Sea Pines Resort Redux
Author: Paul deVere
When the 47th RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing officially begins on April 13 with a cannon shot and 2014 tournament champion Matt Kuchar simultaneously drives a golf ball into Calibogue Sound, something spectacular will happen: the opening of the new Harbour Town clubhouse. For Tour pros who haven’t been back to Sea Pines in a year, this 26,000-square-foot, $20 million-plus building will hit them like a bolt of lightning. For one thing, there are locker rooms where they can actually relax. The locker room in the old clubhouse, built in 1969, was quite small. A few decades later, improvements were made, but they were modest compared with what has happened.
“To have a facility our players will be proud of, that our sponsors will be proud of, shows the owners’ commitment not only to the tournament and resort, but to the community of Hilton Head Island,” said Steve Wilmot, tournament director.
He thinks that the same thing will happen to the thousands of annual RBC Heritage visitors. If a building can elicit emotion, the new clubhouse will. But not just because it’s new. It is a major indication of where Sea Pines is going.
“We’re trying to build for the next 50 years,” said Matt Goodwin, chairman of Sea Pines Resort, a part of his family’s Riverstone Group properties. Riverstone also owns Kiawah Island Golf Resort, The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, and Kestwick Hall in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We still have a long way to go with Sea Pines,” Goodwin said, “but the clubhouse is an excellent example of where we’re going.”
“We’re quite sure no one has ever closed a clubhouse down after a tournament and had a brand new facility open prior to the next tournament a year later,” architect Grady Woods said. In terms of construction, that is a lightning bolt. “Typically there’s an inverse relationship between quality and time. This is not the case here,” Woods said. “Choate Construction has done an amazing job of keeping the quality level high with considerable less time to build in what would be considered normal.”
Ocean Lounge at the Sea Pines Beach Club
Though very appropriate, John Farrell’s lightning analogy goes well beyond a new clubhouse. It speaks to the history of Sea Pines, contemporary Hilton Head Island and the vision of its founder, Charles Fraser. When he and his brother Joe Junior formed The Sea Pines Company in 1957, the concept of the modern American resort was born. It successfully combined a residential community with vacation homes and activities. From land planning and architectural styles to resort activities, everything was designed to be in harmony with the environment—a bold new concept and the first “lightning bolt.” One example was Fraser’s commitment to preserve more than one quarter of Sea Pines’ 5,200 acres as open space. Unheard of! Fraser and his original development team’s ideas continue to influence resort development around the world. Charles Fraser was “green” well before green was cool.
After a little more than a decade of furious creativity and real estate sales, non-golfer Fraser wanted something to draw more people to Sea Pines, and The Heritage (now the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing) was born.
Sea Pines Beach Club
It was a brisk Thanksgiving weekend in 1969 for the first professional golf tournament on Hilton Head Island. Carpets were still being laid and walls were being painted in the new Harbour Town clubhouse when the tournament started. The Harbour Town Lighthouse was still being framed in. Stories still abound concerning then little-known golf course architect Pete Dye making last minute “adjustments” to Harbour Town Golf Links the day before the tournament began, including removing a tree minutes before the first group of pros teed off.
Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser, son of Joseph Fraser Junior and nephew of Charles, remembered he and his brother Joe III, both teens at the time, had to be marshals because the tournament was short of volunteers. The non-profit foundation, created in 1989, is the official host of the tournament.
At that first tournament, “lightning” struck again. The King, Arnold Palmer, the most popular golfer in the world, had not won a tournament in 14 months—highly unusual at the time. On Sunday, November 30, he knocked in a 10-foot par putt on 18 to clinch his victory and pick up his $20,000 check. Before Palmer’s win, Sea Pines and Hilton Head Island were tough to find on a map. When Palmer sank that putt, the media tripped over themselves to tell the world about Arnie and the great course and the beauty of Sea Pines. Golf writer Dan Jenkins predicted Harbour Town Golf Links would become “one of the 10 best courses, young or old, in the country.” That win was one of the most important foundation blocks for today’s Sea Pines Resort and all of Hilton Head Island. It changed everything.
Another “lightning strike” came when The Heritage became The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. In 2010, Verizon ended its 25-year sponsorship of the tournament. Without a title sponsor, The Heritage could have fallen off the PGA Tour schedule. Tournament director Steve Wilmot, his staff and the Heritage Foundation’s trustees spent many long days and sleepless nights chasing down rumors and attending meeting after meeting in search of a sponsor. In 2011, the Town of Hilton Head Island chipped in. So did businesses and individuals. So did politicians. But the tournament remained sponsor-less. It seemed impossible. The Tour pros said the second most popular tournament on the PGA Tour was The Heritage (The Masters was first).
