Critical year at hand for golf in region

January 11, 2011 

Like most around these parts, it was with little remorse that I bid adieu to 2010. Now, like everyone who makes their living locally in golf, sees their local businesses affected by the industry or simply appreciates its importance to the health of our region, it is with equal parts hope and trepidation that I look forward to the year we have now begun.

Simply put, 2011 will be a critical year for the survival of our treasured Heritage and the rebound of a slumping and troubled local golf industry -- both of which have and will continue to have a significant impact on the well-being of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Unless you were living under a rock in 2010, or perhaps knocked unconscious by an economic one falling on your head, you know the local score as it comes to golf. The Heritage needs a sponsor and the sand in the hourglass to keep the event alive past this April is becoming ominous at best. Likewise, the health of our local golf industry has taken hits for several years, as a dreary economy, more determined and better-funded competition -- along with a general slump in golf participation -- have eaten away at its once strong core.

For the Heritage, the importance of 2011 is about as simple as it gets -- find a new sponsor or face the very real possibility of a previously unthinkable demise. Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island, along with the Heritage Foundation, combined for the funds to make this year's event a reality despite the absence of a sponsor. A similar partnership in 2012 is as unlikely as it is unappealing to the PGA Tour, which loves corporate coziness. Translation -- the Heritage had better find a new sugar daddy in the next five or six months.

While the 2011 landscape isn't quite as dire for our local golf industry, it's not one I would want to paint and hand over to the powers that be at Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, Heritage Golf, or any of the other single golf course operators, for that matter.

Affected by many conditions beyond their control and some they have failed to control, resort, public and even the finest private Lowcountry courses have suffered a dire double-dip in rounds and revenue per round in recent years. That reality, coupled with less-than-adequate public funding for marketing to support the golf industry (or overall tourism to the area), is putting considerable pressure on the talented people who manage area courses.

Not the most rose-colored of glasses to look through for Hilton Head's golf stability, I know. But don't fully press the panic button; this is a new year, right? No matter how depressed things seemed at the end of 2010 -- I know, only two weeks ago -- there were at least a few signs that things might be turning around for both the Heritage and our local golf industry heading into this most crucial of years.

With increased pressure on those responsible for marketing Hilton Head to do their jobs better, and with political elections unfolding, real discussions finally started late last year about how to increase resources earmarked for promoting Hilton Head. At the same time, and for the first time in some time, there was progress made on the lengthening of the runway at Hilton Head Island Airport, which, in my opinion, will eventually make the island easier and more affordable to visit.

That pressure, discussion and progress must be ramped up in 2011 if we have any hope of competing with other golf destinations vying for the same dollars. No, our marketing budgets will never be that of Myrtle Beach, Scottsdale, Ariz., or Miami for example, but that's not to say we can't find more resources and better examine our competition for ways to do more with less. Same old, same old don't work no more.

If we are serious about returning to loftier times -- and I believe the people I know in the industry are -- 2011 must be the year we turned the tide instead of just lamenting about how low it is. I look forward to hearing and participating in that discussion, should it take place.

Entering the 44th year of its existence, things are a little more dire for Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot and the foundation that supports the event. It's almost a certainty that to secure a spot on the 2012 PGA Tour schedule the Heritage must find a sponsor in 2011.

By no means an easy task, but the Heritage is one of only two tour events without a sponsor this year, and if the recent return of General Motors (via Cadillac) to the sponsorship club is any indication, things could be thawing for a run at a new benefactor this year. At the very least there are fewer mouths at the table to be fed.

According to remarks made by Mayor Drew Laughlin, that effort is not solely a foundation and PGA Tour quest, but one that Hilton Head itself must own as well. It's an assertion I applaud. Local support both from elected bodies and warm golf-loving ones, is needed now more than ever if Hilton Head is to remain a PGA Tour stop.

I've always maintained that the past, current and future health of Hilton Head and the Heritage are completely intertwined. They began together, thrived together, and now fight for their futures together during this critical year. Bottom line, neither would be what they are today without the other.

It's fitting then that they both count on the community they helped build to now secure their own futures. Discussions have happened, points have been made. Now is the time for action to take place.

Last I heard, they speak louder than words.

To clarify the point, in 2011 the Heritage golf tournament and the Hilton Head golf industry need local help to continue building (or rebuilding) our local reputation with regard to the sport. It is the challenge of the new year. Indeed, our most critical year.

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