RIETVELD: Up close and personal, this is the RBC Heritage like we’ve never seen

The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing is back in its traditional April slot on the schedule, and a very fortunate portion of Plaid Nation is back at Harbour Town Golf Links after a spectator-free 2020 tournament in June.

When you arrive at the tournament this year, you will quickly recognize a distinct change in scenery and a much quieter soundtrack to the tournament day. Only 20 percent of the normal capacity is allowed into Hilton Head Island’s PGA Tour event in 2021, but the lower numbers bring some refreshing changes to the Lowcountry’s biggest weekend.

On Thursday, I followed the featured group of the afternoon tee times to experience firsthand what it is truly like in the heat of the gallery during the 2021 RBC Heritage. The all-star group consisted of future Hall of Famer Sergio Garcia, Patrick Cantlay, and reigning PGA champion Collin Morikawa. 

While the gallery was healthy in size relative to other groupings, it was easy for anyone to get great views of PGA Tour stars on each shot. Shockingly, the crowd was a very pro-Sergio gallery, only golf clapping the two rising American stars, while shouting “SERGIO!” after every approach shot during the windy 4-hour round. Those cheers and chants were incredibly welcoming no matter the player after a year of fan silence.

Sure, the cheers are muffled due to the majority of tournament goers sporting facemasks due to the COVID-19 and tournament regulations. However, the loud or at least loud-ish roars were back to echoing through the seaside Sea Pines forest after a Cantlay chip-in birdie on the third hole. 

In the June 2020 rendition of the RBC Heritage, champion Webb Simpson’s seven final round birdies were greeted by a smattering of light clapping and respectful head nods by the volunteers donning straw hats, as they were the only “fans” on the course. Today’s cheers bouncing off the tall, dancing pine trees provided a sense of normalcy.

Plaid Nation is back at Harbour Town this year — well, a portion of it — but the grandstand at the iconic 18th hole is not. The scaled down version of the tournament with 20 percent the typical crowd provides a unique experience for the fans lucky enough to snag tickets. (Photo by Brian Rietveld)

Of course it is not the same raucous crowd that you remember in years past, but it is a crowd nonetheless. You will not find the overdose of men in pastel colored pants and ladies in their new Lily Pulitzer day dresses at the corner of holes 10 and 16. At this traditional social vortex where double-fisting fans typically forget a golf tournament even exists on Hilton Head Island, you will simply find a great viewing location to watch two picturesque approach shots at once.

This week you will still hear the murmurs of “he should have hit an 8 iron” after a shot falls a few yards short into a Pete Dye pot bunker, but maybe not the cringy “mashed potatoes!” from an overly hydrated spectator. Marshalls have refound their elementary school teacher scowls, as spectators need reminding that cell phones need to be silenced or to stand still during a golfer’s flop shot. 

Speaking of marshalls, you will see a new volunteer on the course this year wearing white bibs and raising signs stating “wearing a mask is mandatory.” They are “hospitality” volunteers and they literally have one job, ensuring gallery members wear their masks. Some maskless fans were asked to separate from the masses to watch from afar, but for the most part they are living, breathing recommendation signs.

Arguably the best byproduct of the limited fans is in concessions. The lines to concessions stands are as if you have an express pass for rides at your favorite amusement park. The lines are minimal and the concessions staff are incredibly quick and polite. 

The pork sandwiches are still killer, by the way. 

That said, fewer fans means fewer tips and dollars to local charities, so keep that in mind when you order your favorite Heritage treats.

While it is quieter and at times almost lonely on the course, you the fan, will get a unique and incredibly personal experience. Today, as I followed one of the highest-profile groups of the week and honestly in RBC Heritage history, I never had a bad angle or view of the players and their shots. In fact, I often became a third wheel while Morikawa and caddie J.J. Jakovac discussed yardages, wind, and snack options. 

If you are one of the lucky few with a RBC Heritage pass, pick out a few of your favorite golfers and go watch golf like you never have before on a world-class level at one of the most special places in South Carolina. It truly is an experience we as fans may never see again. 

By Brian Rietveld

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