Arnold Palmer needed the win. Charles Fraser needed the publicity. Now that they’re legends, we might forget the drama that was the first Heritage Classic. We didn’t become “Golf Island” by happenstance. We had some founding fathers of our own. Their courage and vision make a heck of a good story.

For 14, months Arnold Palmer was winless. He had averaged four victories a year for 13 years prior to the drought. This new tournament called the Heritage Classic might be his chance to turn that around. Palmer’s golfing obituary was starting to appear in newspapers and magazines, and the first Heritage was where he planned to prove them premature.

Here on Hilton Head Island, Charles Fraser was redefining the idea of resorts. Making Sea Pines a haven set in nature was part vision – part necessity. More imagination, less capital was the approach Charles took, so it may be even harder to recall how uphill his job was in 1969 than it is to think of Arnold Palmer winless. Imagine a Heritage where the grounds pass was considered “pricey” at $20 and where you could add the clubhouse for 10 bucks more – for the entire week.

Building a Course of Legends

When they completed it, just in time for the first Heritage, course architect Pete Dye and consultant Jack Nicklaus predicted that “only players of championship quality” would win at Harbour Town. Indeed, only four of 53 Heritage winners thus far got their first championship here.

Harbour Town Golf Links calls for skill with every club – and a bit of cunning they say. Designed like the links of Scotland, it can’t be won with power alone, or even power primarily. When Harbour Town Golf Links was completed – in just 18 months – for that first Heritage, Sports Illustrated called it “nothing short of a work of art.”

It’s interesting that even when they reached into history for the design, Dye, Nicklaus, and Fraser were ahead of their time. The links design at Harbour Town anticipated by more than four decades the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2.

A Bold Beginning

Yes, that first Heritage was as bold as one of Palmer’s approach shots.

When the gallery gathered around 18 to see the Heritage trophy awarded that first time, it was sportier, less formal than today. Watching a rare home movie of those moments we see a sense of wonder on the faces of Palmer, Fraser, and the staff. Even the Harbour Town Lighthouse looked like a tall child still in his pajamas – wearing a hat. The lighthouse was topped out, but only the frame was showing. No walls, no stripes.

It was a beginning beyond their wildest dreams. Palmer won a tournament again the next week, and two weeks after the first Heritage, the Associated Press named him “Athlete of the Decade.” It was said that Fraser sold more property that week than in Sea Pines’ first 12 years. And legendary Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins predicted that Harbour Town would become “known as one of the 10 best courses, old or young, in the entire country.”

A Tradition of Tight Finishes

Even today, it’s uncanny how often the tournament all comes down to Sunday, there on the 18th tee, with a breathless gallery watching every gesture, every pause and awaiting the final drive.  The Heritage frequently finishes neck-and-neck, with the winner anybody’s guess until that last unbelievably scenic hole.

Whether it’s this year, or in times to come, your visit to the Heritage Classic will stay with you. The memories are made of great golf, and a great deal more. You’ll see professional golfers, guests and residents all having the time of their lives. And now you’ll know the rest of the story.