Harbor Town Golf Links, host of the RBC Heritage, is a course with an illustrious history of great champions. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Johnny Miller, Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman led the pack through the 1980s.
Davis Love III had a dominant run through the 1990s. Other notables from this time are the late Payne Stewart, Nick Price and Stewart Cink.
Still, this omits three players with a combined seven major championships: Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller and Hubert Green. Irwin amazingly won the 1994 Heritage after first winning it in 1971.
From 1969 through the mid 1990s this tournament attracted the top players, and they performed well. The tournament was moved from two weeks prior to the Masters in 1983 to its current spot in the week following Augusta.
Yet this does not explain the drop-off in quality players in the tournament. Rather, I believe that the biggest two stars in the game, along with many more "bomb and gouge" courses being played, attributed to the decline of the field.
Tiger Woods was never one for the Heritage, playing it once in 1998. Phil Mickelson had played it regularly through 1999. He made one final appearance in 2002 and has not set foot on the course since.
The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass was moved from March to May, adding more big tournaments between the Masters and US Open.
Harbour Town provides a challenge that is out of the ordinary for most tour courses. It is not long, but features tight fairways, overhanging limbs and very tight greens. The Pete Dye design also has a finishing three-hole stretch where coastline breezes come into play.
Harbour Town has scoring holes that require a precise drive in order to attack the flag. The second and fifth holes, both par-fives, are reachable but need to be in good position. The ninth hole, at 332 yards, can be a routine birdie, but an inaccurate drive spells trouble. Since the course is so narrow, even being slightly offline means problems.
The tight greens, overhanging limbs and propensity to land in the woods end up requiring quite the variety of shots over four rounds. That is something a few players, such as Rory McIlroy and Keegan Bradley, could benefit from.
While Luke Donald is playing, the world No. 1 is joined by no other members in the top 10.
Nicklaus, Watson, Palmer, Miller, Mickelson and Tiger were all master shot-makers. The latter two really did not need a challenge like Harbour Town in their primes. At this stage, it might be helpful to them. Tiger struggled when faced with demanding tee shots at The Masters. Mickelson could benefit from a course that forces him to play in a conservative fashion.
As for the younger crop of players, it may be worth sacrificing some sponsor fees to play in a challenging tournament that will force them to play a complete game under pressure.
The bottom line is that the Heritage is truly a tournament capable of preparing a golfer for anything. They must make smart decisions above all, and the smart decision isn't always obvious. A variety of different approach shots mush be hit. Creativity around the greens and the need to execute a few tee shots exactly on line are a must.
That sounds like a fine preparation for the challenge of a major championship.