The Foundation persisted. All that hard work paid off. In June, 2011, at a news conference on the island, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley made the announcement. The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) became the title sponsor, and the Boeing Company, which has a large presence in Charleston, became the local presenting sponsor. The entire island let out a sigh of relief. “Once RBC signed on, and Boeing, the island just boomed,” Wilmot said. “We don’t take credit for that. It just shows how much the tournament means to Sea Pines and Hilton Head.”
Harbour Town Clubhouse
Men’s Locker Room at the Harbour Town Clubhouse
Sea Pines Resort chairman, Matthew Goodwin
The Riverstone group
From the 1970s to the late 1990s, Sea Pines changed owners several times. Financially, the result was always rather dismal, and Sea Pines always paid the price. “There were financial problems all along,” said Steve Birdwell, Sea Pines Resort president. The miracle is that Charles Fraser’s vision for Sea Pines survived. Families loved it, golfers loved it. The “miracle” came in the form of a very dedicated management team that, over the years and with limited resources, kept that vision alive.
But in March, 2005 William “Bill” Goodwin and his Riverstone Group LLC, bought Sea Pines. By that time, after years of financial shenanigans, the property was owned by Sea Pines Associates, a group of property owners who had faith in Sea Pines and were willing to finance it. Goodwin was actually part of that group.
The group saw the wisdom of a sale to Goodwin. For the first time, Sea Pines Resort had money. Riverstone stepped in and wiped out all debt. “We never had a situation like that before where the company was so well-capitalized,” Birdwell said. Since Riverstone’s ownership, “all cash flow has been put right back into improving the resort.”
Riverstone also bought into the Sea Pines vision—its brand. “When we bought the resort, the assets were tired. We’re trying to bring them up to today’s standards. Even more, we’re making a statement. We’re never going to be a Sea Island or a Kiawah. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re a wonderful family vacation and golf destination, and a good value,” Goodwin said.
He should know. His family has owned property in Sea Pines since the 1970s. As a child, Goodwin spent many summers on the island’s beaches and Sea Pines’ bike paths.
The Plantation Golf Club
Riverstone’s commitment to reinvest in Sea Pines has become extremely obvious in the past 12 months. Just prior to the last year’s tournament, an all-new 23,000-square-foot clubhouse and golf learning center opened at the Plantation Golf Club, replacing the old Plantation Club.
Plantation Golf Club is home to the Ocean Course, the first golf course built on Hilton Head Island, and Pete Dye-designed Heron Point, which Dye reworked and enhanced last summer. “The Plantation Club is beautiful and the changes to Heron Point…well Heron Point is one of my favorite courses to play,” said Simon Fraser, foundation chairman.
Five-time Heritage champion Davis Love III will be renovating the Ocean Course starting this September.
Sea Pines Beach Club
For property owners and resort guests who aren’t close enough to the beach to walk or ride bikes, or don’t have a minivan full of beach stuff for family and friends, the Sea Pines Beach Club has always been the place to go. But it was mostly just beach access and a nice place to have a picnic.
That’s all changed. The 40-plus-year-old building was totally replaced by the new Sea Pines Beach Club, a 25,000-square-foot, two-story, multi-use facility with larger restrooms, changing rooms, showers, a beach bar and beachfront market. The second floor has space for private events, a covered bar and an outdoor deck with a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Riverstone committed to investing over $50 million in renovations and bringing the Sea Pines Resort brand and Charles Fraser’s vision forward, to bring the facilities up to what visitors expect today. Goodwin said these improvements and new buildings are meant to make a statement. For golfers, both the pros and the regular guy and gal who want to challenge Harbour Town Golf Links, possibly no greater statement has been made than the new clubhouse at this iconic course.
Foyer at the Harbour Town Clubhouse
Harbour Town Clubhouse
Looking outside the window of the temporary pro shop at the new Harbour Town clubhouse that was going up beside it, head professional John Farrell admitted his amazement. Seven days a week, Choate Construction workers, 150 at a time, buzzed around the new building like bees. There was no question the goal, opening in time for the 2015 RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, would be reached. “One day I look out and there are bricks on the wall and palmettos that weren’t there yesterday. It’s been amazing,” Farrell said.
