On Grand Strand Golf: Day, DeChambeau headline RBC Heritage field

Masters top amateur Bryson DeChambeau is presented with his trophy by Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Course, following the Masters.
Masters top amateur Bryson DeChambeau is presented with his trophy by Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Course, following the Masters. AP

The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing won’t have the defending Masters champion, as it had last year, but it will have the No. 1 player in the world, a unique star in the making and many of the game’s top names.

Jason Day, the top-ranked player in the world who has won six of his past 14 starts including the 2015 PGA Championship, reigning NCAA Division I and U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau and nine players ranked in the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking are in the invitational field of 132 players.

The $5.9 million PGA Tour event is being played at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island from Thursday through Sunday.

Day is making his first appearance since 2013 in South Carolina’s only PGA Tour event, where he tied for ninth in 2011 for his lone top 10 and also has three top-30s and a missed cut in four previous starts.

DeChambeau will be the center of attention for much of the week at Harbour Town as he’s making his pro debut. He was a physics major at Southern Methodist University and is an anomaly in the game, having created a set of irons of equal length and a swing to go with them.

“I’m ready to go to Hilton Head and hopefully make a check,” DeChambeau said Sunday after finishing as the low amateur in the Masters with a tie for 21st at 5-over 293. “I’ve had six or seven months to prepare to be professional. I’ve played in numerous professional events, and traveled across the world trying to gain experience, and to end it off at the Masters is something special.”

The other top-ranked players entered in the tournament include world No. 14 Branden Grace of South Africa, No. 15 Brandt Snedeker, No. 17 Zach Johnson, No. 23 Kevin Kisner, No. 24 Paul Casey of England, No. 27 Bill Haas, No. 28 Matt Kuchar and No. 30 Kevin Na.

Kuchar and Snedeker are past champions and Kisner finished second in a playoff to Jim Furyk last year at Harbour Town. Furyk, a two-time Heritage winner, is still sidelined following hand and wrist surgery and won’t be able to defend his title.

Participants coming off top-10 finishes in the Masters are Casey, Day, Snedeker and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England.

Other notable players in the field include 2013 Heritage winner Graeme McDowell of Ireland and 2013 runner-up Webb Simpson, 2014 FedExCup champion Billy Horschel, four-time major champion Ernie Els and 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III.

DeChambeau is receiving one of the tournament’s sponsor exemptions to compete. Other exemptions have gone to Jeff Maggert, who represents tournament host Sea Pines Resort on the Champions Tour, Ryan Ruffels, Tommy Gainey, Wes Roach and Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer.

Other previous Heritage winners entered this week include Stewart Cink, Boo Weekley, Glen Day, Justin Leonard and Carl Pettersson.

Daily tickets and weekly badges for the tournament are on sale at the Will Call/Ticket Office in the Harbour Town Golf Links or the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce during regular business hours. Visit or call 843-671-2448 for additional information.

National rounds increase

Mild fall and winter weather in much of the U.S. contributed to an increase in rounds played in 2015, the National Golf Foundation announced in March.

Total U.S. rounds were up 1.8 percent last year compared with 2014, the first increase since 2012, according to the NGF. Milder weather in colder regions of the country played a big role in boosting the final annual numbers. Rounds played in October-December jumped by 12 percent from the previous year, lifting the final 2015 tally. Many course operators also told the NGF that an improving economy helped boost rounds played, according to the report.

Paid rounds were down about 1 percent on the Grand Strand, according to statistics compiled by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, and the area did not benefit from October weather as other parts of the country did. Record rainfall and flooding hit the area early in the month.

NGF also believes committed golfers are playing more frequently, as research shows average rounds played per golfer have steadily increased since 2003, with the country’s approximate 25 million golfers averaging just shy of 20 rounds played last year.

NGF research also found course closures continued to outpace openings in 2015, with a net reduction of 148.5 courses, or a 1 percent contraction from 2014, leaving approximately 14,300 18-hole equivalent courses. There were 177 permanent closures and only 17 new courses opened in 2015, the NGF reported, but that was up from 11 in 2014.

Since 2006, the number of golf course closures has outpaced the number of openings each year, which is considered a market correction, though the total supply has diminished only about 5 percent, the NGF says.

There is an increased interest in new golf projects however, according to course designer Jack Nicklaus. He said last week that he has more than a half-dozen contracts to build new courses in the U.S., his first in about a decade. He and other architects have instead had design projects in Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and elsewhere.

“We’ve got a lot of work coming on this year, and most all of it is new work, which is amazing to me,” Nicklaus said. “When the economy went south in the United States, the opportunity to go to China, go to Russia, go to the Middle East, go to New Zealand, Australia, South America, places that we normally wouldn’t go.

“I think golf’s made a turnaround. I think the game is coming back.”

Johnson wants degree

PGA Tour member Dustin Johnson said last week that he still aspires to earn his bachelor’s degree from Coastal Carolina.

“I’m going to get it done,” Johnson said. “… Hopefully soon.”

Johnson said CCU alum and booster Chip Smith, the former owner of the TPC Myrtle Beach, has been working with school officials on Johnson’s behalf to set up online classes that he can take to earn a degree in Recreation & Sports Management.

Johnson played four years at CCU from 2003-07 but did not have enough credits to graduate when he turned professional following the Walker Cup the summer after his senior year.

Johnson said he would consider walking during a commencement ceremony unless it falls on a tournament he normally plays.

This year’s spring commencement ceremonies fall on May 6-7. That is during the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, which Johnson is expected to play, and the ceremonies can also fall on the weekend of the lucrative and prestigious Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in early May.

The school also has summer and fall commencements generally in early August and mid-December.

The Wells Fargo annually attracts one of the stronger fields among the regular PGA Tour stops, and most of the top players in the world are expected to make it a point this year because its host course, Quail Hollow Club, will host the PGA Championship next year and players want be familiar with the layout.

Johnson hasn’t played at Quail Hollow Club in the past four seasons and has played there just three times, missing two cuts and tying for 29th between 2008-2011. His family and friends from his birthplace Columbia are pleased, as they’ll only have to drive an hour to watch him.

CPGA in spotlight

The Carolinas PGA Section and its work growing junior golf through its Drive, Chip & Putt qualifiers held across the Carolinas will be spotlighted on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive show on Wednesday.

Drive, Chip & Putt is a joint initiative founded in 2013 by the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association and the PGA of America. It’s a free nationwide junior golf development competition, with the final the Sunday before the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.

The CPGA hosts 14 DCP qualifying events between June and August, including one at Legends Resort, with thousands of boys and girls ages 7-15 participating and more than 100 CPGA Professionals volunteering. The 2016 local qualifier at Legends will be held July 12.

Highlighted in the CPGA feature is Sara Bush, head pro at the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington, N.C., who incorporates other activities during the DCP qualifier at her facility like face painting and games that include chipping a golf ball into a kiddie pool set up in the facility’s pond. Bush’s creativity has helped the event grow to about 200 participants last year.

The feature is part of a series of spotlights by Golf Channel on all 41 PGA Sections to celebrate the PGA of America’s Centennial in 2016.

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin