RBC Heritage

Heritage starts off with a bang — and swing — at Harbour Town

Brian Gay limbered up by hoisting a wooden golf club above his head and taking a few practice swings.

The defending champion of the Verizon Heritage then was asked if he was ready to make the ceremonial swing — accompanied by the blast of a cannon — that begins Hilton Head Island’s PGA Tour event each year.

“Ready as I’m going to get,” Gay told an audience of journalists, spectators and tournament organizers today near the 18th green of Harbour Town Golf Links.

Moments later, Gay sent his ball toward the Calibogue Sound.

As smoke cleared around the cannon, Gay’s two daughters — clad in matching plaid outfits — trotted up to slap his hand.

With that, the 42nd annual tournament had begun.

This year’s tournament will be the last with Verizon as title sponsor. The telecommunications company announced in September it will end what PGA Tour officials said was the third-longest ongoing relationship between a tour event and a title sponsor.

Verizon or its corporate predecessors have sponsored the Heritage for almost a quarter century.

Rick Reichel, this year’s tournament chairman, said during the opening ceremonies that it’s become a rarity for a professional sports event to have such a long-standing sponsor.

“Since 1987, we’ve had the same sponsor,” said Reichel, also treasurer of the Heritage Classic Foundation, which runs the tournament. “I’m not sure where else that exists.”

This tournament also will be the last in the tenure of Mayor Tom Peeples, who recently announced he will not seek re-election in the fall after 15 years on the job.

Peeples thanked Verizon for its role in what he called “a wonderful partnership.”

Even if organizers can’t find a new title sponsor, they said in March that Hilton Head will host the Heritage in 2011.

For now, Gay said he and his family are excited for the latest rendition of the event, which he said is a favorite among fellow players.

Addressing the crowd after donning the tartan jacket he earned with his record 10-stroke victory last year, Gay alluded to organizers’ call for the tournament’s supporters to “get your plaid on.”

“Hopefully all you guys will put your plaid on and come on out and have a good time,” Gay said.