Beaufort News

Stressful sponsor search has happy ending for Heritage leaders

The persistent smiles Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot and Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser wore Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links foretold a happy ending to a two-year saga that could have crushed them both.

Wilmot's family often had to take a back seat and Fraser's family legacy was on the line while the tournament searched for a sponsor -- a two-year search that ended Thursday, when it was announced that Royal Bank of Canada has signed a five-year deal as title sponsor for what will be known as the RBC Heritage.

It was a search that sometimes seemed destined to fail.

"There were times when you almost felt like throwing your hands up and walking away, because it was so difficult," Fraser said, speaking of the highs and lows that came in the course of negotiations with various companies. "There were a lot of ups and downs, which will wear you out."

As if the weight of a community wasn't enough for the men charged with saving Hilton Head Island's annual PGA Tour stop from extinction, both had personal pressures, too.

It was Fraser's uncle, Charles, who put Hilton Head Island on the map -- almost literally -- when he organized the first Heritage at Harbour Town in 1969, and his father, Joe, was one of the founding members of the Heritage Classic Foundation and Simon Fraser's predecessor as the foundation's chairman.

The fact that a significant prong of the family's legacy was at stake wasn't lost on Fraser.

"I didn't want to be the one," Fraser said. "My dad having retired five years ago, and then five years later the tournament goes away -- that would've certainly been an issue with me, personally."

Wilmot's family legacy wasn't on the line, but his family's livelihood certainly was.

For two years, it became more difficult to get to the dinner table on time or to make it to his children's sporting events or other extracurricular activities.

The stress of losing his job -- and seeing his staff suffer the same fate -- wore on him, and so did the criticism that mounted as the sponsorship search persisted.

"It was tough to be questioned in the community a lot over the past couple of years of not doing enough or why haven't you done this," Wilmot said. "They have no idea what went on."

Nearly every waking moment -- and those were plentiful, because sleep was scarce -- found Wilmot's brain racing among the various scenarios in play, including the prospect that the tournament he has worked for the past 25 years might cease to exist.

No matter how fast he made the treadmill go, his mind went to the Heritage.

When he was able to join the family at the dinner table, he couldn't shake the sponsorship search from his thoughts.

And playing golf? Forget it.

His only escape was a regular pick-up basketball game. He nicknamed himself "Ground Wilmot" in faux homage to "Air Jordan."

It all came to a head on the Saturday of this year's tournament, and Wilmot became emotional.

"I said to my wife, 'Just bear with me. I'll be back in a couple weeks,' and she said, 'You haven't been here in a couple years,' " Wilmot said. "She meant it in a positive way, that she was thinking about me, but it's been tough."

On Thursday, the old Fraser and Wilmot were back, buoyed by the knowledge that for at least five years, the Heritage is here to stay.

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