End Of The Line?

February 28, 2011

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) -- Time is running out for the Heritage golf tournament, the event that features the picturesque Harbour Town lighthouse.

PGA Tour vice president Ty Votaw said Monday the tournament has to find a replacement for longtime sponsor Verizon if it hopes to continue past April.

"I think it's imperative for the long-term future of the event to secure a title sponsor," Votaw said.

The Heritage is scheduled for April 21-24 and, for the first time in 25 years, won't have Verizon as its main sponsor. The company announced nearly 18 months ago that it would cease its major backing of the event after 2010.

Tour officials and tournament organizers have worked closely since then to discover a replacement - without much luck.

"I've had to keep up on my blood pressure medicine," Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot said.

The Heritage has been a springtime tradition for decades, as much for Pete Dye's maddening Harbour Town Golf Links as for its breezy, seaside setting at Sea Pines Resort. The windswept 18th hole with its red-and-white striped lighthouse in the background is one of the PGA Tour's most enduring settings.

It was also a place for the pros who played to unwind and take a few breaths after the pressure-cooker of the Masters, the year's first major championship.

Ernie Els and his family were often seen riding bikes on Sea Pines' narrow pathways, pros brought their families to the beach for some relaxation, and even the course - at just over 6,900 yards - was a welcome change.

"It's the anti-Augusta," two-time Heritage champion Stewart Cink said at last year's event.

Its list of champions include luminaries such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. Jim Furyk took the title in a playoff last spring.

"We know we have the support of the players," Wilmot said.

It's the support of business that's essential for the Heritage to survive, Votaw said.

The PGA Tour has either renewed sponsorship or found new backers at 27 events since 2009, according to Votaw. He's optimistic the Heritage can become No. 28. Heritage and tour officials have talked with companies in recent weeks open to more discussions about backing Hilton Head.

"We hope to be able to make a lot of people happy over the next several weeks if those conversations continue in the manner they have," Votaw said.

Wilmot says he's gotten continued support from South Carolina leadership, including new Gov. Nikki Haley. At a tourism conference, Haley pledged to do what she could to assist the tournament in finding a backer.

The tournament commissioned a study last year that found the Verizon Heritage brought nearly $82 million to South Carolina and its coastal region. The survey was conducted by Clemson University's International Institute for Tourism Research and Development with help from USC Beaufort.

The Heritage ranks as one of the state's highest-profile pro sporting events alongside the WTA's Family Circle cup at Daniel Island and NASCAR's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Heritage Classic Foundation scraped together whatever it could to put on this year's tournament. It depleted much of its reserves in underwriting a $4 million guarantee to put on the 2011, Wilmot said. The town of Hilton Head also voted to give up to $1 million for the tournament if it can't find a sponsor.

Wilmot will be traveling to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in a few weeks to go over bottom-line scenarios to see if a 2012 Heritage is possible.

"We're approaching the 12th hour," he said. "There is a sense of urgency here."