Heritage in peril? Tour stop needs sponsor
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Stewart Cink can’t imagine spending the week after the Masters anywhere else but Harbour Town Golf Links.
Many of the PGA Tour’s best players build the popular course into their schedule, but that could soon be changing. Verizon and its preceeding companies, MCI and Worldcom, had sponsored the event since 1987, but the deal ended with the final round Sunday.
Right now, there’s no replacement sponsor for the nearly $8 million necessary to put on the tournament each year. Organizers and pros alike are worried that the event, which began with Arnold Palmer raising the first trophy in 1969, might be in jeopardy.
“I hope that a company can see how valuable this could be for them, to step in and take the place of Verizon,” said Cink, who won at Hilton Head in 2000 and 2004.
Five-time winner Davis Love III, a member of the PGA Tour’s players’ advisory council, has spoken to potential sponsors directly about the Heritage’s appeal. Other pros have also praised the event, including Jim Furyk, who beat Brian Davis on the first playoff hole Sunday to earn the champions’ tartan jacket.
“It makes a lot of sense” to come to Hilton Head, said Rick George, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations. “It’s been a staple on tour for the last 42 years and we hope to be here another 42 years.”
Tournament director Steve Wilmot announced last September that Verizon had chosen to spread its sponsorship dollars over several events instead of concentrating it all on the Heritage.
Wilmot remembers meeting with PGA Tour officials in November and asking when he should be worried about Harbour Town’s place on the schedule. The answer was around tournament time.
“Well, it’s tournament time,” he said this week.
Wilmot said in March that the Heritage was safe for next year, even without a sponsor. He’s still confident that will happen because of the Heritage Classic Foundation’s solid financial footing. However, new agreements must be reached with the PGA Tour and tournament host course Sea Pines, typically a formality but hurdles nonetheless.
The PGA Tour has had its hands full finding sponsors for companies who no longer wish to market at golf. The WGA-CA Championship at Doral is also seeking a new sponsor.
Right after the Masters, the Heritage has been a wonderful antidote to the grueling pressure of Augusta National. Ernie Els and his family were often seen riding bikes, pros brought their families to the beach, and even the course – at just over 6,900 yards – was a welcome change.
“It’s the anti-Augusta,” Cink said with a smile.
Although the Heritage doesn’t release attendance figures, Wilmot figures about 130,000 people come out each year. A 2005 study by Clemson University found the event has an impact of $84 million to the region.
The Heritage Classic Foundation had a long-term relationship with Verizon Business since 1987, when the Sea Pines Heritage Classic became the MCI Heritage Classic.
The only stumble came between the 2002 and 2003 tournaments – a “hiccup,” Wilmot calls it – when the bankruptcy of troubled Worldcom sent organizers scrambling for sponsorships.
In the end, a reorganized and rechristened MCI signed on with the Heritage and continued its backing after Verizon acquired the company in 2006.
Boo Weekley, whose only two tour wins were at the 2007 and ‘08 Heritage, challenged the PGA Tour to do what it can to keep the event at Harbour Town.
“As a player it stinks that the PGA can’t help them out,” he said. “That’s my feelings. Why can’t the PGA Tour, they help everything else out, why can’t they come in here and say, ‘We’re going to help you all raise enough money to do this?’”
George said the tour is doing all it can to ensure a Heritage in 2011 and beyond.
South Carolina lawmakers earlier this year voted to lend the tournament $10 million from the state’s insurance reserve fund to keep things going if no sponsor is found. George and Wilmot both said that’s not something they sought or expect to use.
“It’s very much appreciated,” George said, “but I don’t think we will need that. I don’t want to go in that direction.”
One thing is clear: Players want to keep the PGA Tour in Harbour Town.
“It’s really special to a lot of players, and it’s a unique event in a small community where everybody really rallies together,” said Brian Gay, the 2009 champion. “I think somebody will step up and keep it going.”