Wednesday, April 15, 2009
HILTON HEAD, S.C. – Welcome to this week’s Decompression Open. Or is it the Exhale Classic? Actually, it’s the Verizon Heritage, but the point is, it’s not Augusta National, it’s not the Masters, it’s not a major championship, or a stepping stone to Letterman.
In other words . . . breathe deep, smile wide, have fun.
“This is such a good event after Augusta, because (the Masters) . . . it isn’t a stressful week, but it’s a draining week,” Aaron Baddeley said. “It’s the Masters and it’s a demanding golf course, so by the end of the week you’re fried and you’re ready to just go and relax.”
OK, so a lot of Masters participants relax by hopping into their private jets, returning to their sprawling homes, and pretty much getting as far away from the PGA Tour as possible. But to a lot of players, the best way to unwind from the grind of the Masters is to head a few hours southeast of Augusta to play at Harbour Town Golf Links, which would be a brilliant golf course all by itself, even if it didn’t come attached to magnificent views of the water, a signature lighthouse, and luxurious yachts.
In fact, 29 Masters participants have done just that, Steve Flesch among them.
“After all the hype and hoopla of the Masters, Hilton Head fits perfectly in our schedule,” the lefthander said. He was smiling, not so much because he shot 68-67 on Masters weekend to finish tied for sixth after having made the cut on the number, but because he was comfortable in a setting that could be called quintessential PGA Tour. That is, it’s a local show put on by dedicated folks who are determined to shower you with five-star hospitality.
Not because they have to, but because it’s their nature.
“It’s relaxing. The people are friendly. It’s just a very enjoyable place to be at,” Stewart Cink said.
Add Cink’s name to a long list of Harbour Town diehards. He’s here for a ninth straight year. Brad Faxon played here 24 straight years, skipped last season because of an injury, but is back this week. Bob Estes has only missed once since 1990, Fred Funk is here this week, as he has been every April since 1991, and Ernie Els showed his passion for the tournament by committing, withdrawing, then recommitting, and he’ll tee it up for the 11th time since 1995.
Then there’s the posterboy for Hilton Head happiness – Davis Love. A five-time winner here, Love is back for a 25th straight year, and on 18 of those occasions he was more than happy to arrive straight from the pressure of the Masters.
Sure, there’s something about being able to cruise in on your yacht, drop anchor, then tee it up, but my guess is, Love factors in the cozy resort feel, the people who are passionate about this tournament, and the golf course.
“To be honest, I come because I love the golf course,” Tim Clark said. “It’s a relaxing week after the Masters, but I’d come if it wasn’t.”
Harbour Town passes that most demanding of all tests – it appeals to all styles of players. Men of enormous length have won here (Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Love, Cink), as have vintage ball-strikers (Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Boo Weekley).
“This course,” Cink said, “doesn’t corral you into having one style of winner. Not at all.”
Certainly, the Verizon Heritage is noteworthy to many for being the week after the Masters, a date it has occupied since 1983. Tournament officials needn’t apologize for not being the Masters, because nothing else is. Not the U.S. Open, not the British Open, not the PGA Championship. The Masters is . . . well, it’s the Masters, golf’s most precious tournament in its grandest theater and it’s OK to have one event stand out above all others.
What’s more impressive is to have a tournament follow that show and still be comfortable in its own skin, so to speak. The Verizon Heritage is just that, and a lot of it has to do with the fact it doesn’t come with the “walking on eggshell” mentality that is part the previous week’s landscape for some players.
“You can walk around here (comfortably),” Dudley Hart said. “I don’t feel like I’m going to get yelled at at every turn (like Augusta).”
Like all players, Hart knows at Augusta National you don’t take cell phones onto the course, including the practice range and putting green. Players still do it out of habit, some were reprimanded this year, and Hart, like many of his colleagues, welcomes the fact that it’s back to normal in so many ways this week.
“I wouldn’t say it’s different here than last week,” Briny Baird said. “I’d say that last week is different than most other tournaments.”
True enough, but if there’s only one Masters, that means there’s only one tournament after the Masters. And if you’re going to hold down that spot with honor for 27 straight years, you must be pretty special.
The Verizon Heritage is just that and while Baddeley didn’t suggest he was speaking for his colleagues, he very well could have when he said, “I love it here.”