(CBS Miami) — The RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head returns to its usual spot on the PGA Tour calendar this year. The 2020 tournament was pushed from April to June, thanks to the COVID pandemic that shut down golf and the rest of the sports world. It was the second tournament back after a three-month break. The 2021 RBC Heritage once again finds itself in the shadow of the Masters.
The field, however, doesn’t appear to be suffering from following a major or not following a pandemic lag. Top-ranked Dustin Johnson, a native of South Carolina, leads a group that includes five of the world’s top-10 players and 10 of the world’s top-20. Defending champion Webb Simpson, who is ranked ninth, will look to rekindle some of the magic that led to his 22-under showing last year. All but one of the last decade’s champions also return.
“It looks very, very good, with some outstanding pairings,” confirms CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper. “The Thursday-Friday layout; Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson, Will Zalatoris are all paired together. Daniel Berger right behind them. Cam Smith, Webb Simpson, Paul Casey, Collin Morikawa, the reigning PGA champion. Patrick Cantlay is in the top 10 in the world. It’s a wonderful field.”
Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris will also tee it up again, looking for the PGA Tour win that secures his full-time Tour membership. “From walking with him on Saturday at the Masters, he seems to be a guy that just wants the ball and wants to take it to the hoop,” says Pepper. “He’s got momentum. He seemed to enjoy being in the spotlight last week, and I don’t see any reason why he can’t be in contention if not win.”
Among the players in the top 10 teeing it up this week, Simpson had the best score at the Masters. He tied for 12th at 2-under, 8 strokes behind winner Hideki Matsuyama. Morikawa and Tyrell Hatton tied for 18th at 1-under. And Johnson and Cantlay both missed the cut. They will have another chance this week to slip on the winner’s jacket, though it will be tartan instead of green.
Harbour Town is built on flat, low-lying marshy ground. A par-71 track measuring 7,099 yards, the course is on the shorter side for the PGA Tour. But what it lacks in length it makes up for in difficulty. The strategic minimalist design features harrowingly narrow fairways and small greens. Harbour Town demands shot-making excellence to avoid the hundreds of trees — pared down after the ravages of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — and the many sharp, crisp bunkers that designer Pete Dye once said are its best asset.
Scoring low at Harbour Town requires precise placement. The last six holes are among the best stretches on Tour. This portion of the course begins with the 373-yard par-4 13th, which features a relatively big green guarded by a giant front-side bunker. It ends with the 472-yard, par-4 18th, which plays along Calibogue Sound toward the red-and-white-striped Harbour Town lighthouse. Full view of the lighthouse will depend on whether they need grandstands to accommodate the approximately 27,000 spectators (as opposed to the usual 135,000) who will be let in.
“It requires you really to think your way around the golf course,” Pepper notes. “It’s a point-A-to-point-B golf course, where it’s not just a power game, it’s a smarts game. And I think you see a really great balance of players who have played well or won there.”
“Look at a guy like Webb Simpson last year,” Pepper continues. “Webb’s not the longest player in the world. He’s plenty long enough, so you can take advantage of the par-5s. But he’s also a really smart player, and has a really good short game, because that is crucial at this golf course. The greens are, if not the smallest, among the smallest on Tour. So you’re inevitably going to, when you get coastal winds, you’re going to miss some greens. And you have to have a creative and solid short game to get around at Harbour Town.”
Here are the favorites:
Dustin Johnson (10-1)
Johnson remains the top player in the world, but he hasn’t looked all that sharp lately. He missed the cut at the Masters and finished tied for 48th at the Players and tied for 54th at the WGC-Mexico Championship before that. Johnson last cracked the top 10 at the Genesis Open in February. Still, he has found a little success at Harbour Town, a course that doesn’t seem to fit his skillset.
Webb Simpson (12-1)
Harbour Town sets up nicely for Simpson, who can put the ball on the fairway and on the green. He is the world’s ninth-ranked player and the tournament’s 2020 winner. Simpson also set the aggregate record for the tournament with a 262, which was 22-under par. He has two other top-five finishes at the RBC Heritage in 2013 and 2018. Simpson is coming off a T12 at the Masters and managed a T6 in the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship at The Concession in late February.
Patrick Cantlay (16-1)
Cantlay sits right behind Simpson in the world golf rankings. Despite missing the cut at the Masters and Players, he’s had a solid year to day, with four finishes in the top 15. That includes a second place at the American Express. He’s also had three strong showings at the RBC Heritage, placing third in 2017, seventh in 2018 and third again in 2019.
Watch the RBC Heritage Saturday, April 17 and Sunday, April 18, 3:00 – 6:00 PM ET on CBS.