RBC Heritage: Arnold Palmer Was Pivotal Inaugural Champion

Apr 18, 2015; Hilton Head, SC, USA; Troy Merritt tees off on the 18th hole during the third round of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 18, 2015; Hilton Head, SC, USA; Troy Merritt tees off on the 18th hole during the third round of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports /

Arnold Palmer’s 1969 victory at the inaugural RBC Heritage secured the status of the event and Pete Dye’s Harbour Town track as PGA TOUR legends.

The RBC Heritage Classic has been around long enough at this juncture to be a legendary PGA Tour stop.  But it became one because of the first winner of the tournament in 1969, none other than Arnold Palmer.

While we don’t have quotes from Palmer on the victory, there is an old photo of him in a bright blue cardigan sweater holding the winner’s plaque with the construction of the now famous lighthouse in the background. Regardless, Palmer’s victory gave Hilton Head Island a stamp of approval from one of the most famous golfers in history.

In those days, the tournament was held in the Thanksgiving time frame, not Easter. When the pros teed it up, the golf course had just recently been completed.  It was very much a new kind of design for the public to see because it featured waste bunkers that you could ground your club in, some regular bunkers lined with railroad ties and boards, and greens held back from falling into the water by more railroad ties.  It also featured pot bunkers, which were uncommon then in the U.S.

According to two legendary sportswriters, the story was at least as much about the golf course as the fact that Palmer won it.

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.  Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated.

The late Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Constitution said the course was “Purgatory with 18 holes.”

Harbour Town Golf Links was, in fact,  one of Pete Dye’s early creations, and he had asked Jack Nicklaus to be a consultant on the project.

Nicklaus told Golf World in the November 25th issue,

"If there is one thing I didn’t want this course to be it was a course that appeared to have been designed for my game. For every long par-4 hole, there is a short one to offset it."

While the first RBC Heritage Classic was just one of many victories for Palmer, it was an incredible occasion for golf course designer, Pete Dye, as he retold for probably the umpteenth time in a 2012 video for Sea Pines Plantation.

“It was unbelievable the national publicity when it first opened,” Dye said. “Harbour Town made my career.”

Dye also explained what Palmer’s victory meant to him.

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“It was unbelievable the change because all of a sudden here was a PGA Tour [event] played, and Arnold Palmer, of course, won the first championship and all of a sudden out of nothing comes all this notoriety from Sea Pines and from the Harbour Town golf course. It changed my whole way of life.”

The 1969 Heritage was victory number 55 for The King. Palmer eventually went on to win seven more times on what became the PGA Tour that same year. His last one was in 1973.

Jack Nicklaus was inspired to become a golf course designer in his own right, and his first solo course was Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ontario.

Pete Dye went on to create countless impossibly annoying and exceedingly demanding golf courses, many of which host  or have hosted PGA Tour events and major championships.

This week on the Monday of the RBC Heritage, Palmer was again remembered as the first champion of the event during the opening ceremony which usually includes the firing of a cannon.

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This time around, Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, was present, and, after a moment of silence, a second cannon was fired in Palmer’s memory.