RBC Heritage sponsors honored at Harbour Town

gmartin@islandpacket.comDecember 5, 2011 

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As it rained overnight and into Monday morning, the planned rounds of golf at Harbour Town seemed unlikely. But by 11 a.m., the showers had subsided, and corporate sponsors of the RBC Heritage teed off under clearing skies.

That the clouds parted as if on cue -- on the tournament's Sponsor Day -- seemed only fitting to the man who runs Hilton Head Island's annual PGA Tour event.

"People still have no idea where we were one year ago, much less six months ago," tournament director Steve Wilmot said. "If there's ever been a year where thanks truly need to be given out, it's this one."

Monday provided Wilmot and other event organizers that opportunity.

About 100 representatives of various tournament sponsors convened for breakfast in the Harbour Town Conference Center, along with Heritage Classic Foundation board members in their traditional tartan blazers.

In addition to a complimentary round of golf, sponsors were treated to bottles of wine and Clemson ball caps in honor of PGA Tour pro and Tiger alumnus Jonathan Byrd, who participated in a question-and-answer session with the audience.

"It would be a crime if this tournament didn't keep going," said Byrd, who grew up in Columbia. "The players love this course and how the community makes them feel."

The tournament has a 42-year history on Hilton Head but faced an uncertain future when Verizon did not renew its contract as title sponsor after the 2010 event. This year's tournament was played without a title sponsor, using reserve funds and loans from local government. Verizon or its corporate predecessors had served as a title sponsor of each tournament between 1987 and 2010.

In June, Gov. Nikki Haley and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced Royal Bank of Canada had signed a five-year deal to be the new title sponsor. Boeing, which opened a plant in North Charleston in June, will be a presenting sponsor. Until the plant opened, Boeing built its aircraft in Seattle.

The 2012 tournament will be April 12-15.

RBC spokesman Andy Shibata said he knew how important the event is to the island.

"We're grateful and humble to be a part of the Heritage family," he said. "We're very excited to continue the tradition here."

Boeing spokesman Larry Dickenson echoed Shibata's sentiments.

"It's great to be a part of the South Carolina landscape," he said. Then, pointing out the window toward the still-overcast sky, he remarked, "It's a fine July day in Seattle."

Bill Wagner, the tournament's director of sales, credited local support for the event's survival.

"We had a 13.5 percent increase in sponsor sales in 2011 over 2010," he said. "Over half of that revenue came from within Beaufort County."

State Sen. Tom Davis, on hand to thank sponsors, said he knew how important it was to help save the tournament.

"Growing up, I remember watching it on television," he said. "In particular, I remember the lighthouse. That's become a symbol not just of Hilton Head but for all of South Carolina. When you have a trademark like that, you have to do what you can to keep it in place."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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