Awkward feeling this Masters weekend

April 10, 2011 

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Something isn't quite right this weekend.

For so long, the moment we watched someone slip into a green jacket and take a seat in Butler Cabin has served as the official segue to Heritage week.

Since 1983, the Lowcountry's golf-crazed populace has still been buzzing about the finish at Augusta when it made its way to Harbour Town Golf Links for the opening ceremony and the cannon blast that kicks off the week that draws millions of eyeballs to our corner of the world.

But instead of murmuring about the Masters and whether the champ will try to claim a plaid jacket to hang next to his new green one, we're left to wonder whether we're experiencing this annual rite for the last time. And we have an extra week to worry about it, an extra week that feels almost ominous, perhaps a precursor to a time in the not-nearly-distant-enough future when we might not have the Heritage to look forward to at all.

The game is not over -- since the end of last year's tournament, I've always felt the most important time in the ongoing sponsorship search would be the 10 days from the end of the Masters to the first round of the Heritage -- but to mix my sports metaphors, it's the ninth inning, and the Heritage needs a rally; it's the fourth quarter, and tournament director Steve Wilmot and his team are down two touchdowns and out of timeouts.

And don't be fooled by the news that the PGA Tour approved a plan to use a mix of local, state and private money to fund the Heritage for five years. That's the equivalent of a football coach calling for a Hail Mary -- simply sending in the play doesn't win the game; you still have to execute it to perfection, and that's a low-probability endeavor, especially with Gov. Nikki Haley playing safety (Haley has made it clear she is opposed to using state funding for the tournament).

Unlike those other sports, though, you can't play defense in golf. If a guy goes out and shoots 59, you're going to lose, and conversely, if you're the guy who goes deep, you get your picture taken holding a big trophy on Sunday.

That's what Wilmot and Co. have been trying to do for the better part of two years, but it seems their putts keep lipping out.

Judging by website comments and letters to the editor -- admittedly not the best way to develop a flattering opinion of society -- there are plenty of folks around here who don't seem to realize that. Some apparently believe the 12th hour has arrived without anyone associated with the tournament so much as thinking about BMW or Coca-Cola, when in reality, talks probably have included dozens of companies most of us have never even heard of. (The term "no stone left unturned" has been uttered to me more than a few times.)

Without divulging too much, tournament officials have hinted throughout the search that they've had productive talks with potential sponsors, and you better believe anyone who seems half-serious about signing a big check will get the full-court press (there I go mixing my metaphors again) during tournament week, which is why the focus for the past couple of years has been on community involvement and putting on a great show.

The Heritage might have caught a small break in that regard with recent media reports indicating Humana Inc. is close to reaching a deal to become the title sponsor of the Bob Hope Classic.

Once you get past the jilted lover feelings, that should be viewed as good news for the Heritage.

Sure, it's easy to wonder why Humana, which is based in Louisville, Ky., would want to head west, rather than sponsor the Heritage (if only for the lovely alliteration). But if that deal goes through, it would leave one fewer mouth to feed for those PGA Tour officials trying to track down sponsors for the existing tournaments that don't have them.

If the report is accurate, the Heritage is soon to be one of only two of those, along with the Reno-Tahoe Open, which leaves any company interested in sponsoring a PGA Tour event with one fewer option and presumably would mean more attention from those aiding the sponsorship search.

Like everyone else with a stake in this -- which likely includes anyone reading this, by the way, lest you've forgotten about the estimated economic impact of $80 million per year -- I want badly to be optimistic that we'll be gearing up this time next year for another Heritage.

Something wouldn't be quite right if we weren't.

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