Today, Hilton Head Island golf courses are known around the world for challenging play and outstanding resort amenities. But in 1969, Hilton Head Island was just a little-known Lowcountry treasure. So when Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser announced a PGA-level Tournament to be held at the newly created Harbour Town Golf Links over Thanksgiving weekend, people had their doubts. An unfamiliar course on a little-known island on a holiday weekend? There was no guarantee that the big names in golf would be there for the first Heritage Classic.
But when both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (who had helped legendary golf course designer Pete Dye lay out the course) committed to play, people began to realize that the Heritage Classic was going to be something special. Palmer went on to win the inaugural Heritage Classic, his first victory in 14 months, drawing even more press coverage than usual. Commentators and journalists praised Dye’s new links course and soon everyone knew that Hilton Head Island was THE new resort destination.
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. The fan base has grown, too, thanks in part to extensive TV coverage by both CBS and The Golf Channel. Each year, more than 135,000 spectators arrive from across the US and around the globe, bringing an estimated $102 million annually to the state. And each year, the RBC Heritage leaderboard features some of the biggest names and brightest stars in the sport.
The list of past winners is a veritable who’s who of golf’s greatest players—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Davis Love III and Payne Stewart are just a few of the names inscribed upon our champions' trophy.
The RBC Heritage kicks off like no other event on the PGA TOUR. The past champion, Heritage Classic Foundation Board members, volunteers and state dignitaries parade around the Harbour Town Yacht Basin to the sounds of the Citadel's Pipe and Drum band. The past champion is presented with his Captain of Gentlemen Golfers plaque and continues the tradition of using an authentic hickory club to hit a featherie-style golf ball into the Calibogue Sound in unison with a cannon shot. Those shots officially begin the start of Tournament week and are a reenactment of a Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews tradition dating at least to the mid-18th century.
Many historians had believed a golf club outside Yonkers, NY, was the first to import the sport from Scotland in 1886. However, Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser uncovered a ship's manifest from 1786 that noted that "golfer sticks" and "featheries"—a pre-20th century golf ball made from boiled bird feathers and cowhide—had been shipped to residents in South Carolina and Georgia. His findings indicated golf may have arrived at Harleston’s Green in Charleston a full hundred years before it was played in Yonkers. Fraser honored that Scottish heritage by naming the PGA TOUR event the "Heritage Classic."
While much has changed over the years, the Tournament still maintains the unique Lowcountry hospitality and family-friendly fun that have made the RBC Heritage one of the best stops on the tour for both players and fans. It’s a heritage we’re honored to uphold.