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Green: Post-Masters PGA stop belongs at Harbour Town

You know you’re in the land of the lighthouse when you step out of your car and you’re greeted by an eight-foot long alligator sunning itself on the bank of a nearby lagoon.

Lagoons and gators and battalions of bike riders are significant parts of the scenery here where the PGA Tour has returned for its annual post-Masters spa treatment at the Harbour Town Golf Links. It’s a place to exhale, to talk about what Bubba Watson did at Augusta on Sunday and where you’re having dinner after the sun sets over Calibogue Sound.

This is where the PGA Tour belongs the week after the Masters.

And it almost went away.

“I never accepted in my mind that this tournament would leave here,” Scott Verplank said, standing in the sunshine Tuesday. “It’s a fantastic stop. This is one of the good ones.”

Fortunately, RBC and Boeing stepped in and, with the cajoling of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and others, put their names on the event. The sponsorships saved both the tournament and the PGA Tour, which may not have fully appreciated what this event means to the players until it was almost gone and the grumbling grew louder.

Weeks like this one are precious and not just for the guys who will divide $5.7-million among themselves, depending on who can best keep their tee shots out of the live oaks that frame every fairway. The potential demise of this event a year ago brings to mind the question of what will happen to the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in the future.

It’s set through 2014 but, beyond that, nothing is certain. Having the 2017 PGA Championship will be a great thing for the club and the city but having the Wells Fargo Championship there for the long term would be even better. Hopefully, organizers will find a way to keep the PGA Tour in Charlotte far beyond 2014.

The Heritage may not attract Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Rory McElroy any more but it has No. 1 Luke Donald this year. Ernie Els has called it his favorite event and he’s trying to win it – and an invitation to the 2013 Masters – for the first time. Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Kyle Stanley, Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington made the winding drive down from Augusta to deal with the tiny greens, the narrow fairways and the traffic roundabouts that dot this boot-shaped island.

When Golf Digest magazine commissioned a confidential poll of tour players and asked them to rank the courses they play, Harbour Town was ranked second behind Augusta National. Tour players being notoriously picky about the courses they visit, the No. 2 ranking was a huge compliment and not entirely unexpected.

At Harbour Town, it’s not about power but about precision. It’s about playing to spots, playing away from other spots and enjoying the sense that the golf’s important but not smothering.

They’ve been playing the Heritage here since 1969 when Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event, so long ago that hush puppies had barely been invented. The island has changed – it now has a toll road that cuts down on travel time and plenty of sushi spots – but the feeling hasn’t.

It’s a golf tournament that feels like a family picnic but with more tartan plaid and trust funds.

On Monday, they had the ceremonial firing of the old cannon with defending champion Brandt Snedeker using a wooden club to hit a ball into the sound that borders the 18th fairway. The familiar candy-cane lighthouse was in the background and there was a new name on an old favorite event.

By the weekend, the Harbour Town marina will be filled with yachts and there will be a golf tournament weaving through the parties and conversations near the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean and Calibogue Sound.

If they’re smart, the revelers will raise a glass to what’s been saved.