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The Heritage struggling to find a sponsor
March 2, 2010

Tournament director Steve Wilmot says there will be a Heritage in 2011, with or without a title sponsor.

Wilmot said Monday that organizers squirreled away enough money to fund the PGA tournament past 2010, the last to feature communications giant Verizon as its main sponsor.

“I can assure you we’ll have an event in 2011,” Wilmot said.

In 2012, who knows?

“Everything’s on the table,” Wilmot said.

The Heritage is played at Pete Dye’s narrow layout, Harbour Town Golf Links, with its iconic candy-cane striped lighthouse behind the 18th green. And the Heritage has become as much the springtime tradition as The Masters, which precedes it each year.

The Heritage Classic Foundation had a long-term relationship with Verizon Business since 1987, when the Sea Pines Heritage Classic became the MCI Heritage Classic.

The only stumble came between the 2002 and 2003 tournaments—a “hiccup,” Wilmot calls it—when the bankruptcy of troubled Worldcom sent organizers scrambling for sponsorships.

In the end, a reorganized and rechristened MCI signed on with the Heritage and continued its backing after Verizon acquired the company in 2006.

However, last September, Verizon Business said it wanted to spread its PGA Tour involvement across several events instead of focusing it all at Harbour Town.

The final Verizon Heritage runs from April 15-18.

“Relationships must end at times,” Wilmot said. “Business does change. We understand.”

Wilmot is in regular contact with PGA Tour officials, seeking a corporation to take on the financial burden Verizon’s giving up. Wilmot said organizers would need about $8 million from a title sponsor.

Besides Verizon, Wilmot said the tournament also must deal with expiring contracts with the PGA Tour and Sea Pines Resort. He expected no surprises in renewing those agreements.

Uncovering a company willing to foot the bills for a PGA Tour event could prove more difficult, especially during uncertain economic times.

“We are working hard at finding a replacement,” said Rick Reichel, treasurer of the Heritage Classic Foundation board.

Heritage leaders know they have the backing of the PGA Tour and the players.

Wilmot says the tour has continually helped identify potential sponsors, and players that he’s talked to are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the seaside locale on the schedule.

Golfers cherish the Heritage as the anti-Augusta, a shotmaker’s haven where sheer brawn doesn’t matter so much. And instead of the Masters’ daily cauldron of pressure, Harbour Town is a friendly, relaxing experience.

You might see Ernie Els and his family glide by on bikes, or other pros get in some tennis or fishing before play starts.

Heritage organizers are doing what they can to bolster their case. They’ll undertake an economic impact study, its first since 2005 when results showed the tournament generated about $84 million each year to the region. Wilmot has received assurances from state agencies that they’ll cooperate in maintaining South Carolina’s biggest and most enduring golf event.

Desperate times, though, can lead to drastic concessions.

Wilmot says organizers might look at different dates on schedule if that’s what a sponsor sought. He understands that, as one of the PGA Tour’s smaller markets, he doesn’t have the leverage as events in Dallas, Atlanta or Los Angeles.

Wilmot said about 130,000 people attend the tournament each year.

John Salazar, a professor at USC Beaufort who’ll take part in the study with Clemson University researchers, said local businesses and fans need to work together to keep the Heritage.

“From a macro perspective more than golf, the residents have to sink their teeth into the tourism industry,” Salazar said.

Already, teams of Heritage volunteers have cold-called area businesses about ways they can help the tournament, Wilmot said. “It doesn’t have to be a skybox or a tent. It can be using our license plates.”

Wilmot will keep up with his own call sheet, hoping to find a company willing to underwrite the Heritage.

“It’s a tough time out there,” Wilmot said. “We’re looking at all different possibilities.”

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