Beaufort News

Heritage exemptions hit close to home

It's probably safe to say Chris Epperson hit "send" on more text messages and e-mails than he hit shots Monday at Harbour Town Golf Links.

The 28-year-old Hilton Head Island resident had some pretty big news to share.

On a day when Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot stressed the importance of community support in the search for a title sponsor for Beaufort County's annual PGA Tour stop, Wilmot added a bit more flavor to this year's event, announcing during Monday's media day that he has offered sponsor's exemptions to three players with local ties -- Epperson, Beaufort resident Mark Anderson and Berkeley Hall touring pro Kyle Stanley.

It came as no surprise that Anderson and Stanley were granted exemptions -- Anderson has just started his second year on the Nationwide Tour and will play the Heritage for the third consecutive year, and Stanley is off to a strong start in his first full year on the PGA Tour after tying for 13th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic on Sunday.

But the announcement that Epperson would receive one of the exemptions was a bit more surprising, especially for Epperson, who learned the news right along with everyone else.

"It was a weird, surreal moment," Epperson said. "My hearing kind of went in and out. I don't know, it was just too good to be true."

The reality began to sink in during Monday's round, Epperson's first at Harbour Town Golf Links since a junior tournament more than a decade ago. Understandably, Epperson had a tough time focusing on golf as his mind raced toward April.

From his days as a junior golfer growing up on Hilton Head Island to his time playing college golf at Armstrong Atlantic State University, Epperson has dreamed of playing the Heritage. He has conditional status on the Nationwide Tour this season and will split time between that tour and the eGolf Professional Tour, but now he knows when and where he will make his first PGA Tour start -- and it happens to be at his hometown tournament.

"It is exactly my dream come true," Epperson said. "This was always my goal, so now I'm going to have to set new goals. It was my goal to one day play in this tournament. I can't wait to get out here a little more before the event and learn the course."

Anderson realized the same dream two years ago, earning a spot in the Heritage by virtue of winning the Players Amateur at Belfair Golf Club, and he was granted an exemption last year.

The former Beaufort Academy and University of South Carolina standout started his second year on the Nationwide Tour with a tie for 13th at the Panama CLARO Championships on Sunday and is playing the Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open in Colombia this week.

"I can't thank Steve Wilmot and his staff at the Heritage Classic Foundation enough for their generosity again this year," Anderson said in an e-mail. "I'm thrilled to be able to play in one of the best PGA Tour events of the year and to do so in front of a lot of local support will be a thrill once again."

Keeping more of the coveted exemptions close to home, Wilmot said, is just another way to thank the community, region and state for its support during the tournament's search for a sponsor.

One of the remaining exemptions will go to reigning Players Amateur champion Kevin Tway, and 2005 Heritage champion Peter Lonard has requested another, Wilmot said, but players with strong ties to South Carolina or Georgia are likely to get extra consideration this year.

"We're looking at things differently than we've ever done before," Wilmot said. "The guys in Texas and the guys in California that want to play in this event, that doesn't really help us now."

CLARK GIVEN MEDIA AWARD

The Arnie Burdick Media Award has come full-circle.

This year's honor, named after longtime tournament information director Arnie Burdick, went to Adventure Radio's Roger Clark -- the man whose idea spawned the award eight years ago.

"My second year in the media tent after being indoctrinated by Arnie, I had this thought that I could get his job," Clark quipped after being presented with the award. "I never thought he would outlive me."

Burdick, 91, has been the Heritage's tournament information director since 1986.

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