Sunday’s final round at Harbour Towns Golf Links, when Brandt Snedeker happily slipped on his plaid champions coat and held the trophy high as fans applauded the thrilling finish, could have been The Heritage’s last hoorah.
The PGA Tour fixture since 1969 is without a title sponsor and desperately seeking the $8 million or so it would take to underwrite the tournament. Tour and event officials have called it imperative to find a backer for the world’s best golfers to return in 2012.
“I think just how special this is,” Snedeker said. “Everybody in the field wants to come back here next year, not just me.”
Tournament director Steve Wilmot knows his organization needs to make something happen – and soon.
He said players and prospective company representatives are saying positive things about the tournament.
“At the end of the day when we go home at the end of the day, we still don’t have it,” Wilmot said.
The Heritage Classic Foundation cobbled together enough through its reserves ($4 million) and local government help ($1 million) to hold the just concluded tournament. That’s not feasible for next year. The foundation depleted its funds and while Gov. Nikki Haley has pledged her support for the event, she said several times that taxpayer money was not an option to keep it going.
That leaves the tournament chasing down prospects.
About six weeks ago, Wilmot held off printing caddie bibs and other signage because he thought he had a done deal for this year and beyond. The agreement was at the lawyer’s office, he said, when the deal fell through at the end.
The buzz this week was of a “Sunday surprise,” a white knight riding in to assure PGA Tour pros and fans that the tournament would survive. Wilmot was forced to put out a statement late in the day saying that would not happen.
“We will not be making any announcement regarding a new title sponsor today, but the sponsorship search continues in earnest,” he said. “Trust that as a new or repeating champion is crowned today, the efforts of the Foundation and the PGA TOUR will continue with the care that The Heritage name and tradition deserves.”
The island was a little thought of spot at the bottom of the state when Pete Dye crafted Harbour Town, a devilishly little test of terror. It’s less than 7,000 yards, but its fairways are tight, its green are small and fast, and the wind off Calibogue Sound typically makes the final three holes some of the most difficult on tour.
Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event in 1969 and the list of champions includes some of the game’s greats: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and others.
Seven of the top 20 players took part in this year’s tournament. No. 3 Luke Donald had the chance to rise to No. 1 before losing in a dramatic three-hole playoff to Snedeker.
“This golf course kind of holds up to the test of time,” said Scott Verplank, who finished ninth this week. “I’d wish when they’re building new golf courses, they’d look at something like this rather than some of the monstrosities we play on now.”
Whispers about possible title sponsor candidates included the insurer, Aflac, which purchased about a third of the advertising spots for this year’s telecasts, and RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, which sponsors tour star Jim Furyk.
The Heritage is one of South Carolina’s few annual national sporting events, alongside NASCAR’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the WTA’s Family Circle Cup playing in Charleston.
In July, the Heritage Classic Foundation released a study that found the 2010 golf tournament here brought nearly $82 million to South Carolina and the coastal region. The survey was conducted by Clemson’s International Institute for Tourism Research and Development with help from USC Beaufort.
A full-court press of state leaders, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, were ready to help find a way for the tournament to continue.
“We’ll find someone,” said Duane Parrish, head of the state’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism department. “This is too great of a price value for an organization to entertain, to get the exposure.”
Even South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier put in a pitch for the state’s PGA event.
“We’re hoping the tournament stays here, a sponsor will show up so the PGA can keep this tournament here,” he said.
Wilmot said his organization will push forward with usual post-event meetings with an eye to next year. There also will be a meeting with the PGA Tour about prospects for next year. Wilmot didn’t want the focus of this year’s tournament to be the event’s future.
“But there’s an obvious reason everyone’s asking that question,” he said.