The secret to watching golf from a yacht on Hilton Head? Forget the golf
The RBC Heritage at Harbour Town is recognized for at least two things—the lighthouse and the yachts that park in the harbor during the tournament. (Photo courtesy of RBC Heritage)
HILTON HEAD, S.C.—When the idea came down from my editors the week of the RBC Heritage—why don't you go watch the 18th hole from one of the yachts in Calibogue Sound?—I experienced a brief surge of excitement, followed by waves of dread. The upside is obvious. We're at Harbour Town Golf Links, which is unique for many reasons, chief of which is the iconic lighthouse rising past the 18th green and the fleet of white yachts bobbing on the water along the 18th fairway. What's it like to watch golf from that vantage? A great question worth exploring, and, worst-case scenario, you spend some time on a yacht.
Great. But at that point, the potential problems mounted in my mind: What if watching golf from a boat in the water turned out to be incredibly boring? ("I stood on the bridge and squinted. In the distance, I could almost make out some golfers.") What if yachting culture turns out not to be about golf at all? What if, god forbid, I was forced to sit scribbling notes among the drunken golden-skinned 20-something hordes as they became increasingly suspicious or hostile to the sweaty 38-year-old in their midst? And the biggest problem of all, the stumper of stumpers: How the hell do I get on a yacht?
"It's OK if it doesn't work out," I was told, which is a little like somebody saying, "It's OK if there's no Christmas morning this year." Sure, it's fine, it's dandy, but once you put a yacht in somebody's brain, my own included, there's no satisfying ending that doesn't end with me on a boat. (In literature, this principle is called Chekhov's Yacht.)
I had to find a way, or I was a disappointment and a fraud.
On Friday, picking up my parking pass and with no real idea how to go forward, I asked the nice woman in the hut if she knew anybody with a yacht. I received a tight smile in response, but behind me, an excited voice rang out.
"Hell, I know a lot of people with yachts!"
That's when I met a man I'll call "Frank" (not his real name). Frank sold fighting chairs, which I learned are the seats on a boat from which you wrangle with mighty sea beasts. He'd sold to various yachtsmen in Hilton Head, he said, he knew everyone in the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, and I could have my pick of boats. I shook his hand, elated on the inside, knowing in my heart of hearts that this was a sign: The universe wanted to see me on a yacht.
As the day wore on, though, things got a bit strange. Frank's frequent calls became a bit more disjointed, and I listened in mystification as he told me that his girlfriend was getting angry at him for talking to me, and then insisted that I call his brother in Georgia to set the whole thing up. Only one catch: Under no condition could I tell Frank's brother that I had spoken with Frank. I asked why, and immediately wished I hadn't. I did not make that call, but late on Friday afternoon he called again with an alleged yacht owner who was allegedly willing to take me out. On the phone, the man sounded deeply unenthused, and I suspected right away that I wouldn't hear from him in the morning...which turned out to be right. He handed the phone back to Frank, who told me he needed two "executive tickets" to the course for Saturday. I got off the phone, waited an hour, and texted him that there were no tickets left over.
So much for Frank. But I had thrown out a couple other lines. A few others fizzled out, and it turned out that Leslie Whitener was my last hope. Lucky for me, she was a hell of a good hope. She's the harbor master at Sea Pines Resort—she's been there for 38 years—and she works out of an office just below the lighthouse beyond the 18th green, and from our first phone call, I could tell I had struck human gold. When I visited her, just past the marina where the white yachts gleamed in the afternoon sun, she handed me a written list of seven possibilities—names, boat names, slip numbers to help me locate them, and a fact or two about each. We talked for a moment, and it occurred to me that this was somebody I'd like to hang out with for a lot longer.
"Are they nice people?" I asked, scanning her list and dreading the idea of approaching the yacht people cold.
"I didn't put any of the a--holes on there," she said.
I took her list, surveyed the yachts, and decided to take the coward's way out. I picked out my favorite name from the list—Rocky Sease, which is almost too perfect for a captain—found him on Facebook and sent a message that he quickly returned. Just like that, I had booked some free time on a yacht.
I want to level with you now, because you may be starting to wonder where the actual golf in this story comes in. Here's the truth: The people who come to the RBC Heritage on yachts are sort of here for the golf, but they're very much here for the party. A good number of them never leave the marina. They're seeing old friends, walking at the docks from boat to boat, eating good food, and drinking good drink. What else do you need? Others drop anchor off the 18th fairway, but without a powerful set of binoculars, there's really no "watching" the golf, so they drink instead. And if they really want to see golf, they buy tickets and watch on dry land.
This is why this story is more about yachts. And if you want the answer to that central question of what it's like to watch golf from a boat, here's the short version:
I met Rocky and his wife Melissa at noon on Saturday at slip 18. He wore a Nautica T-shirt, she a floral print shirt and Ray-Bans, and they welcomed me onto the deck of The Boys' Inheritance IV, a lovely 52-foot 2007 Carver Voyager with leather seats in the salon, three bedrooms below, a bridge on the fourth story from which Rocky navigates, and a head—that's the bathroom—where, slightly panicked at the very end of our journey, I vainly searched for the flushing mechanism.
