RBC Heritage

Heritage kicks off without title sponsor

Defending Heritage champion Jim Furyk shakes hands with Todd McNeill, left, and David Henderson, center, after driving the first shot during opening ceremonies Monday afternoon on the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.
Defending Heritage champion Jim Furyk shakes hands with Todd McNeill, left, and David Henderson, center, after driving the first shot during opening ceremonies Monday afternoon on the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. Sarah Welliver, The Island Packet

Organizers of the Heritage golf tournament don't expect to announce a new title sponsor before the PGA Tour event begins Thursday, although they were engaged in serious discussions with a prospective title sponsor about a month ago, director Steve Wilmot said Friday.

The company, which Wilmot declined to name, would not officially have been title sponsor of Hilton Head Island's PGA Tour event this year, but it would have been treated as if it were in anticipation of it assuming that role in the future, Wilmot said.

The company was booking hotel rooms, preparing to purchase three-quarters of the TV advertising time a sponsor typically receives on the Golf Channel and CBS, and shopping for spots in pro-am events, Wilmot said.

"We were going to make them feel like it was their event," Wilmot said.

Then the deal fell through -- in part, he said, because there was so little time remaining before this year's tournament.

"At the last minute, they pulled out," Wilmot said.

That means the tournament is "under the gun" to find a replacement that will secure its future beyond the tournament's 43rd rendition this week, Wilmot said.

Tournament officials have searched for a replacement for the previous title sponsor, Verizon, for more than a year and a half.

The tournament secured a spot on the PGA Tour's schedule this year without a title sponsor by pledging all $4 million of its reserves and securing $1 million commitments from both the Town of Hilton Head and Beaufort County.

Tour officials have said it's imperative the Heritage find a sponsor to secure its long-term future, but tournament organizers do not have a deadline by which they must do so, Wilmot said Friday.

With opening ceremonies at Harbour Town Golf Links beckoning today, Heritage organizers are working several companies "very hard," although none is likely to sign on before the tournament.

Organizers held off on printing caddy bibs and other tournament materials as long as possible in hopes an 11th-hour deal would materialize, but nothing is imminent, Wilmot said.

"We're not at that point," he said. "We're not sitting here, holding one person's hand and negotiating."

Wilmot expects to host official representatives of about 12 prospective sponsors during tournament week.

"There's a dozen or so we've definitely got a grip on," he said.

Other companies are expected to attend but will keep lower profiles.

Golfers, politicians and state and tour officials also will turn out to support the tournament.

"There's a lot of things happening in the next 10 days, let alone a golf tournament," Wilmot said.

Wilmot said he is "very happy" with the field of players.

Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will lead a bevy of tour officials who will help show companies around.

"You'll see a show of force next week, and we need them," Wilmot said.

Others expected to attend include Gov. Nikki Haley; Duane Parrish, director of the state Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism; Bobby Hitt, director of the state Department of Commerce; U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina; and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

TV viewers can expect to see the tournament referred to simply as "the Heritage," and Wilmot said he expects CBS announcer Jim Nantz and former Heritage champion Nick Faldo to share fond memories on the air throughout the tournament.

It's not yet clear what will happen to all the advertising time on CBS and the Golf Channel that would normally go a title sponsor.

The town tentatively is slated to receive about a fourth of it, the tour arranged for insurance company Aflac to purchase another fourth, and Sea Pines Resort has bought some, Wilmot said.

The town's ads are being orchestrated by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber assisted a committee including representatives of the town, Heritage and real estate and hospitality businesses in sorting through 26 ideas pitched by seven ad agencies, chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said. The committee picked two agencies that each are producing an ad to run during the tournament.

One of the ads will focus on encouraging tourists to visit Hilton Head, while another will promote the town as a place to move and retire, she said. The chamber is building special "landing pages" on its website to accommodate inquiries the ads generate, Clark said.

With the course in perhaps its best shape ever, if weather is good and the tournament has an impressive leaderboard for weekend rounds, Wilmot expects the broadcast will make a favorable impression.

Ticket sales should approximate last year's, and the tournament sold out spots in its two pro-ams, even though it had more to sell in Verizon's absence, Wilmot said.

Wilmot thanked local companies such as Hilton Head Exterminators and The Greenery that have donated their services.

He sought to assure residents that everything possible is being done to secure a sponsor.

"It truly is a community effort," he said. "Hopefully, it will all pay off."