Game changers: New sponsors presented Heritage with new challenges

gmartin@islandpacket.comApril 11, 2012 

It was the night before the final round of the 2011 Heritage, and tournament director Steve Wilmot could keep his emotions in check no longer.

For months, he had spent stressful days and sleepless nights trying to secure a sponsorship for the coming year, hoping to keep his tournament alive, and he'd yet to see any meaningful results.

"It just all caught up to me, and I got pretty emotional," he says. "The governor was saying 'no' 'is not an option;' the (PGA Tour) was saying 'Moving is not an option," and I remember thinking that night, 'I just want an option.' "

Fortunately for Wilmot -- not to mention local golf fans and businesses -- the coming weeks would bring better news, culminating in his June 16 announcement that the tournament had secured a five-year partnership with RBC and Boeing.

He says the search for new sponsorship proved more challenging than expected, as several corporations insisted on saving the tournament on the condition they relocate it nearer their headquarters.

"It really wasn't as easy as we thought," he admits. "We couldn't anticipate the economy or the number of interested companies that wanted to hold our event in their back yard."

Even after the announcement, Wilmot faced a variety of challenges and debates.

Because of the new sponsors' active involvement in other tournaments -- RBC remains as title sponsor of the Canadian Open, and Boeing is title sponsor of a Champions Tour event in Seattle -- both companies entered negotiations with the Heritage with preconceptions about how the tournament should be run.

"The good news is, they'd run golf tournaments before. The bad news is, they'd run golf tournaments before," Wilmot said with a laugh. "We had some fundamental differences."

He resisted some of the new sponsors' suggestions, such as replacing "Heritage" with "Classic" and having mascot Sir Willie dress in blue and carry a flag instead of his trademark tartan red and golf club.

Other issues involved whether players would tee off in threesomes or foursomes and subtle changes to the tournament logo.

"These may not sound too dramatic," Wilmot said, "but they're really the nuts and bolts of running a golf tournament."

Wilmot also had to cope with the sudden loss of people at the telecommunications company with whom he'd spent years cultivating professional and personal relationships. Verizon and it's corporate predecessors, MCI and WorldCom, had been Heritage title sponsors for 14 years.

"Those people are still my friends," he said. "They didn't leave because they didn't believe in our tournament, but because their company just decided to go in a different direction."

Wilmot characterizes his tournament's relationship with both corporations as a work in progress.

RBC spokesman Andy Shibata agreed that there's room for growth in the relationship, but maintained it's off to a strong start.

"Steve Wilmot and his team have been fantastic to deal with, and I believe have put together a best-in-class tournament this year," Shibata said.

Shibata added RBC is already offering new enticements to fans -- for instance, a contest to design a golf bag to be carried by golfer Matt Kuchar's caddie in next year's event -- and is committed to implementing more changes in future years.

"Being our first year as title sponsor, we simply want to experience this unique tour stop firsthand and look for ways to enhance the experience for the players, golf fans and RBC in the future."

<b>Related content:</b> The Heritage is saved; Royal Bank of Canada is new title sponsor, June 16, 2011

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