Luckily, Melissa and Rocky are the kinds of hosts who don't make you feel the least bit bad when you confess that kind of thing to them; it was pure southern hospitality from the start. My wife, who grew up on a boat, had coached me to ask for the captain's permission before boarding, which helped me avoid an early faux pas, and I quickly learned that the only other real blunder I could make was being caught without a drink. If the job requires it, I told them, I'd make any sacrifice. Impressed by professionalism, they gave me a Bud Light, and then another, and if it were up to them, I would be writing this article completely sloshed.
I kept my head and began to pry. They started a company together called SOS International in 2002, the aim of which was to train and certify men and women who work on high-voltage lines. They secured contracts from local municipalities and utilities, and watched the company expand across the country and eventually the world. It was a good idea—the fact that they own a yacht attests to that—and last year they sold the company and are now in semi-retirement. Rocky is 65, Melissa's 59, they both look and act much younger, and now they are full-time yachters. Is this the American dream? If not, it probably should be.
They come to the Heritage every year and have for more than a decade. The name of their boat—The Boys' Inheritance—was funnier than I expected. I assumed it meant their sons would inherit the boat, but in reality, it was about spending that inheritance on yachts, sons be damned. They've bought four so far, each one larger than the last. We were soon joined by her son Andrew and a group of his friends, and when I asked how Andrew felt about all of this, he smiled.
"The next one they buy should be called The Boys' Inheritance is Gone."
(Andrew and I very briefly discussed his high school golf career—he's near scratch—which constituted pretty much the entirety of the golf talk in my two hours on the yacht.)
Rocky was kind enough to take us all for a spin around Calibogue Sound, and our group had grown significantly. Along with the various young people—the men drank outside, the women sat on the bridge and discussed weddings—Kevin Ambrose and his partner Terrence Burns, who owned the nearby Sans Souci, came aboard before we pulled out of the marina.
I have been on exactly two kinds of boats in my life, a motorboat and a ferry, and riding with Rocky in the bridge, the water a long distance below, this felt more like a ferry. He exuded a reassuring sangfroid at the helm, and it didn't surprise me to learn that in their worst nautical moment, storm-tossed in the Bahamas and with Melissa considering her own mortality while comforting a policeman they had on as a passenger, Rocky's greatest concern, as he navigated them to safety, was a wave that broke his windshield wiper. (At the end of our journey, he had to pull off the feat of parking the boat in the narrow berth of slip 18 with a crowd of at least a dozen watching, in reverse, with any error sure to go on GolfDigest.com.)
As he navigated, Melissa, Kevin, Terrence, and the others entertained my questions about the boating life. What's the appeal here, I wondered?
It came down to a few factors: the camaraderie, the peace, nature, food, and drink.
"It is the most fun," Melissa said. "It's the best form of stress-relief."
"Second-best," Kevin corrected.
(For what it's worth, Kevin was a pip. When I asked for his last name later, and wondered if he and Terrence shared a name, he said, "We're Republicans, we don't believe in gay marriage.")
We drove past Hilton Head's gold coast and Daufuskie Island, the kind of throwback reachable only by boat, and they told me about all the places they'd visited, from the Barrier Islands to the Florida Keys to the Bahamas, and as far north as Maryland...but no farther. These were southerners through and through, peppering their speech with phrases like "toddy" (which apparently refers to any kind of alcohol), and that classic of passive-aggressive sympathy, "bless your heart." The biggest disagreement between them was the Clemson-Georgia football rivalry (Rocky's Clemson, Melissa's Georgia), and in the rare moments when something vaguely political came up, I made sure to smile and nod. Bad enough to be a Yankee ... I'm not a strong swimmer.
In truth, though, they were too nice to toss me overboard even if I had been an ungrateful boor. It's a cultural niceness that can seem odd in the abstract if you're not used to it, but is all-encompassing in the moment, to the point that you're grateful for hosts like these and think, in the moments before real life resumes, "Yes, sure, I could disappear into this."
"We can be whatever we want out here," said Melissa, and Rocky, who has been handling boats since he was young, valued the solitude of places like the undeveloped Barrier Islands above all else. The group dynamic, too, kept coming up—these were their friends, and one way or another, in ways that are difficult to explain, the experience of boating made them closer. Out on the water, it's easy to see what they meant, and I enjoyed hearing their stories; how Rocky once drove by accident into a U.S. naval base outside Jacksonville, how he knew Melissa was a keeper when he watched her crack her own crab legs.
On the way in, Rocky let me take the helm. I could have stayed there for hours, steering the ship around the sound, watching the prow cut through the water. There's a feeling of power at first—the "I'm on a boat!" mindset that makes you feel a little superior to everything below—but that quickly fades into a kind of serenity. I had to give up the seat eventually, and when I joked about a rogue journalist crashing a yacht in the marina, Rocky said he'd at least get a new boat out of it, and Golf Digest would be renamed "Rocky's f***ing Magazine."
At the end of our journey, he drove parallel to the shore, slowing down along the 18th fairway so I could take a photo or two. I stood on the bridge and squinted. In the distance, I could almost make out some golfers.