RBC Heritage

Heritage Social Diary: Wounded veteran chokes up at generosity; title sponspor search continues; Willie goes to work

Tears welled in Daniel Smith's eyes Friday until he could no longer contain them. His gratitude for the hospitality, compassion and appreciation he received during the second round of the Heritage just came pouring out.

Well-wishers gathered around the retired Army sniper, who was wounded in Iraq. They included U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, who has three sons who have served overseas and a fourth soon to be commissioned.

They thanked the North Augusta resident for his service.

Then the dam broke at the Michelob Ultra 19th Hole near the 18th green of Harbour Town Golf Links. Smith, with veteran service dog Jefferson by his side, accepted a $100 check from volunteers with Treat the Troops.

"It's a little token of our appreciation for your service," said volunteer Linda Bemister of Bluffton.

Smith was overwhelmed.

"I don't do handshakes," Smith told Bemister as she extended her hand. "I do hugs, especially for people who send cookies to the troops.

"When you're overseas in combat, away from friends, family and the comfort of home, to get a treat from home is a gift from God. All the support I've been shown by everyone here has been amazing. It makes you feel appreciated."

Treat the Troops, started by Hilton Head Island resident Jeannette Cram, sells homemade cookies during the tournament to help her volunteers -- "Crumbs," she calls them -- get 500 dozen cookies a month mailed to troops overseas. This is the organization's fourth year at the tournament, said "Crumb" Geri Eichholz of Sun City Hilton Head.

This year, Cram and her helpers decided to increase their support to active-duty service men and women, and wounded warriors like Smith by giving $100 to five soldiers Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a total of $1,500.

No strings attached, Cram wrote in an email.

"Simply our way of thanking them, in person for their service" and allowing them to better enjoy themselves at the tournament, Cram wrote.

Friday was the first time Treat the Troops volunteers have been able to see the soldiers they help face-to-face.

"We get emails and letters from the troops, but it's great to see him in person and see the grin and how much they really appreciate what we do," said Bemister, who lost a brother in Vietnam. "I said if I ever had the opportunity to give back and show my support and appreciation, I would. Getting that hug was emotional."

Smith, a former sergeant who spent 17 years in the military, was stationed in Bayji, Iraq, not far from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. He was part of a task force charged with preventing and detecting the placement of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, the leading cause of death among troops deployed in the country, according to Army officials.

"A roadside bomb got too close," Smith said.

He broke his back in several places, suffered a traumatic brain injury and an undiagnosed skin disease.

"After eight biopsies, they still don't know what it is," Smith said.

He had surgery about five weeks ago to remove shrapnel from his shoulder. He also battled with post-traumatic stress disorder. That, combined with the brain injury, has made for the "worst combinations you could have." If not for Jefferson, his service dog, Smith said he would be debilitated.

"I would not be able to be out here with this crowd without Jefferson. He allows me and gives me freedoms that I would not be able to have," Smith said. "He makes different things possible for me and has brought a different side of life back to me."

Friday was his first time at a PGA Tour golf tournament.

CONGRESSMAN WILSON AND HOT AIR

Plenty of jokes about hot air were made Friday morning after U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, stood in the basket of a balloon with two-time world champion balloonist John Petrehn and Palmetto Electric Cooperative president and CEO Tom Upshaw.

The trio was to take off from Bluffton at sunrise in the Touchstone Energy Hot Air Balloon for a flight round Hilton Head Island, including over the Heritage golf tournament. They had to cancel because of high winds, Wilson said.

"That was the extent of my balloon experience, but we did get to fire up the balloon," he said. "It was a festive way to welcome people to the community. A lot of very good-natured puns about hot air were made. Of course, I felt very appropriate to be there."

Weather permitting, the balloon will launch at sunrise and sunset today in front of the Goodwill Store on U.S. 278, according to a press release. Petrehn will also appear today at the Palmetto Electric GreenPower booth at the Heritage's Expo Village.

Petrehn, of Leawood, Kan., has been flying hot air balloons since age 4. In 2006, he won his first world championship. Last fall, he claimed his second world win in Hungary, according to the release.

WILLIE AT WORK

The Heritage Classic Foundation's man in plaid has been a jack-of-all-trades at this 43rd Heritage -- he has worked the main gate, conducted a radio interview, been a banker, and a hospital and concession-stand worker.

"I've lost count, I've done so many," said Sir William "Willie" Innes, tournament mascot. "The radio personality was the hardest one because you had to be up before the birds and drink coffee and read newspapers. That's a hard job."

"Willie at Work" was created by the foundation this year to say thanks to local sponsors and bring Sir William Innes into the community, said Angela McSwain, foundation marketing director.

And what has Willie learned so far from the experience?

"We have a lot of sponsors. And it's interesting the different types of work going on," he said. "For example, with the concession stand, it can be a very thankless job, if you think about it. When people are hot and thirsty they come up and say give me something to drink or something like that.

"And these people are working hard for their school and charity organizations. They're doing their best and they're volunteers. I think we need to remember to have a wee bit of personal respect for each other. Be patient."

Willie's schedule for the rest of the tournament:

  • 12:30 to 2 p.m. today: Judging Tartan Day activities.
  • 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday: Security at the skybox near the 17th green.
  • WILSON AND WILMOT SHED MORE LIGHT ON SPONSOR SEARCH

    Wilson and Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot shed some more light Friday on efforts to find a title sponsor for the PGA Tour event.

    WILSON said he has talked regularly in the past year with Wilmot. The two met Friday morning with Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser and CFO Ed Dowaschinski. Wilson said he has "sent letters to prospective sponsors from San Diego to London" and that he thinks the recession has a lot to do with the difficulty of finding a replacement for former title sponsor Verizon.

    "I believe a sponsor will be secured," he said. "I've been saying what an extraordinary, worldwide feature this is. The golf tournament and the venue would enhance any company's credibility in terms of supporting a clean environment and promoting jobs."

    Wilson also said he sees merit in using accommodations taxes, even statewide, to help the Heritage.

    WILMOT said new interest has been aroused during tournament week. He had a conference call with PGA Tour officials and representatives of a prospective title sponsor Thursday. Wilmot said he also has taken a few interested parties on tours of the area, including a jaunt Thursday morning to Palmetto Bluff for a tour and a round of golf.

    "At the end of the day, do I feel good about that? Yes," Wilmot said. "But we still don't have a title sponsor. ... It's not like we're going to make an announcement on Sunday. We're not at a point like that, but there's a lot of dialogue going on."

    LONG DISTANCE

    Evelio B. Rodriguez came all the way from Caracos, Venezuela, to watch the Heritage. The golfer he's most interested in is Clementina Rodriguez, his eighth-grade daughter. She's a 2-handicap golfer and a student at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy on Hilton Head Island.

    Clementina was among IJGA students serving as standard bearers this week. Her sister, Barbara, is a student at the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy on the island.

    CHILL OUT

    Today promises to be a day for 700 to 800 "forties," as the ice man calls them. That's 40-pound bags of ice, and Jeff Brutcher of Triangle Ice in Savannah says it will take that many to keep all the drink boxes at the Heritage chilled today.

    For those keeping score at home, that's 16 tons of ice produced by the company, which is owned by John Potter of Beaufort and Rob Neall of Savannah.

    Columnist David Lauderdale contributed.

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