Palmer’s win in first Heritage put tournament on the map

Arnold Palmer, left, is presented a plaque after winning the first Heritage golf tournament. The event’s founder, Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser, makes the presentation.
Arnold Palmer, left, is presented a plaque after winning the first Heritage golf tournament. The event’s founder, Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser, makes the presentation.

In a dolled-up swamp off the coast of South Carolina’s low country and on an island with more dripping moss and crooked magnolias than you would find in a dozen Civil War novels, Jack Nicklaus made his debut as a golf-course designer last week before the toughest possible audience – his fellow touring pros. These included his friendly rival, Arnold Palmer, who seized the occasion to show Jack and everybody else how the magnificent course ought to be played.

So began Dan Jenkins’ story in the Dec. 8, 1969 edition of Sports Illustrated that chronicled the first Heritage Classic and Arnold Palmer’s victory that boosted the tournament and Hilton Head into the nation’s sports consciousness.

Chances are, the PGA Tour stop in the Palmetto State, now named the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, would have survived if either of the inaugural runners-up, Dick Crawford or Bert Yancey, had collected the winner’s check.

Palmer’s triumph made sure.

The tournament stages its 49th edition this week over Sea Pines Resort’s Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head and its winners read like a who’s who in golf. Palmer, of course, Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Davis Love III, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart and others created moments to cherish.

Appropriately, in the first Heritage since his death, Arnold Palmer and his legacy will be celebrated in Monday’s opening ceremonies.

“What Palmer’s victory at the inaugural Heritage did for the tournament and Hilton Head cannot be overstated,” said Steve Wilmot, the tournament’s long-time director.

That first tournament unfolded over the Thanksgiving weekend, with galleries bundled up against cold temperatures. A photo of Palmer with the trophy at the closing ceremonies shows the lighthouse that would become the Island icon under construction.

Architect Pete Dye, Nicklaus’ partner in the design, raced against the calendar to complete the course in time for the first Heritage and put the finishing touches on a layout that some players considered too radical after competition had begun.

Jenkins again:

One of the more curious aspects of the week was that Palmer was able to win on a course that suited him about like a wig, thick sideburns and a protest poster. Harbour Town is some golf course, folks, just about the best new course that anyone has built in ages, a brutally narrow, abruptly twisting tangle of brooding pines, oaks, palmettos and magnolias with tiny greens guarded by wriggling bunkers and fierce marshes. … In an era when architects for some reason enjoy giving us 7,000-yard courses with greens the size of a supermarket parking lot, Nicklaus and his partner, Pete Dye, have done the opposite. They have used great imagination and given us nothing short of a work of art.

Palmer provided the perfect description, calling the layout “a thinking man’s course.”

The beauty of Harbour Town is the 49-year-old layout has stood the test of time. Despite improvements in the physical condition of players and in equipment, the course still plays to par of 71 and isn’t appreciably longer than the 6,655 yards in 1969. Cary Corbitt, Sea Pines vice-president for sports and operations, said Dye wanted to keep the distance under 7,000 yards “until we added some yardage (to 7,100) in 2001.”

Through the years, the tournament has experienced challenging times, the last of which came last October from Hurricane Matthew. The storm hammered the Hilton Head area and Harbour Town took severe hits, but the loss of trees strategic to play have been replaced, and Corbitt notes the course retains its teeth.

The tournament also has a forever moment – Arnold Palmer’s victory in the inaugural.

Opening ceremonies Monday will feature defending champion Branden Grace and Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders, a former Clemson player and now a PGA Tour pro. Competition begins Thursday.

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Chip shots

Spartanburg High instructor Todd White began his quest to make the 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team by sharing second place in the Azalea Invitational in Charleston. … The South Carolina Golf Association invites fans who attend the RBC Heritage to visit the organization’s hospitality tent alongside the 18th tee at Harbour Town.