As a South Carolina native who grew up playing all the Palmetto State’s finest golf courses — and taking trophies home from many of them — you’d expect Matthew NeSmith to know his way around Harbour Town Golf Links. But even with titles from two tournaments closely associated with the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, NeSmith had never played a competitive round on Pete Dye’s masterpiece until Thursday.
The first one was a beauty.
The North Augusta native and former University of South Carolina star fired a 5-under 66 in the first round Thursday and had the lead when he finished his day. NeSmith finished Thursday tied for 10th and two shots back of co-leaders Ian Poulter and Mark Hubbard.
After an early bogey at No. 12 — his third hole — NeSmith jumpstarted his round with four straight birdies beginning at No. 13, and he added three more on his second nine, helping offset a three-putt bogey at the par-5 fifth.
“Just did everything you need to do around here — greens, fairways, give yourself some looks, and putted pretty well,” NeSmith said.
If NeSmith were to keep up his great play, not only could he join Wesley Bryan (2017) as the only South Carolina natives to win their annual home game, but he could also become the first player to win both the Players Amateur — the prestigious amateur event the Heritage Classic Foundation supported for 20 years before discontinuing it last year — and the Heritage. NeSmith is already one of two golfers to win both the Players Amateur and the Sea Pines Junior Heritage — the other being Savannah native Brian Harman — and now he has a shot at scoring an unprecedented trifecta.
Despite all those connections to the Heritage, this is NeSmith’s first start at Harbour Town, as difficult as that is to believe. He declined the invitation to play in the 2016 Heritage that came with his Players Am title, opting instead to represent the Gamecocks in the SEC Championship, but he’s happy to be here now.
“This course fits my game nicely, especially if I play well,” NeSmith said. “I’ve been around here a couple of times. So I’m pretty excited about it.”
Harman could also complete the Heritage Triforce, but he will have a steeper climb if we wants to do it this year. The former Georgia Bulldog standout went O.B. en route to a double-bogey at the par-5 second hole but steadied himself and rallied for a 1-under 70.
There are five more Players Amateur winners in the field, including reigning champion Spencer Ralston, who carded a nice 2-under 69 and is tied for 45th. The trio of Kevin Tway, Bud Cauley, and Bill Haas each shot even-par and need to make a move Friday to stick around for the weekend.
Then there’s Rickie Fowler. A fresh-faced kid from California when he won the 2007 Players Amateur at Belfair before heading to Oklahoma State, Fowler made his first PGA Tour start at Harbour Town as an amateur in 2008. He tied for eighth at the Heritage in 2010, but he missed the cut in 2011 and 2012 and hadn’t been back since.
“Unfortunately, through the past, it’s been tough to play after Augusta, with the schedule I would play leading up to that, so it’s been nice with how the schedule has worked out,” Fowler said Wednesday after his practice round. “I was excited that I was going to be able to come back to Hilton Head. It’s a special place. I love the golf course. It’s fun and different. It’s not just bombs away and find it. You’ve got to play in certain spots. The wind can play tricks around here in the trees. It’s just a fun place.”
That was before he fired a 4-under 67, which leaves him tied for 16th after 18 holes and right in the conversation of which Players Amateur champ will be the first to add a tartan jacket — if it ever happens. There are still plenty of Players Am champs capable of winning at Harbour Town, but with the amateur event in the rearview mirror, the window won’t be open forever.
Story by Justin Jarrett