Politicians push for coalition of sponsors for Heritage tournament

Local and federal politicians said Tuesday they want the PGA Tour to allow a collection of companies to sponsor the Heritage golf tournament if a single title sponsor can't be found.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Hilton Head Island Mayor Tom Peeples both mentioned the idea during the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's annual State of the Region breakfast Tuesday.

Graham, an avid golfer, said plans are in the works in which several companies could share the cost of a title sponsorship under a banner such as "South Carolina sponsors the Heritage."

One way or another, Graham said, he is determined to ensure the Heritage stays put because the tournament helps showcase the state.

"We're not going to lose that golf tournament," Graham said, addressing business and civic leaders in a ballroom at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa.

Heritage organizers have secured a date on the tour's schedule for 2011 by pledging $4 million in reserves and securing $1 million commitments from both Hilton Head and Beaufort County, but the tournament's long-term future remains in question.

Like Graham, Peeples also supported the idea of a coalition of sponsors and said it could make it easier for tournament organizers to find corporate support.

"If you're going out looking at 12 companies for $500,000 (each), instead of one company for $6 million, it makes it pretty easy to see that would give us a much better opportunity," Peeples said after the event.

PGA Tour officials, however, would prefer to have a single title sponsor and a pool of smaller sponsors because they've found that more reliably maximizes the amount of money an event can raise for charity, executive vice president of communications Ty Votaw said Tuesday afternoon.

"The model works best when you have both (a title sponsor and smaller sponsors)," he said.

Tour officials have used a coalition of sponsors to support tournaments elsewhere for a short while, Votaw said. For example, a group of companies including medical device developer Smith & Nephew and shipping giant FedEx came together this year to boost the St. Jude Classic, a tournament in Memphis, Tenn., that lacked a title sponsor.

Tour officials would consider a similar arrangement on Hilton Head if finding a new title sponsor proves impossible for the Heritage, Votaw said.

Although Heritage organizers continue to search for and would prefer to find a single title sponsor, they have considered multiple sponsors since previous title sponsor Verizon announced last year it would not return in that capacity, tournament director Steve Wilmot said.

"It's certainly on the table," Wilmot said.

Peeples, a board member of the foundation that runs the tournament, said he would like the Heritage to build support across the state by holding a business summit during the week of the tournament.

Plans for such a summit are not final, but it would likely include economic developers from across the state wooing prospective companies during the tournament, Wilmot said. Tournament organizers have been developing a summit for about a year, he said.

Economic development deals have been cinched at the Heritage before, but state officials have not done as much business at the tournament in recent years, Wilmot said.

A formal summit could help turn the Heritage into "the event of our state," Peeples said.

"Those different economic alliances around the state would be invited to bring their potential clients and utilize (the tournament) as a backdrop to convince folks to relocate into South Carolina," he said.

Reporter Tom Barton contributed to this report.