Heritage offers opportunity to share best of Lowcountry

It is with great excitement and some trepidation that we approach Monday's ceremonial start of the 2011 Heritage golf tournament.

The PGA Tour event, as always, promises to be entertaining, fun and profitable, an opportunity for Hilton Head Island, the Lowcountry and South Carolina to show off our many charms. Face it, the Lowcountry looks good on television in April.

The trepidation comes from the Heritage's uncertain future. Without a title sponsor signed to a contract, we don't know where we'll be a year from now. The political machinations to work out a way to tide the tournament over until a new sponsor is found speaks to its economic impact.

Beaufort County Council's backing off a second vote on a proposal that would have the county kick in $1 million to help backstop the tournament for five years was inevitable. There's not much point to moving forward before the state commits to the $18 million and the Town of Hilton Head Island to the $7 million outlined in the plan from County Councilman Stu Rodman of Hilton Head.

We'll see what legislators think of Rep. Bill Herbkersman's idea to tap $3 million in state accommodations tax money to help pay for the tournament. Gov. Nikki Haley has been clear that she doesn't want to use tax dollars. Whether that means any tax dollars or only new tax dollars isn't clear.

This year's tournament is being paid for with $4 million from the Heritage Classic Foundation, the nonprofit group that stages the tournament, and $1 million each from the town and county. But tapping government coffers at any level ought to be, as many have characterized it, a last resort, especially for more than one year.

Efforts should be focused on landing a private title sponsor. Tournament week has long been known for the deal-making that goes on. We hope this year is particularly fruitful.

Clearly, this isn't an easy task for this tournament in these economic times. Verizon announced in September 2009 that it would not renew as title sponsor after the 2010 tournament. That was 19 very long months ago.

But the tournament has seen tough times before. As we pointed out in 2009, if difficult circumstances could stop the Heritage, it wouldn't have gotten off the ground in 1969. It survived the mid-1970s economic turmoil pummeling its then primary sponsor, the Sea Pines Co.

When MCI came to town in 1987, Sea Pines and its sister companies were in bankruptcy and the PGA Tour was ready to walk.

In July 2002, the tournament foundation booted WorldCom, which had bought MCI, as WorldCom tumbled toward bankruptcy. But by tournament time in 2003, a newly reconstituted MCI came back as title sponsor. It seemed only right to give the company another chance, given how MCI had lifted us out of the financial mire in 1987. Verizon became title sponsor in 2006 after it bought MCI.

We had some good news this month with the announcement that the Verizon Foundation would donate $1.5 million over three years to the tournament foundation, allowing the foundation to continue its college scholarship program and critical financial support to area nonprofit groups. The local foundation's charitable giving -- more than $20 million since 1987 -- is one more reason to push to find a sponsor.

Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County almost certainly would rebound economically from the tournament's departure, but let's hope we don't have to find out.

In the meantime, enjoy the good company and the good golf this very special week offers. And keep your fingers crossed that the sponsor hunt is successful.