But for much of the past decade, the 67-year-old has done some of his best work as part of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.
Perhaps not surprisingly, though, his affiliation with South Carolina’s only annual PGA TOUR event as a trustee of The Heritage Foundation came about, in part, because of his longtime first sport.
“I wanted to be involved because of being a player, whether it was tennis or golf,” Smith said during the 2014 RBC Heritage, where he patrolled Harbour Town Golf Links clad in staff gear or, on Championship Sunday, the tournament’s traditional tartan jacket. “I talked to (two-time Heritage winner) Tom Watson and asked, ‘How can we make it better for the players?’
“There are three elements to that: players, sponsors and fans; you’ve got to keep them all happy. But if the players don’t come, the rest won’t be there. So the course has to be something special for them.”
Smith believes his tournament does it as well as, or better than, the competition. “I’ve been to several other golf tournaments, and (Hilton Head) is a relaxing place for players,” he says. “They come and ride bikes, they’re housed in homes, and it’s fantastic for their families. The Easter break is a great time for them, time with their families. And my familiarity with the tournament is something I can offer.”
Familiarity with Hilton Head, too — Smith arrived on the island in 1971, invited by Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser to become the resort’s touring professional and also to “establish a tennis presence. (Fraser) did his homework, and he realized tennis was popular then.”
Smith explains that when he arrived, “there were eight tennis courts (in the resort), and we built about 30 more. At one time, we had the most televised tennis tournaments of any resort in the US, maybe the world,” notably the Family Circle tournament, now located near Charleston at Daniel Island.
Forty-three years later, Smith and his family still call the island’s Spanish Wells development home. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “Not just because they hired me, but it’s such a beautiful place. It’s a great place to visit, and to live.
“For 20 years, we were on the road most of the time, and I’m still on the road 60 percent of my time — but no matter if we’re in Paris, London, Melbourne, when we come over the bridge, it’s nice to realize we’re back at Hilton Head. We’ve raised four kids here; this is our home base.”
As for his golf ties, Smith didn’t take up the game until arriving at Hilton Head at age 25 — his first set of clubs were by Wilson, his tennis sponsor — but being a world-class athlete made learning easier. He plays to a 6 handicap and says, “I’ve birdied every hole at Harbour Town. Of course, in 43 years, anyone would’ve done that; it’s not a big deal.”
Others might disagree on that. Smith says he’s had many opportunities here, and he’s not just talking about courses to play. In fact, despite his passion for the RBC Heritage and playing golf, tennis remains his number-one interest — not to mention an ongoing source of pride.
Noting Hilton Head’s longtime reputation as a golf destination, Smith chuckles. “It took 10 years before someone came up to me when I was out on tour and said, ‘Hilton Head? Isn’t that the tennis resort?’” he says. “That’s instead of ‘the golf resort.’”
Thanks in large part to Smith, people now know it for both.
Hometown: Pasadena, Calif.
Bio: Three-time All-American tennis player at Southern California, won the 1968 NCAA singles and 1967 and 1968 doubles titles. As a professional, won two Grand Slam events; teamed with Bob Lutz as one of the most successful doubles teams ever. Retired in 1985; now co-owner of Smith Sterns Tennis Academy at Hilton Head. Married to former Princeton tennis player Marjorie Gengler; four children.
Highlights: Won the 1971 US Open over Jan Kodes and the 1972 Wimbledon title over Ilie Nastase; twice reached French Open quarterfinals and three times Australian Open third round. Was ranked No. 1 singles player in the world at the end of 1972; also won four Grand Prix Championship Series titles; lent his name to a popular brand of tennis shoes. Named by Tennis magazine in 2005 as 35th on its “40 Greatest Players of the Tennis Era”; inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
Where I play: “Certainly, on (Hilton Head Island), it’s Harbour Town Golf Links. Long Cove is a great course where I’ve always enjoyed playing, a real championship course. I’ve also played Colleton River, Belfair and Berkeley Hall with members off and on; all six of those are quite good. … I’ve played (Sea Pines’) Heron Point and the Ocean Course maybe more than Harbour Town because tourists always want to play Harbour Town. I played at Palmetto Dunes and Shipyard early on, and we had a condo in Shipyard once. Wexford and Hilton Head Plantation, (I’ve) played all the courses there, and Indigo Run’s two courses. … I haven’t played that much outside Hilton Head, but in Greenville I played Chanticleer once — oh, and Thornblade.”
Where I eat: “We’ve eaten at most places here on the island. We like Michael Anthony’s, the Sage Room and Red Fish, and CQ’s is always good. Ombra in Wexford Village is new. One place I go the most, though, is Mi Tierra, a Mexican place, almost a hole-in-the-wall place; I go there every week or two. Amigo’s, we have lunch or dinner there, and Santa Fe Café is always a favorite. Charlie’s is a great one, too. We’ve gone to Truffles for lunch and dinner quite a bit, both on the island and off the island.”
What I do for fun: “I spend a lot of time with the tennis academy; I started that 12 years ago, and I’m still the touring pro at the Racquet Club. I’ve never done much boating, but we do have a dock at our home in Spanish Wells. We do a lot of biking around in Sea Pines, which is such a great place to bike. That’s pretty much it: biking, tennis and golf.”