HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Cutting through the players' parking lot on my way to the 10th tee, I crossed paths with a PGA Tour official who smiled and greeted me by saying, "This is better than the Masters, isn't it?"
I knew what he meant. This is the RBC Heritage, the second-best party on the tour behind the untied and undefeated champion, the Waste Management Phoenix Open (or Wasted Open, as some like to call it). The RBC Heritage is laid-back, like everything else here in Low Country. It's low-key. It's a great place to rest a Masters hangover, or maybe earn back a little redemption after a losing battle with Augusta National Golf Club's man-eating greens.
Plus, some folks think this is paradise. It's pretty. Friday was another beautiful day in the neighborhood, a neighborhood that happens to include a swank marina where some battleship-sized yachts are moored that see more party time than sea-going time. There was a light blue sky overhead with gauzy white haze on the horizon's edges, a light breeze through the pines that carried the fresh scent of saltwater and the ocean, an ideal temperature of 70 degrees and, for eye candy, the iconic red-striped lighthouse standing stoically over Calibogue Sound.
Augusta National is stunning in its beauty, too. But there's no marina and no yachts. Just Magnolia Drive, and some secluded cabins in the pines with assorted Lincolns and Mercedes and Audis parked nearby.
Better than the Masters? Well, the RBC Heritage is unquestionably a better party. Augusta National doesn't have corporate tents sprawled all over the grounds, although its very first one did spring up out by the remote fifth hole this year. I still remember when Masters chairman Hord Hardin assured us that there would never be a "Pizza Hut Masters." He was probably right, but there is a corporate luxury chalet on the grounds. It's a small step.
The 18th tee here at the Harbour Town Golf Links, which plays along a ragged shoreline toward the aforementioned lighthouse, is nearly surrounded by white corporate tents. There's a large enclosed one right behind the tee that must have a great view of the players teeing off and taking dead aim at the lighthouse. Right of the tee box is a slew of smaller tents open to the air and demarcated by a white picket fence, with each little chalet having several tables and chairs out of the sun.
The tents had their own signs, too, indicating who was allowed in. There was the Clemson University Alumni, lots of orange items spread around there. There was Sea Pines Real Estate, Palmette Electric Co-Op, Adventure Radio, and HH Area Homebuilders, for starters.
Past those tents was a much larger and enclosed tent whose entrance sign said, "Grey Goose, public welcome." Sponsored by the vodka makers, it appeared to be a very popular drinking establishment. The swells at Augusta who inhabit the clubhouse or take over the outdoor tables beneath the veranda with the umbrellas can order a cocktail, but there's no vodka on the course at the Masters. Beer, yes.
Most of Harbour Town is lined by homes and assorted condos. A high-rise building with many balconies adjacent to the 18th fairway is a source of constant noise and laughter, which goes on non-stop even when players pass by to hit their final approach shots.
Another difference between this place and the Masters is the cart paths. Harbour Town is a resort course. August National is extremely private, and most players walk with caddies. At Harbour Town, it's all about cart revenue so there are asphalt paths along every fairway. The course crosses a few secluded side streets, too.
Behind the par-5 15th hole at Harbour Town is a shady rest stop, tables and umbrellas located beneath a solid canopy of trees, and a concession stand. Augusta National doesn't want you to sit down on the course unless you're next to the gallery ropes in your special-edition Masters folding chair. It's for real golf fans. Here, Heritage fans need a place to set their drinks down.
And yes, the drinks are plentiful. Just beyond the rest area is the 16th tee. It's one of Harbour Town's most intriguing holes, a dogleg left, guarded by a large waste area. A lone tree that overhangs the fairway has an uncanny ability to interfere with the players' second shots, a little bit of designer Pete Dye's genius.
Walking past the 16th tee, there's a green plastic bag for garbage. It is overflowing, with assorted cups and cans lying on the ground because it can hold no more. Most of them are yellow cans bearing the Land Shark Lager logo. Leave it to the Heritage to have a nautical tie-in even in its choice of beers.
Better than the Masters? Well, even with a big crowd mingling on the grounds on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, one of the biggest crowds I've ever seen in my many trips here, you can still see golf better than you can in Augusta. At the Masters, where the daily galleries surely must number more than 60,000, it's three-deep around every green no matter who's playing. Friday at Harbour Town, I could stroll right up to the 11th tee, stand by the ropes and get a close-up glimpse of Rory Sabbatini pushing a tee shot into an overhanging tree not 50 yards off the tee, then wondering where the ball ended up. Two spectators up ahead gave the universal safe signal and pointed toward the fairway. Sabbatini's ball glanced off the tree and back into play. He wasn't happy, just relieved.
I could position myself right by the ropes at the 14th tee when Stewart Cink's group walked up. It's a familiar par 3, guarded by a pond and Dye's infamous railroad planking. Cink was not having a good day -- he already had no chance at making the cut but he still was conscious of those in his gallery. He looked around on the tee until he caught the eye of a youngster in a pink shirt, motioned to him to make sure he had his attention, then tossed his golf ball. The kid deftly caught it with one hand, smiled and said, "Thanks." A small thing but still nice. Especially when there was only a smattering of 20 fans or so around the tee. At Augusta, it would be packed.
About the only thing Augusta National is missing is a water view. The 18th here isn't Pebble Beach, but Calibogue Sound sparkled in the late afternoon sun, bright with glare at just the wrong angle, and that finishing hole is as intimidating-looking as any in golf.
The highlight of the day came hours earlier when Boeing, one of the tournament's presenting sponsors, had one of its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft do a mid-day course flyover. It's a big honking plane that seats about 250 passengers. It was going to fly low over the 18th fairway, then over the sound, but instead it dragged over the middle of the course, over the houses and the trees, which frustrated the photographers who were waiting to get a clear shot of it. At an altitude of a few thousand feet, it didn't really look that big, not like a Spruce Goose [LINK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hughes_H-4_Hercules ]or anything. What was amazing was that the Dreamliner didn't roar across the skyline. It was surprisingly quiet.
But the concession tent overlooking the marina was loud with chatter and raucous with laughter. This tent is well out of sight of the golf tournament but has a delightful view of the boats bobbing on the waters beyond, a pleasing backdrop for an ongoing party.
Better than the Masters? No, but still pretty good. And definitely way more vodka.