As clock ticks, many express confidence in Heritage's future

June 10, 2011 

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With time running short, those searching for a new title sponsor for the Heritage golf tournament are confident Hilton Head Island's PGA Tour event will survive.

Some are more confident than others, however.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has made it a top priority of her administration to find a new title sponsor for the tournament, reiterated her commitment and reassured residents she intends to make good on it.

"Everybody needs to buckle up and get ready for Heritage next year," Haley said Friday. "It's going to happen."

Others with knowledge of the situation are similarly confident the search will succeed.

S.C. Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, said he spoke this week with S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism director Duane Parrish, whom Haley assigned to help lead the sponsorship search.

"They've got a corporate sponsor in their sights," Patrick said.

The potential sponsor is "pretty far along in the process," and a deal should be in place by month's end "if all things continue on the course they're on right now," Patrick said.

Lawmakers haven't acted on a skeletal bill called the "Heritage Golf Preservation Act" -- intended to be amended if lawmakers decide to offer state aid to the tournament -- in part because of their confidence level,he said.

Patrick declined to name the potential sponsor but said "I don't think it's really any great secret."

S.C. Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said he has been told Royal Bank of Canada, which was rumored in April to be close to signing a four-year sponsorship deal, has or is close to a deal.

"That's exactly what I heard two days ago," Herbkersman said.

He declined to name the source of the information but said he thinks it is credible.

Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach RBC officials for comment were unsuccessful. PGA Tour officials declined comment.

In April, tournament organizers denied a Golf World report that RBC was close to a four-year deal, saying such scuttlebutt could hurt the tournament if other companies think a deal is done. The Golf Channel also published a similar report.

The (Columbia) State, however, has since reported that "talk of RBC, which has endorsement deals with a half-dozen high-profile golfers on the PGA Tour, has faded as the company has said it will sell its U.S. banking operations, headquartered in Raleigh."

Before April's tournament, organizers said they had been close to a deal with an unnamed prospect only to see the deal fall apart.

Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin said Friday he is "optimistic something is going to get done."

"It is my understanding there are still talks going on," Laughlin said. "I remain hopeful the tournament will continue."

Tournament director Steve Wilmot said he is keeping his fingers crossed but won't get prematurely excited. He said organizers have fielded a flurry of interest from potential title sponsors since April's tournament, which was played without a title sponsor.

That interest has come at a variety of levels, however, with some prospects interested in deals far below the $7 million to $8 million per year organizers seek, he said.

The tournament is considering an arrangement in which a primary sponsor would agree to pay the bulk of the cost, while secondary sponsors cover the rest, Wilmot said.

Organizers are speaking with "a couple" companies about the primary role, but they need to quickly seal a deal if the tournament is to live on, he said.

The tour, which typically unveils its upcoming schedule in late fall, needs to secure the long-term futures of as many events as possible because it is seeking new contracts with TV networks, he said.

The tour has not given the Heritage a "drop-dead date," he said, but tournament officials have discussed the possibility they might have to shut their doors soon.

Wilmot remains "cautiously optimistic," although he said organizers can no longer afford to spend months negotiating.

"Time is of the essence," Wilmot said. "Something's either going to happen in the next month or so or we're done."

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