RBC Heritage

Life after 50: How SC’s only PGA Tour event hopes to avoid a golden anniversary hangover

On Feb. 18, 2018, spectators watch from Harbour Town and the Harbour Town Lighthouse as the refurbished canon was fired to signal a countdown to the 50th anniversary of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Hilton Head Island.
On Feb. 18, 2018, spectators watch from Harbour Town and the Harbour Town Lighthouse as the refurbished canon was fired to signal a countdown to the 50th anniversary of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Hilton Head Island. Staff photo

It’s April, so the voice of the man behind South Carolina’s PGA Tour event is that of someone nearing the end of a long day amid a string of long days.

The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing is coming off of what tournament organizers say was the best tournament ever on Hilton Head Island, by every relevant metric — ticket sales, sponsorships, attendance, charitable giving. A blitz to promote the 50th tournament, a strong field headlined by World No. 1 Dustin Johnson helped push the support.

The Heritage drew 135,000 spectators in 2018 — 5,000 more fans than attended in each of the previous two years, tournament officials said.

Now almost 50 years after the first Heritage and the milestone celebration behind them, tournament director Steve Wilmot and colleagues at the Heritage Classic Foundation are looking ahead. A long-term planning meeting in May will help guide the next five years.

“To have that banner year, we can’t sit back on our laurels and sit here and look at the fact that ‘hey things are good,’” Wilmot said. “We have to continue to move forward. We don’t want a hangover from last year. We need to look for the future.”

The success last year meant a record year for the Heritage Classic Foundation, which gave $3.3 million to local and state nonprofit organizations in 2018.

Less than a decade removed from a nail-biting search for a title sponsor, RBC is locked in to help underwrite the event through 2023. Presenting sponsor Boeing is in place through 2021.

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The partnership includes the probable participation of players RBC sponsors. The faces include popular past Heritage champions like Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker.

And more recently, RBC has added Johnson’s star power to the mix.

“If I look at just the facts, the strength of the field is getting stronger by the day,” said John Farrell, director of golf at Harbour Town Golf Links. “And talking to players and caddies and tournament officials — they’ve got an ear to the ground — we fully expect to have a just as exciting second 50 years as the first, if not more.”

Keeping the sponsors happy and marquee players returning is part of the long-range planning. The sponsorship scare years ago had gone beyond the 11th hour to the 12th hour, Wilmot said.

“We need to keep things fresh for RBC, need to keep things fresh for all of our partners,” Wilmot said. “...We want to keep them engaged; keep them looking at things new and different so that customer that they’re bringing back every year, it’s not stale to them.”

Success of the Heritage is tied to cooperation between the foundation, town and other local and state officials, Farrell said. The same volunteers return year after year, and families and friends meet for an event they plan for each year.

“You see eruptions of joy around the golf,” Farrell said.

Hilton Head and the recognizable Harbour Town lighthouse receive the spotlight with wall-to-wall television coverage throughout the week.

“There’s no way to measure the impact,” Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser told The State newspaper in February. “But it’s significant.”

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.


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