|HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - With The Heritage set to tee off in just few short weeks, the tournament that has been a regular stop on the PGA Tour since 1969 is still seeking a title sponsor - a fact that is casting a dark shadow over the future of an event that has become a Spring tradition in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
This year's Heritage, set for April 21-24 at The Sea Pines Resort's Harbour Town Golf Links, will be staged without title sponsorship attached to the name for the first time since MCI tacked its corporate moniker in front of the words Heritage Classic back in 1987. Wireless giant Verizon bought out MCI and became title sponsor in 2006, but ended its tournament sponsors agreement following last year's Heritage.
As is traditional, Tournament Director Steve Wilmot and the Heritage Classic Foundation hosted golf media representatives from a variety of print and broadcast outlets at the annual Heritage Media Day on Monday, Feb. 28. But what is not traditional was the fact that this year, Ty Votaw, vice president of the Tour, was on hand to address the gathering.
Votaw actually arrived on Hilton Head a day earlier and spent hours with Wilmot and others discussing sponsorship possibilities and the tournament's future.
While Votaw's presence at the media gathering had to been seen as a positive - a show of support for the tenuous Heritage from the PGA Tour hierarchy - the deputy commissioner offered little of substance that would hint a solution to the sponsorship problem might be forthcoming in the near future. However, Votaw said he remains "cautiously optimistic" that a new title sponsor can be secured in time to keep the Heritage on the Tour schedule beyond this year.
"With respect to sponsorship and with respect to the success of this event this year, we have to, as a whole, feel very good about where we've been sponsorship-wise across the PGA Tour," Votaw said. "We've had a very good couple of years where we've been able to extend or find new title sponsors for events that have needed them.
"With respect to the Heritage Classic, as recently as last week, the Tour and the Heritage Classic Foundation have been in discussion with several companies regarding support of the Heritage in 2011 and hopefully beyond. We firmly believe that Hilton Head is an extremely attractive event, given the great history, given the variables that are a part of each and every tournament that's been held and we'd like to continue to take advantage of all those elements. And we think it's an appealing opportunity for a number of sponsors.
"But," Votaw added, "we also have to stress that it is imperative that to secure a sponsor to secure the long-term security of the event is critical."
Despite all the PC-speak, there was no announcement of a new title sponsor, leaving the future of the Heritage beyond April 2011 as much in doubt as it was when Verizon announced its pull-out a year ago. Only a commitment of some $4 million from its reserves on behalf of the not-for-profit Heritage Classic Foundation kept the tournament on the Tour calendar this year. But that one-time fix isn't an option going forward.
Even with the best salvage efforts of the Foundation, the Heritage was displaced from its traditional week-after-The-Masters slot this year. Instead, the Tour will visit San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open in between Augusta and Hilton Head. That means that this year's Heritage will go head to head with the Champions Tour's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament that will be played April 22-24 just a short drive - or an even shorter boat ride - away, at the Savannah Harbor Golf Resort.
Neither Wilmot nor Votaw put a deadline on the sponsorship search, but both admitted to a growing sense of urgency.
"Unfortunately, we're approaching the 12th hour," said the tournament director. "It's not like we'll get through '11 and figure things out." Votaw said, "There will be a deadline that eventually will have to happen, but it's not productive to talk about it today."
Despite the lack of a title sponsor, this year's Heritage will offer the same $5.7 million purse as last year, with $1,026,000 going to the winner. As stated, the Heritage Classic Foundation is fronting most of the monies, but some secondary sponsors, including Coastal States Bank and Coca-Cola, are onboard for this year.
Even so, The Heritage ranks ahead of only seven of 33 regularseason Tour events in size of purse, discounting the "Fall Season" and tournaments played coincidental to other larger-purse events, like the WGC tournaments and the British Open.
But more important than what the tournament pays out is what it brings in. According to a Clemson University study, the 2010 Heritage generated a total economic impact at the combined local and state levels of $81.9 million. That same study projected that the total economic impact generated by the tournament between 2001 and 2015 will surpass $1 billion, with net government revenues growing to nearly $100 million and $44 million at the state and local levels, respectively.
The only question that remains is, will the tournament survive that long? Golf fans across the Carolinas and beyond - not to mention scores of Tour professionals who place Harbour Town among their favorite courses in the game - are keeping their fingers crossed.
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