HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | Stan Smith sat under a white umbrella outside the media center for the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links and couldn’t help but notice where the structure was located.
“It’s ironic that we’re on one of the tennis courts right here,” Smith said, pointing to the grainy green clay-court surface peeking out around the edges of an outdoor seating area.
It’s been 50 years since Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser persuaded Smith, a Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, to help him bring tennis to the still-new resort anchoring this barrier island.
It was a brilliant move as Sea Pines hosted men’s and women’s professional tennis events for almost 30 years, bolstering the golf tournament that is surging in its seventh decade of existence. The Family Circle tennis event was the largest women-only tennis tournament in the world for 25 years.
With his background as an American world-class tennis player and his experience through the years with the Heritage, Smith has a sense of what players and their families want during tournament week.
Now Smith, a former world No. 1 in tennis, finds himself in a different role as co-chairman of a PGA Tour event.
Smith, 75, has not abandoned tennis for golf – he still plays both and is a single-digit-handicap golfer – and he is a fixture on this island.
“I have such a love of the island and for Sea Pines,” said Smith, whose name is on the resort’s tennis academy and its 26 courts.
“It’s really important for Sea Pines. I keep telling the owners this is really a big deal to get so much exposure, and it’s almost always very good exposure.”
During the tournament’s opening ceremony Tuesday, Smith in his red tartan jacket joined the parade of locals who escorted defending champion Stewart Cink onto Harbour Town’s 18th fairway, where Cink hit the ceremonial first tee shot into Calibogue Sound while a cannon thundered.
With his background as an American world-class tennis player and his experience through the years with the Heritage, Smith has a sense of what players and their families want during tournament week. He has developed friendships with several PGA Tour players and has played in the pro-am from time to time.
Having won five major-championship doubles crowns with partner Bob Lutz, Smith still knows his way around a tennis court.
“I hit with the kids a bit in our academy,” Smith said. “I don’t really play. I play some exhibitions and, I have this company (Stan Smith Events) where we help corporations entertain their clients, so I’ll play with them and then do some charity events, but I don’t really play competition.
“I play a bit of golf when I’m here, but it’s really sporadic. I might play twice a week, and I haven’t played for two months.”
Smith didn’t play golf until he settled in Hilton Head. A native Californian, Smith considered living outside San Diego but liked the convenience of travel from the East Coast, and the lowcountry island life appealed to him and his family.
Having played tennis at the highest level, Smith finds some parallels with golf.
“Generally it comes down to the mental side of the game and then preparation,” Smith said. “Physical preparation may be more important in tennis, but certainly we’re seeing it now in golf. The golfer is becoming more fit because of Tiger (Woods), and Gary Player was before that, realizing that being fit is going to help you.
“When I talk to kids, I tell them the mental side of the game in tennis is critical, and it can be benefited by the physical side. In tennis if you lose the first set and you’re not in great shape, or in as good a shape as your opponent, you’re probably going to have to change your game and go for some shots because you know you’re not going to last.
“A good example is Tiger trying to play Augusta. That’s an extreme situation, but he was able to do it because he was fit enough. Now the other guys all understand how they’re gonna play better on the back nine on Sunday if they have the energy and the strength. It’s going to help them mentally.”
Not unlike the way Arnold Palmer is known to a portion of the population for the iced tea and lemonade beverage that bears his name, Smith has his own iconic spot in the fashion world.
The white Adidas tennis shoes bearing his name were created in 1978 and are undergoing another resurgence in popularity, not for the tennis court but as perpetually fashionable footwear.
There are variations on the classic white with green trim shoe – Smith wore a pair of golf shoes bearing his name – but the original still bears the touches he added: a higher tongue in the back for Achilles support and a loop in the front tongue to thread the laces through.
Michael Jordan may have his Air Jordans. Smith has his Stan Smiths.
How many pairs have been sold?
Last year total sales topped 100 million.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Smith said.
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