Hope and Heritage


2007 Verizon HeritageHILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – It’s less than three hours as the crow flies from Augusta National to Harbour Town Golf Links, but as Stewart Cink decompressed on Wednesday in the warm Lowcountry sun the two poles in the golf universe might as well be Venus and Mars.

“It's always one of my favorites, if not my very favorite tournament of the year,” Stewart Cink said. “It's like the anti-Augusta – flat, everything is very small and closed in, whereas Augusta is so large and rolling hills. Everything here is the opposite. When you come here the intensity seems to melt away.”

Augusta National has Magnolia Lane. Harbour Town has Lighthouse Road. One gives you goose bumps, the other is a cure for road rage. Augusta National has pimento cheese sandwiches. Harbour Town has shrimp and cheese grits. One is nasty, the other is shrimp and cheese grits. Augusta National has green jackets. Harbour Town has tartan. One is every kid’s dream, the other is every fashion guru’s worst nightmare.

You get the idea. For 42 years the Heritage has scratched an itch and filled a niche like no other stop on the Tour circus. Simply put, it’s a reason to go to work. A boutique stop on an idyllic slice of Lowcountry coast played on a quirky course that defies the Tour norm. All of which makes the next sentence difficult to pen. The Heritage’s days may be numbered.

Late last year Verizon, the title sponsor since 2006 when Verizon Business purchased MCI, pulled the corporate plug after this week’s cocktail party, and despite the best efforts of tournament director Steve Wilmot, a cozy home and a unique slot on the schedule, no one in corporate America has come buying.

“We have a unique product and a special event, a lot of things on our side but it’s a difficult economy,” Wilmot said.

Last month Wilmot said he’d pieced together enough zeroes, between $7 million and $8 million, to assure the tournament’s existence through 2011 but the Tour seems lukewarm to stopgap measures. Even the South Carolina legislature got into the act, earmarking a $10 million loan to keep the event going through next year.

“It’s there, but we don’t want to use it,” said Wilmot, torn between a tournament he loves and the complexities of a political process that hasn’t been very kind to tournament golf in recent years.

There is no deadline for a new sponsor. Wilmot points out that officials at Torrey Pines received a last-minute reprieve from Farmers Insurance this year a week before the event, but he plans to meet with the Tour after this week to discuss his options.

Although Rick George, the Tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations, stood by Wilmot earlier this week to meet with the press and pledged the full weight of the circuit’s selling machine to run down a new title, the word around Harbour Town is that without a long-term corporate deal Heritage’s April home is too attractive to settle for a patchwork solution.

Simply put, find a sponsor or find yourself the Champions Tour’s newest stop. As difficult as it may be to see a storm approaching on a sun-splashed spring day Wilmot & Co. know rough waters are coming. The Buick Open was played for the last time last year. The Milwaukee stop became a footnote in 2009. Seems the modern Tour has little use for charm when cash is king.

“You don’t get a smile at every event,” said Boo Weekley, the circuit’s quintessential son of the south and a two-time winner at Harbour Town. “This week and next week in New Orleans . . . they were put together. You’ve got the camaraderie of the south. To me it’s about playing the game. It’s not about how much money you can make.”

Bless his deep-fried heart, but it is likely Weekley is in the minority in this respect. Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has been clear on this, there will be no retreat in purses. Not on his watch. All of which means the cruel combination of a bear economy and a Draconian business model could cost the circuit one of the most-looked-forward-to stops of the year.

It is a concerning testament to today’s Tour that an event with 42 years of tradition, a list of winners that was plucked straight from the World Golf Hall of Fame, a golf course that rewards precision over power and one of the most compelling television snapshots this side of Pebble Beach’s 18th hole seems in need of a standing “10” count.

As Yankee great Yogi Berra once mused, it’s getting late early for the Heritage, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile what is best for the circuit’s bottom line with what is best for the Tour.

“To me it kind of stinks the Tour won’t help them out,” Weekley said. “How come they can’t come in and say, we’re gonna help you do this?”

Good question. Now, please pass the shrimp and cheese grits.