Hilton Head -- the perfect post-Masters landing spot
By Scott Michaux
Harbour Town is the control-alt-delete of the PGA Tour -- a midseason reboot to refresh for the summer surge.
The RBC Heritage is the 25th official event on the 49-tournament PGA Tour schedule, and it comes at the perfect time on the heels of the Masters Tournament. So much energy and attention goes into to either preparing or just trying to qualify for Augusta that a Lowcountry vibe strikes the perfect tone at the perfect time.
"Hilton Head feels a little bit like our all-star break," said Charles Howell, who shot 3-under on Thursday to inject himself into the top 10. "Largely because the Masters is on players' minds for at least six weeks prior to the event. It's unlike any other event we have in that fashion. And if you're there playing, it feels like you're there for two weeks."
Many of the big-name players take time off after the Masters to regroup for the summer stretch of majors. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler have famously taken their "spring break" trip to the Bahamas right after Augusta. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson traditionally disappear for a few weeks.
"Usually the clubs are put in the closet and I just kind of get away for a while," Woods said Sunday. "The run up to (the Masters) is pretty hard and pretty grueling."
Those who don't shut it down before resurfacing in Charlotte or at The Players Championship after Augusta have found comforting respite at Hilton Head. The family can enjoy the beach while the golfer can enjoy the more low-key atmosphere of the event on Calibogue Sound.
"You hear a lot of guys say how relaxing and what a break Hilton Head is," Howell said.
While the intensity might not be as high, the benefits of playing well at Harbour Town are not diminished in any way. A year ago Wesley Bryan, a South Carolina native living in Augusta, broke his maiden by winning the Heritage and securing his first appearance in the Masters. Having to wait 51 weeks to reap the reward was a minor inconvenience.
"Waiting a whole year was difficult," said Bryan, who missed the cut at Augusta last week. "But I felt like it was one of the coolest moments in my golf career, even though I didn't perform the way I wanted to (at Augusta)."
Howell, an Augusta native who has played in the Masters only once in the past nine years, would dearly love to endure that inconvenient wait. He's consistently been on the various threshold bubbles for qualifying for the Masters in recent years, and the stress of the pursuit can take as much out of a player as competing for a major does.
"Getting it secured this early is massive in knowing that it is checked off the list," Howell said.
The Heritage has often been a big boost in that effort for some of the local pros. Bryan, of course, became the first South Carolina native to win at Hilton Head, and he returned this week as defending champion for the tournament's 50th anniversary.
Two years before Bryan, Aiken's Kevin Kisner almost achieved that milestone first when he lost in a playoff to Jim Furyk in 2015. While he didn't book his automatic ticket to the Masters, that performance proved to be a springboard in Kisner's breakout year that included three other runner-up finishes and his first victory at the end of the year at Sea Island, Ga.
Howell leads the local hopefuls through one round this week, sitting four shots behind leader Rory Sabbatini. Bryan and Kisner are just a shot behind Howell at 2 under and Scott Brown is at 1 under.
Bryan had the most eventful first round, playing with world No. 1 and fellow Columbia native Dustin Johnson and former Heritage champion Matt Kuchar, who clipped both of the Palmetto favorites by three strokes to sit in second place.
"Playing with Dustin is going to be a lot of fun," Bryan said Wednesday. "I grew up with Austin (Johnson's brother and caddie) and Dustin. So that part will be comfortable."
Johnson is making his first start at Harbour Town since 2009, when he missed the cut for the second consecutive year. The tight Pete Dye layout did not necessarily suit his game nor did the post-Masters slot suit his schedule.
"I usually take a break right after the majors, but I'll wait until next week to take a vacation," Johnson said. "That's one reason I haven't been back here, pretty much the only reason. But now I'm an RBC ambassador, so I'll be back here for the next few years."
While shouts of "Kooch!" echoed around the marquee group all day and fans were eager to see a rare home-state appearance of Johnson's power game, Bryan still enjoyed the final spoils of his 2017 victory that included receiving the Order of the Palmetto from the governor on "Wesley Bryan Day" in March.
"I think it gets you off the hook from one speeding ticket and I haven't cashed that one in yet," Bryan said. "But I'm sure it's right around the corner."
Maybe things will change next year when the PGA Championship moves to May and the post-Masters gap between majors shrinks. But for now, there's no urgency to hurry during the midseason reboot with the Masters as far down the road as possible.
This article is written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.