On a Monday afternoon some six weeks before the start of the 2018 RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, dozens of Hilton Head-area golf fans got a preview of the island’s annual PGA Tour tournament – and a look at, likely, its biggest star.
Lured by an email asking for crowd extras, they gathered at Harbour Town Golf Links’ first tee to watch Columbia native and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson smash drives down the fairway – and then to cheer as if this was real. Video crews recorded it all for use in an upcoming commercial for sponsor RBC.
Standing beside the ninth green, alongside Heritage tournament director and plaid blazer-clad Steve Wilmot, John Farrell watched the scene, looking in his blue jacket and ball cap like just another golf fan. Probably not a handful of visitors could’ve identified Harbour Town’s longtime director of golf – and, each April, one of the crucial cogs in making the golf tournament a success.
To the thousands of visitors who attend the RBC Heritage each spring, Farrell is all but anonymous. Not to those who oversee the tournament, though; to those, he’s a legend.
It’s a label the soft-spoken, and occasionally sharp-tongued, Massachusetts native considered – and then laughed at. “I would say John Farrell is lucky,” he said. “It is truly a treat to be in this position. I’ve never said, not once, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’ I look forward to it every day.”
And no more so than during the Heritage, when his work day usually begins around 4:30 a.m. and ends … well, quite late. Each morning, he meets with a dozen department heads to discuss the day’s itinerary – when are opening ceremonies, who is playing in the first group going off, where will RBC executives be and what will they need – even making sure employees are clean-shaven and being fed.
“I love that 5 a.m. lineup,” Farrell said.
Wilmot counts on that dedication. “He has a passion for the game, for making things right, doing things right,” Wilmot said. “He’s about details: the driving range, the chipping area, the locker rooms, the merchandise sales. He has his ear to the ground and the pedal to the metal all the time.”
But Farrell isn’t only concerned with the RBC Heritage. That Monday, with Johnson and defending champion Wesley Bryan on site for the tournament’s media day, he was already looking ahead to … Tuesday, when the course would be open again for public play.
“Tomorrow, people will come in here, and they’ll be wearing an outfit they picked out months ago, and they’ll have fresh batteries in their cameras,” he said. “They’ll have left Ohio or New York, telling their friends, ‘I’m going to Hilton Head to play golf.’"
“We’ve got to realize what that day means to those people; to act like it’s just another day here, that’d be wrong. We’ve got to be as ready for Tuesday as for the Monday of Heritage week.”
He paused and smiled. “We have to realize how lucky we are.”
Farrell has felt that way about Hilton Head and the Heritage for nearly three decades. He arrived on the island in August 1984, fresh out of Springfield (Mass.) College and excited about becoming an assistant golf professional at Shipyard Golf Club, “which had a great reputation for attracting, retaining and promoting young professionals who wanted to make this a career,” he said. Island weather was also a plus, he admitted.
In 1991, after a stint at Oyster Reef Golf Club, Farrell was named head professional at Harbour Town, and director of golf in 2009. Part of the job was coordinating with the Heritage Classic Foundation and the tournament, South Carolina’s largest annual professional sporting event.
Farrell watched, and learned. He remembers seeing then-tournament chairman Joe Fraser, “and how much time he had for everyone.” Relationships, he realized, were crucial to make the event run smoothly – that, and realizing its importance to the community and, indeed, the entire state.
“The staff, the media, the PGA Tour guys, all who come here – I feel like there’s a bond, a friendship,” Farrell said. “We all respect the game, and we know how fortunate we are, to be a part of something like this. When you’re in the trenches for a Heritage, over time you forge something that’s pretty special.”
The RBC Heritage, celebrating its 50th year in 2018, is not just another pro golf tournament, Farrell said. “We’re a small venue, so you don’t want long lines at the bathroom, long lines to get food and drink – you want to be able to see golf.
“The intimacy of this event vs. some places on Tour … we’re very protective of that. We’re about quality rather than quantity. We’re the small ballpark of the Tour, the Wrigley Field or Fenway Park – which we love, the fact we’re not for the masses. People come to truly watch golf; if you want to do that, you get every opportunity.”
It’s not always easy to make things as perfect as possible, though. Two years ago, every inch of the Harbour Town course was re-grassed and a new clubhouse erected. “But we didn’t change the integrity of the (golf) shot values,” Farrell said. Indeed, he and others heard from the PGA Tour players – who had voted Harbour Town their second-favorite annual venue, behind only Augusta National – asking that the renovated course play the same as before.
“Players came to us saying, ‘It’s one of the few shot-makers’ courses left on Tour,’” Farrell said. “Everyone is going to 7,500 yards (courses; Harbour Town remains shorter than 7,000), but that’s not us. We’re very committed to preserving (the course’s features) as (architect) Pete Dye outlined them” in 1969.
The Heritage also survived the loss of sponsor Verizon in 2010 (RBC took over after the Heritage Classic Foundation, with help from the town of Hilton Head, shouldered the load in 2011), and last fall, a hurricane that damaged the course. “The day after the storm, our ownership brought in the best tree company in the world,” Farrell said. “We had a lot of crews to get the course cleaned up. They didn’t wait for insurance or adjusters; they said, ‘Get it fixed and back out there.’”
Come April 8, Farrell will be well into tournament mode. Besides the work, he enjoys mingling with PGA Tour players in the locker room, where “they let their guard down and you get the straight stuff about how they feel about things,” he said. “Some over the years have become friends,” notably Zimbabwe’s Nick Price and former Furman player Brad Faxon, who once famously zinged him, asking Farrell’s wife, Jane, if she was his daughter.
Jokesters take on Farrell at their peril, though. “I am a smart-aleck; I like to tease and being teased,” he said. Recently, Republican legislators came to Harbour Town for a golf outing, and “I was quick to tell them they were playing the championship tees, (getting) no strokes, playing the ball down and putting them all out.”
US Sen. Lindsey Graham asked him, ‘Who the heck are you?’ And Farrell replied with a grin, “You of all people don’t want any ‘entitlements.’”
Wilmot laughed at that story before turning serious. “To have John as liaison between the tournament and Sea Pines is a blessing for us all,” he said. “I even called him for dinner reservations last night with Wesley Bryan (the group ate at Links, the clubhouse restaurant). He’s my go-to guy for obvious reasons.”
And a legend – or just lucky; it depends on who you ask.