Although not much of a golfer herself, Sullivan often enjoys watching golf with her dad who is a big fan. “I actually entered the contest for his sake more than my own,” Sullivan said. “He loves golf and I watch with him on TV. It’s something for us to do together.”
Last year, Sullivan watched RBC Heritage in a new context having visited Sea Pines and Harbour Town for the first time the previous summer. “It was the first time I watched it with a feel for Hilton Head itself, with a fresh perspective. The course is beautiful, the players seem to be really relaxed, and it just seems to be such an enjoyable time for them as well as the people watching,” she said. “We just fell in love with the place. The nature there is so beautiful and the people are so kind. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful place.”
Yes, Miss Erica. We think so too.