News & Opinion

Cannon mystery adds fodder to Heritage

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – All spiffed up and no opportunity to fire.

The iconic RBC Heritage cannon sat silently on Monday, a victim of rainy weather that washed out the traditional parade and opening ceremony alongside Harbour Town’s 18th green.

Call it a dubious start to the 50th edition of South Carolina’s premier sporting event. Not only was Wesley Bryan set to join the list of Heritage champions to hit the ceremonial first drive into Calibogue Sound, but a half-dozen past winners were on hand for a second shot in honor of 50 years.

Both were timed to coincide with a cannon blast. Hey, some April traditions are louder than others.

Johnny Miller, the 1972 and 1974 Heritage champion, prepares to hit the ceremonial first shot with a hickory-shafted club and a feathery ball in the early ’70s.

Johnny Miller, the 1972 and 1974 Heritage champion, prepares to hit the ceremonial first shot with a hickory-shafted club and a feathery ball in the early ’70s.

Alas, the shots were performed in relative silence. It’s the first time since 2004 that the opening blast was scrubbed by bad weather. Another entry, perhaps, in the chronicle of a cannon that has grown only cloudier in recent years.

Though it’s been part of the pageantry since the Heritage Classic debuted in 1969, no one knows how the cannon wound up on Hilton Head Island. Until recently, it was actually in possession of Sea Pines property owners.

Nor, it turns out, does it date to the 1700s, as legend had it. The barrel actually came from a World War II-era tank.

“It’s interesting that this is a part of our tournament history now, but we have no history about it,” said Sea Pines security chief Toby McSwain, formerly the cannon’s caretaker before ownership was transferred to the tournament.

What is known is that Charles Fraser – a man with a flair for salesmanship – wanted a cannon.

Sea Pines’ late founder had come upon a 1786 ship’s manifest that noted “golfer sticks” and “featheries” among items shipped to nearby Charleston. That’s the earliest indication of golf being played anywhere in the Colonies.

Fraser’s new tournament would honor that past, hence the “Heritage” name. Drawing upon the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews’ tradition of firing a cannon to welcome in each year’s new captain, Fraser wanted something similar.

Somewhere a cannon was procured. Morgan Hyde, the tournament’s operations chief, said he has heard that it came from North Carolina, though that’s unverified.

Said McSwain: “There’s no documentation anywhere.”

McSwain didn’t even know he had inherited a cannon when he came to Sea Pines five years ago upon retiring from the Beaufort County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Office. It wasn’t on his radar until someone from maintenance came by to say that he needed to use the trailer on which the cannon sat.

Sometime in the 1980s, some sharp mind had arranged to put the cannon in the property owners’ association hands to keep it out of Sea Pines Resort bankruptcy proceedings. Other than dragging it out every April for its annual blast, though, no one thought much about it.

McSwain also discovered the cannon nearly was out of gunpowder – a special type that required some searching. He found an outlet in Mississippi, owned by a retired federal judge. The catch: It sold only in 40-pound increments.

Three days later, 40 pounds of powder arrived at McSwain’s doorstep. A few days after that came another knock at his front door.

“A couple of federal agents showed up,” he recalled. “They wanted to know what I was doing with 40 pounds of powder. I told them it was for a cannon – ‘A cannon? What do you mean, a cannon?’ We kind of had to go through the process.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that McSwain spent 25 years in law enforcement and has a federal firearms license.

As time went on, one other thing nagged at McSwain. To the best anyone knew, the cannon never had received any sort of checkup.

“We’re sticking a pound of powder in this thing and we’ve got a [PGA] Tour player standing next to it,” McSwain said. “We’ve got 4,000 people in the stands. The last thing we need is for something bad to happen.”

McSwain and Hyde wound up transporting the cannon last fall to Tennessee, where specialists at Trail Rock Ordnance dispelled any safety concerns. But there was also a surprise in store when they began to look for markings.

“It’s not an original, which we all thought it was,” Hyde said. 

It was designed to look like a 1700s naval cannon. No one had any reason to believe otherwise until put under the microscope. A 90mm tank barrel lies at the center, with rifle markings that wouldn’t have been possible three centuries ago.

Disappointing? Perhaps not.

“It’s still a cannon,” McSwain said. “It still goes boom.

If anything, the discovery has given officials some freedom to tinker with things. Plans already are in the works for a new carriage – ditching the naval look for a field artillery design that’s easier to move from place to place.

The ignition process also has been modified, eliminating the need for loose powder and a live flame. It now employs a “friction igniter” – a brass tube inserted into the hole that creates a self-contained spark when the operator pulls a lanyard.

“It’s like striking a match,” Hyde said. “Now our timing for when our past champion is going to hit the ball will be more precise.”

Unfortunately, Bryan will have to wait to get the full experience. Monday’s rain-altered program still allowed him the traditional strike, only with the audience yelling “Boom!”

“I’ll just have to win another one,” Bryan said afterward.

By then, perhaps, who knows what further cannon secrets will have been uncovered.

Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. He is based near Hilton Head Island, S.C. Email: Twitter: @jeffshain