The countdown was on, as it is at any PGA Tour stop in the final days before the players arrive.
Digital scoreboards were being moved into place at Harbour Town Golf Links. Final landscaping touchups were in progress, not to mention a general collecting of twigs that had fallen during overnight storms. Near the clubhouse, workers began constructing a welcome arch.
Tree limbs danced in the breeze as PGA Tour agronomist Bland Cooper surveyed the swath of green in front of him.
“If this was your first time coming to Harbour Town, you really would never know anything happened last fall,” Cooper said. “The way they restored the areas that were impacted, it’s almost seamless.”
Seamless is good.
Listen closely, though, and one also can make out the slow thump-thump-thump of a pile driver out in the marina.
Six months after Hurricane Matthew, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing returns to the national sporting stage next week. It’s a time to showcase the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse and Calibogue Sound, a picturesque place where ocean meets fairway.
This one takes added importance, though, because it’s the most direct platform for Hilton Head Island to show things are OK again.
“In that regard, I’d say yes,” said Cary Corbitt, vice president of sports and operations for Sea Pines Resort. “If there was any doubt out there, then I think that will take it out of everybody’s minds — we’re fully recovered and back in business.”
Not perfect, mind you. There may not be as many yachts when CBS cameras turn toward the marina. And anyone driving the William Hilton Parkway can’t avoid the sight of hurricane debris piles still awaiting removal. Spectator parking, in fact, had to be relocated because Honey Horn remains a debris staging area.
Steve Wilmot, now in his fourth decade as tournament director, suggested this year brings a little different anticipation.
“I think the community’s ready,” Wilmot said. “They’re ready to have a great week and have fun.”
If there was any doubt out there, then I think that will take it out of everybody’s minds — we’re fully recovered and back in business.
Cary Corbitt, Sea Pines Resort VP of sports and operations
Arnold Palmer’s victory in the inaugural Heritage Classic is credited with getting Hilton Head Island into the public consciousness. The 2011 edition, bridging an anxious gap between title sponsors, also stands high in importance.
Next week’s 49th edition also might be considered on that level.
“I’d say without question, it is,” Wilmot said.
“It (has been) something of a rallying cry — come April 1st, we want to make sure we’re up so when the cameras go on and the world’s watching, Hilton Head’s better than ever.”
The ability of sports — be it teams or events — to unite a community in the aftermath of disaster or tragedy is well documented.
The Miami Hurricanes’ football dominance in the 1980s gets credit with helping ease racial tensions in a city torn by riots in 1980. U.S. Olympic hockey’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 provided a nationwide lift from economic woes and the Iran hostage crisis.
“Boston Strong” became the city’s cry after two pipe bombs ripped through the Boston Marathon’s finish area in 2013. The Red Sox fully embraced the mantra, bringing a World Series title to the city six months later.
In golf, the 2006 Zurich Classic was the first major sporting event in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina blitzed through. The tournament needed a new/old locale that year, briefly returning to English Turn Golf & Country Club when the TPC Louisiana wasn’t ready.
Several of the PGA Tour’s top names, who typically didn’t play the event, put it on their calendar as a way to lend their support.
“For New Orleans, it gave folks the enthusiasm to get back to normal,” said former Zurich tournament chief John Subers. “Like every PGA Tour event that comes to town, it’s a happening. It’s the volunteers, the economic boom around it. The community rallies around it.”
Hurricane Matthew’s damage doesn’t compare, of course. But Wilmot does recall a similar rally of spirit when the Heritage faced a different sort of crisis six years ago.
Unable to find a sponsor to replace the departed Verizon, the 2011 edition was financed out of the Heritage Classic Foundation’s emergency reserves. That’s essentially a one-time option, signifying dire straits.
“Rickie Fowler played that year; Camilo Villegas played that year,” Wilmot said. “They changed their schedules to be here and show their support.
“That was worse than this past year,” Wilmot said. “When that last putt sunk, I really didn’t know (if we’d be back). But we had such a great broadcast, and the media put such a positive spin on the idea that this can’t be the last tournament.”
Two months later, Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing joined forces to save the Heritage.
Ironically, perhaps, both RBC and Boeing inked long-term extensions just months before Matthew hit the Eastern seaboard. The tournament now has sponsorship peace through 2023, the longest stretch in its history.
We get them here, but there’s a lot more that happens that the community truly benefits from.
RBC Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot
With Matthew, it’s been about restoring an island that relies on tourism and loves its golf. The RBC Heritage is the state’s largest annual sporting event, with a 2014 study showing the event added more than $96 million to the local economy.
“All the dine-arounds, the golf courses, all the other stuff,” Wilmot said. “They might spend X amount of dollars with us, but they’re spending A-B-C-D with others —accommodations, food and beverage, catering, other things.
“We get them here, but there’s a lot more that happens that the community truly benefits from.”
All that was temporarily in doubt after Matthew roared through Oct. 8. Initial reports and photos from Sea Pines raised concerns about how long Harbour Town would need to recover.
“There were rumors that we weren’t going to play this year; the damage was that bad,” recalled Luke Donald, four times a runner-up at Harbour Town. “It’s a tough thing to go through, I’m sure. But I hear they’ve done a great job in cleaning it up.”
Wilmot emphasized that not playing “was never an option.”
As the cleanup project began to unfold, early discouragement gave way to pragmatism. All three Sea Pines courses were open again within four weeks, with a final count of 268 trees fallen at Harbour Town. Later, Sea Pines imported nearly two dozen trees to replace key losses deemed strategic to the way Harbour Town plays.
Other parts of the island needed more time, but slowly the rhythms of life have returned close to normal.
“The fortunate thing is that it happened when it did,” Wilmot said. “If we were a January event, who knows? There’s never a good time for (a disaster), but it gave us a good, solid six months to get after it.”
Ticket sales, he said, have been ahead of the curve since the tournament’s initial pre-holiday sale. At least one hospitality area has sold out.
And now it’s time to pull back the curtain. For all the marketing that Sea Pines, Hilton Head Island and the region have done, there’s nothing like a television audience looking in live.
“Yes, something happened, and it needs to be told,” Wilmot said. “People do need to know that a hurricane happened here. But we’ve wanted to make a point here at the foundation not to dwell on it. We’re moving onward.
“Maybe this is the exclamation point that we’re back — not that we ever went anywhere.”