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Why the RBC Heritage has what it takes to weather the coronavirus pandemic

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The last few days have been difficult for Steve Wilmot, and that’s saying something.

For a man who has been slipping plaid jackets over champions’ shoulders since before Rory McIlroy was born, the RBC Heritage tournament director has grown used to, or perhaps weary of, the regular challenges that the Lowcountry staple has faced.

During Wilmot’s tenure as tournament director, there have been four different sponsors, and he even endured a year without a title sponsor (2011). It was a financial blow most tournaments wouldn’t survive.

Wilmot and the Heritage persevered through those financial headwinds as well as numerous actual storms that threatened the tournament. Most recently, it was Hurricane Matthew in October 2015 that battered Harbour Town and washed away fairways. But throughout it all Wilmot and his staff persevered.

The coronavirus pandemic and it’s gripping impact on golf and life has spared no one, and when the Tour originally cancelled this year’s Heritage Wilmot winced and shouldered on.

He’s been through enough hard times to know that “this too shall pass” is more than just a cliché. The truth is, compared to the financial woes of 2011, this cancelation at least came with a glimmer of hope.

“It is tough, but I know there’s going to be a next year,” Wilmot said Tuesday. “In 2010, ’11 and ’12, to be honest with you, after that ’11 event I didn’t know if we’d ever have one again. We learned a lot from that.”

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The PGA Tour released a revised schedule on Thursday outlining what a post-shutdown line up might look like if play resumes in mid-June.

Two days later that glimmer of hope evolved into bona fide deliverance. The PGA Tour announced Thursday that the Heritage’s status had been changed from “cancelled” to a new date on the revised schedule in June.

As Wilmot explained, the path from out of business to back in the race was complex and very much fluid. The Tour approached Wilmot with the idea of a return on April 6 as the revised schedule began to evolve.

“It was never a conversation [to be rescheduled],” Wilmot said Thursday. “When it was cancelled 23 days ago we were done. It was never, ever discussed with the Tour prior to a week ago last Monday.”

The idea that the event could carry on led to some complex discussions. As late as Wednesday afternoon there were ongoing conversations between officials with RBC and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster about the rescheduled event.

 “RBC wanted to know if the governor was OK with it. It just wasn’t the Tour’s decision, it needed to be signed off by a lot of different people,” he said.

Wilmot knows, given the tenuous nature of the outbreak, that he’s an announcement away from another cancelation but having endured three decades of uncertainty has taught him, maybe forced him, to cling to an optimistic outlook.

The event, which is currently scheduled to be the second tournament back following the Charles Schwab Challenge, will be played without fans and Wilmot and the Tour are currently reviewing everything from how media interviews are handled to whether caddies will be allowed to eat with players.

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There are also financial considerations that the revived Heritage must deal with. When the Tour initially canceled the event, Wilmot was about 90 percent completed with his build out at a cost of over $1 million. Without fans, the proceeds that normally go to charity are gone, and the Monday and Wednesday pro-ams that provide the bulk of Wilmot’s budget have also been cancelled. But a June Heritage will be about more than economic impact.

“It is going to be a hiccup year with the charities and the economic impact. But this is going to help with the media exposure and send the message that we are open for business,” Wilmot said.

Thirty-four eventful years have prepared Wilmot for this. Few in the golf tournament business have endured as much and carried on like Wilmot, and even fewer understand that the current crisis transcends a golf tournament. 

“This would have been my 34th or 35th tournament in the same year,” Wilmot laughs. “You look at wanting to have that status quo year just once, if it’s not one thing it’s another. But you learn from all those experiences.”

If Wilmot and the Heritage learned anything in 2020 it’s that sometimes “cancelled” isn’t the last word.