By Norm Elrod
(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — The RBC Heritage has the misfortune to sit in the shadow of the Masters. And much of the golf world is still recovering from Tiger Woods’ fifth green jacket at Augusta. That won’t stop players from stepping up to the tee on Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links.
While Woods will not be traveling to Hilton Head for the 51st edition of the tournament, many of the top finishers on last week’s leaderboard will be. That includes runners-up Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson, fifth-place finishers Francesco Molinari and Webb Simpson and ninth-place finisher Patrick Cantlay. The list of the world’s best doesn’t end there, with Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Kuchar all committed to playing as well. Defending champion Satoshi Kodaira returns to defend his title.
The course, and its history, is a big reason why the event has attracted such a strong field just days after a major (though its proximity to Augusta certainly helps). Harbour Town Golf Links has hosted the Heritage, under one name or another, since 1969. Arnold Palmer won that first event, and the list of winners features many of the game’s greats, like Jack Nicklaus (1975), Nick Faldo (1984) and Greg Norman (1988).
Harbour Town, a par-71 course that measures only 7099 yards, is one of the shortest on the PGA Tour. The course emphasizes shot placement, on a Tour increasingly dominated by distance. Its narrow fairways and small greens are built on the flat, low-lying marsh land of Hilton Head Island, just off Calibogue Sound. Trees surround many of the holes. Winners tend to rank higher in driving accuracy and proximity to the hole. So the long ball will only get players so far, whereas accuracy and a strong short game go further on the scorecard.
The 18th hole, along the water with the striped lighthouse in the background, is one of golf’s more iconic holes. It is also a bit of an outlier at Harbour Town, with its broad fairway along the water. As with the other holes, the green is tiny. Wind factors in at pretty much every coastal course, and that’s particularly true on this 472-yard par-four finale. Birdies are rare here, making it one of the harder par-fours pros face on the Tour.
So who will contend for the plaid jacket and a share of the $6.9 million pot? A few recognizable names come to mind.
As the world’s top-ranked player, coming off a sneakily good Masters performance, Johnson has to be considered the favorite at the RBC Heritage. He’s finished in the top 10 of his last five PGA Tour events, including a win at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February. Johnson has a versatile enough game to contend in his native state, even if he can’t rely on his driver to give him an advantage.
DeChambeau hit his first career hole in one at the recent Masters, though he didn’t contend when it mattered. The world’s eighth-ranked player shot a career-low round of 64 at the RBC Heritage last year and finished T3, one stroke off the lead. He checked in at T4 in 2016. Harbour Town suits his unusual style of play, so look for him to thrive again this year.
Molinari led the Masters halfway through his Sunday round, but wasn’t able to hold on. The usually slow-and-steady, play-for-par golfer just couldn’t stay out of the water. The world’s seventh-ranked player will have to contend with water again this week, but won’t repeat his mistakes, even on a course a less suited to his game. Expect him to be in the mix.