HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — Today, Hilton Head Island is known for its challenging golf courses and hospitality. But in 1969, Hilton Head Island was just a little-known Lowcountry treasure.
That’s when Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser announced a PGA-level tournament at the newly created Harbour Town Golf Links.
“When the tournament came to be, it was probably an effort to promote the Sea Pines Plantation,” chairman of the Heritage Classic Foundation, Simon Fraser, said. “It was a marketing effort.
“Sea Pines decided it wanted to build a championship golf course. They contacted Jack Nicklaus; Jack Nicklaus said, ‘I’m not really ready to start designing golf courses, let’s get Pete Dye involved.’
“This was probably either the second or third golf course he did and when they were nearly complete, Pete Dye came to Sea Pines and basically said, ‘this course is tournament worthy. Why don’t we do a PGA Tour event?’”
Both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus committed to play, which helped put RBC Heritage on the map.
“I think Arnold Palmer won with either minus 3 or minus 2, so it was hard, and actually before the second tournament, they took out a lot more trees,” Fraser said. “It was a very difficult golf course. They all liked it, I mean, they all thought it was a true test.”
“I’ve seen it since I was a sophomore in high school working the tournament because they had trouble getting volunteers,” he recalled. “It’s been incredible. You know, our first skyboxes, we probably didn’t have a skybox until 1987. You know, we may have had some bleachers, but there was not much out there.”
Fraser says there are no skyboxes this year due to coronavirus precautions, so this year’s tournament will look much more like the early ’80s than the last couple of years.
“Basically everybody who came to the tournament parked in Harbour Town or along the road leading into Harbour Town,” he said. “You know, there may have been 1,500 fans on-site — something like that. So it was a totally different experience.
“Back then, all the players played. Arnold Palmer won the tournament. Every big name that is known to golf, Sam Sneed, all big names playing at that time played in the golf tournament.”
It was also one of the first tournaments that signed up for the PGA Tour when it broke off from the PGA of America.
“It’s just a much bigger, broader event. The players are bigger stars, make bigger money,” Fraser said. “The first event was held over Thanksgiving. People on the island obviously knew it was going on, but if you were in Columbia, South Carolina, you might not have known there was a golf tournament. It’s big now.”
Since then, much has changed. The RBC Heritage is now held the week after the Masters, and the original purse of $100,000 ($770,000 in today’s dollars) has jumped to $7.1 million.
“Back in the day, they could attribute it to actually selling lots because that’s what Sea Pines was doing. It was selling lots, but today, it still brings people to the island,” Fraser said.
“I kind of equate it to Green Bay with the NFL. Green Bay is not a big city; they own their own NFL team. It’s the biggest event in that community.”
“Everything revolves around Heritage week, in the sense that if you drive around, everybody is sprucing up,” he continued. “They’re doing the springtime cleaning, they’re painting, they’re landscaping, you know, they’re getting their house in order to put on a good show.”
Fraser says the event was well-received from the beginning, and grows each year with sponsors.
“When you think about the publicity generated by the tournament, and the number of hours it’s on television, social media, newsprint, and everything else, it still sells the island,” he said.
More than 1,200 volunteers work throughout tournament week and each year, the RBC Heritage pumps more than $102 million into South Carolina’s economy and is the only regularly recurring PGA Tour event in the state.
“What’s unique about this is that many tournaments celebrate 50 years,” Fraser said. “Very few, less than five, celebrate 50 years on the same golf course. And we’re one of the four or five tournaments outside of Augusta that have been played continuously on the same golf course for more than 50 years.”
The Heritage had the most attendees on the Saturday of the 2019 tournament during the 50th anniversary. It’s estimated about 135,000 people traveled to watch the games in person.
“You know, it’s ‘Old Home Week.’ You see a lot of people on the golf course. We used to call it ‘Adult Spring Break,’” Fraser said. “You know, that was kind of our theme for a while. Everybody has a great time, everybody’s happy.”
Fraser also helped set up the Heritage Classic Foundation in 1993. Since then, the foundation has awarded more than $4 million in scholarships generated by the proceeds from the annual tournament to Beaufort and Jasper county high school seniors to help students achieve their educational goals.
See WSAV’s full coverage of the RBC Heritage tournament HERE.