Reflecting on the history of Harbour Town Golf Links and the tournament that made a golf course famous, a few individuals come to mind. For those well versed in Heritage lore, the names trickle off the tongue: Charles Fraser, Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
But it could be argued there was another person whose contributions were as meaningful as any of the above.
If Fraser demonstrated visionary genius in 1968 when he hired Dye to design Harbour Town, on Hilton Head Island, and asked Nicklaus to serve as the architect’s consultant, he made an equally astute hire the following year when he brought Charles Price on board to help organize and promote the inaugural Heritage Classic.
Price, along with Herbert Warren Wind and Dan Jenkins, was one of the preeminent golf writers of the second half of the 20th century. In 1959, he founded Golf Magazine and served as its first editor. He wrote for a fledgling Golf World and later served as a contributing editor for Golf Digest.
Longtime Golf Digest editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde called Price’s monthly column, “the closest thing to literature in sportswriting at the time. He was part of what I still think of as the Golden Age of Golf Writing in our pages, accompanied by Peter Dobereiner, Dan Jenkins, Peter Andrews and occasionally Herb Wind and Alistair Cooke.”
Price stood just 5-foot-9 and weighed about 140 pounds. Yet despite his small physical stature, he possessed a beautiful golf swing and actually competed on tour as an amateur in 1947 and 1948. Unfortunately, his relative lack of strength kept him far behind his professional peers, literally. Price never made a cut.
In a hotel bar one evening, Clayton Heafner, who was 6-2 and 220 pounds, took Price aside and said to him, “You know, Charley, to make it on the tour you have to drive the ball like a truck driver and putt like a hairdresser. The problem with you is that you drive the ball like a hairdresser and putt like a truck driver.”
Nevertheless, as author Richard Miller wrote, “Price’s playing experience helped him add richness to his prose.” Dobereiner, the imminent British columnist, described himself as “a dust-bin collector next to Charley Price.” Tarde once said, “For sheer elegance, the style of Charles Price belonged on a Paris runway in an earlier time. He believed in never using a metaphor or analogy that wasn’t at least 50 years old.”
“I want my stuff read for generations,” Price said. “The latest Spielberg flick might not be around so long.”
Price authored and co-authored 15 books, including a golf instructional book with Bobby Jones, and he also penned, “A Golf Story: Bobby Jones, Augusta National and the Masters Tournament.” Through their work together, Price and Jones grew close, and Jones would write letters to his friend often during a two-decade period.
When Price founded Golf Magazine, Jones wrote: “I am delighted to know that you are projecting a first-class magazine devoted entirely to golf. With the growth of the game already evidenced in the past decade or so and prospective for the future, I think you have reason to hope for good success. Certainly, a golf magazine of high quality should do much for the game.”
In one of the last letters Jones wrote to Price, dated July 29, 1969, two years before Jones’ death, he told Price, “I am pleased that you are happily situated at Hilton Head – I have heard so many extravagant praises of this place from the numerous friends I have who visit there. It sort of makes my mouth water.”
Price had recently moved to Hilton Head Island, to work on a coffee table book about golf. When he learned that Sea Pines Resort was planning to stage a satellite tournament with a $40,000 purse on its Ocean Course, he went to Fraser and suggested he consider upping the ante to $100,000, making it a full-fledged PGA tournament and playing the event at Harbour Town, which was just beginning construction.
“He insisted that Harbour Town was going to be a landmark U.S. course, and that no matter what effort it took, the first island golf tournament should be played at that course,” Fraser later wrote.
Through his longtime involvement in the game, Price was on a first-name basis with not only the top players in the game, but also the most essential administrators, agents and writers. He knew that with Nicklaus helping Dye on the course design, he would likely play in the tournament. And Price assured Fraser he could get Arnold Palmer, who he had known since Palmer was a teenager, to play as well.
“Who else can we get?” Fraser asked.
“With those two, we don’t need anyone else,” Price replied.
With that, Price was hired to help promote the tournament. In the fall of 1969, as Heritage organizers were scrambling madly to get the golf course completed and the inaugural event off the ground, Price invited his friend, Atlanta Journal columnist Furman Bisher, to visit Hilton Head, and Bisher wrote a series of columns about Harbour Town.
At Price’s suggestion, Dan Jenkins, then a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, came to Hilton Head on Saturday of the first Heritage to cover what would become Palmer’s historic triumph. In his tournament story, Jenkins wrote: “Harbour Town is some golf course, folks, just about the best new course that anyone has built in ages, a brutally narrow, abruptly twisting tangle of brooding pines, oaks, palmettos and magnolias with tiny greens guarded by wriggling bunkers and fierce marshes. … They have used great imagination and given us nothing short of a work of art.”
Needless to say, you can’t beat PR like that. Harbour Town became an instant classic, and the Heritage Golf Classic leapt onto the golfing map. Price even helped orchestrate a tournament tradition. “Price insisted that the tournament should connect with the proven fact that a golf club operated for 25 years in Charleston (South Carolina) a full century before the game was introduced in New York,” Fraser wrote. “Sea Pines marketing and advertising vice president John Smith took up the campaign with full enthusiasm.
“Price researched what golf was like in Scotland in 1786 and earlier, seeking ideas for the new golf tournament to celebrate the historic connection between golf in Scotland and South Carolina. The old custom of ‘playing in’ the new captain of the gentleman golfers by a cannon shot was suggested. Smith and Price got this rolling as a continuing tradition.”
Price spent the last years of his life moving back and forth from Hilton Head Island to Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he died in 1994 following a lengthy battle with cancer. Along with Fraser, he was posthumously inducted in the inaugural class of the Lowcountry Golf Hall of Fame in 2014.
Charles Price is remembered as a golf historian. Yet for those connected to Hilton Head Island and the RBC Heritage, his stint as a tournament promoter should never be forgotten.
Top: Harbour Town lighthouse Photo by Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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