“Choate Construction has done a yeoman’s job on meeting our expectations, the architect’s expectations and owners’ expectations. There have not been any shortcuts in the process. The quality is of the highest level,” said Cary Corbitt, vice president of Sports and Operations for Sea Pines Resort. Corbitt, who has been with Sea Pines since 1997 and is a direct link to Charles Fraser’s vision, has a special perspective on The Harbour Town clubhouse and Sea Pines. “It will definitely serve the needs of the golf tournament, but it will also serve the need of resort guests, members and property owners,” he said.
But Ferrell and his staff are the people who, as Ferrell puts, “will live there.” He was most impressed with the planning that went into the building. “As big a part of it as it [the tournament] is, there has been as much energy and enthusiasm put into the planning for the other 51 weeks as for the pros. We had a great sensitivity to the end user as to what our guests were looking for. We’re not just a one hit pony. We’re 52 weeks,” Farrell said. “When the regular golfer comes through (on April 20), we’re going to be just as prepared for him as we were for David Love and Tom Watson.”
“We decided to have one killer locker room [Bar. Steam room. Lounge],” Matt Goodwin said. The pros get it one week a year. Past champions have their names on the lockers. You and I are going to be able to use it the rest of the year.”
“It’s the whole golf experience, not just holes one through 18. I would love to hear our guests say, ‘They knew we were coming and we’re glad we’re here.’ That’s what we’re focusing on. If you ask for directions here, we are not going to point. We will escort you. That sounds simple, but we’re going to take care of the simple things,” Farrell said.
The clubhouse also features a living room style lounge, a restaurant and bar catering to golfers and guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a 2,200-square-foot banquet room and private meeting room, both with views of the Harbour Town Lighthouse, one of Charles Fraser’s original concepts when the first clubhouse was built.
“That was a tremendous part of Charles Fraser’s vision, to have that view corridor between the two, to connect them,” Birdwell said. While not in time for the golf tournament, the landscaping and walkway between the harbor and clubhouse will be opened up to greatly improve the view.
“The lighthouse is so iconic to Harbour Town, we had to have those subtle connections between them. For instance, the octagonal shaped window in the men’s locker room. It’s the octagonal of the lighthouse.
Standing on the clubhouse balcony overlooking the golf course would be the same as standing on top of the lighthouse looking over Harbour Town,” Woods said.
Another distinctive feature of the new clubhouse is the “Hall of Champions.” Every year, a portrait of the champion has been created that was never displayed properly. There is also a collection of tournament memorabilia that was practically hidden. That has changed.
“I think we’re going to see a tremendous amount of everyday traffic just to see the hall of champions and trophy area. All the art work and the history of the tournament is displayed there for the first time,” Corbitt said.
Bottom line, with the new Harbour Town clubhouse, Sea Pines Resort has its focus on a new kind of golf experience. “We’re trying to create a private club feel in a public facility,” Farrell said.
While his focus is always on Sea Pines during Heritage week, Goodwin said, “It really goes way deeper than that. During Heritage week, Hilton Head Island is the center of the universe.”
“We’re all benefactors of what Charles’ vision was. Aren’t we? Everyone on this island. It’s kind of like lightning has struck again. We have owners who really care about the customer. That’s the way it was, and it’s happened again. We have ownership that has great respect for the environment and great respect for the customer. Just look at the clubhouse,” Farrell concluded. “That’s Sea Pines Resort.”
IF YOU GO
New General Admission Parking
Parking for general admission spectators will be located at the Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head Island. Shuttle service begins at 6 a.m. and ends one hour after play ends. The parking area will have 24-hour security.
Spectators with tournament issued hang tags, Sea Pines residents and resort guests may park inside Sea Pines. Handicapped parking will also remain the same.
New Will Call Location
Will Call will also be located at the Coastal Discover Museum at Honey Horn. Last minute ticket sales, pick-up and redistribution of tournament badges are a service of Will Call. The Ticket Trailer remains at Harbour Town Golf Links parking lot.
Complimentary parking is available inside Sea Pines at the tennis courts next to Harbour Town Golf Links clubhouse parking lot. Cyclists must have a tournament ticket to be admitted into Sea Pines.
Clubhouse Badge: $225
Grounds Badge (weeklong access): $170
Daily Grounds Ticket:
Thursday, Sunday – $75 per day
Friday, Saturday – $85 per day
Practice Round Ticket (Mon-Wed) – $50
For details on the features of each type of ticket and online sales, visit rbcheritage.com/tickets.