I’ve never been to Hilton Head Island, but when the PGA Tour goes there the week after the Masters, it becomes one of my favorite back-to-back weeks of golf to watch. Harbour Town is a nice counterbalance to the West Coast stops earlier in the year and gives viewers a beautiful respite after the drama at Augusta. The tight, short layout and small greens give the pros all they can handle and usually a great finish.
Watching the Heritage is also a reminder each year of Arnold Palmer, not that it’s the only time I think of him. But the RBC Heritage Classic is a relatively new tour event compared to the rest of them, and Palmer was its first winner.
Arnie, who was the trailblazer for many golf milestones, such as being the first player to earn $1 million in career tour earnings, was proficient at winning a tour event’s inaugural event. After the first 36 holes of this week's Heritage, Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, was three shots off the lead. What a great and appropriate place it would be for his first tour victory.
The debut of the Heritage Classic in 1969 was held shortly after Pete Dye designed Harbour Town Golf Links, with assistance from Jack Nicklaus. We are used to the Heritage being held the week after the Masters, as it is this week for its 49th playing, but the ’69 inaugural event was held on Thanksgiving week, Nov. 27-30. Palmer, then 40, had been winless for 14 months when he put together rounds of 68-71-70-74—283 to win by three shots. Winning at Harbour Town was so new that in a photo of Palmer being given the winner's plaque from tournament chairman Charles Fraser the still-under-construction lighthouse can be seen in the background.
Palmer felt like he had won his first tour event all over again: “I think this is one of my most important wins, almost like the first one. I wanted to win this one as much as I would a U.S. Open or Masters, or any other tournament.”
Palmer was the inaugural winner in several tour events among his 62 victories. Of the tournaments on the current tour schedule, Nicklaus won the first playing of three: The Players (1974), WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (1976, known as the World Series of Golf), and The Northern Trust (The Barclays) (1967, as Westchester Classic). Palmer is next with two: the RBC Heritage and CareerBuilder Challenge (the Palm Springs Golf Classic when he won in 1960).
But A.P. won the first playing of five other tour events no longer on the schedule, including the 1968 Kemper Open, the 1963 Whitemarsh Open (Philadelphia) and the 1963 Cleveland Open. With the 1969 Diplomat Classic and 1958 Pepsi Golf Championship only being held for one year, Palmer was both the first and last winner in those events.