Heritage's headache

Lack of title sponsor for 2011 looms



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. --- South Carolina's lone PGA Tour stop is well known for being the opposite of the Masters Tournament in many respects.

The Verizon Heritage is played in a relaxing, party atmosphere where backyard gatherings spill out to the edge of the golf course. The Masters is the first major of the year and pressure is intense, and decorum from its patrons is expected.

Harbour Town Golf Links is a claustrophobic course that puts emphasis on accuracy and features tiny greens. Augusta National Golf Club is a big hitter's paradise with large, undulating putting surfaces.

The major difference between the Masters and PGA Tour events such as the Heritage, though, is money. The Masters has never had a corporate title sponsor. Verizon is ending its sponsorship of the Heritage this year after a 24-year partnership, and the search is on for a new title sponsor.

Heritage officials have said the tournament will be played in 2011 regardless, but a major campaign is under way to find a new sponsor. That's the nagging question that hangs over the event that began in 1969.

"I think everyone is paying attention to what happens here. I don't think there's anyone that doesn't want this tournament to be kept," said Augusta native Charles Howell. "It's a great event, but a bit of a tradition being the week after the Masters and not far from Augusta."

Tournament director Steve Wilmot got the news last fall that Verizon would end its sponsorship. The association between the telecommunications giant and the Heritage dates to 1987 when MCI, and later Worldcom, became sponsors.

"This will not be the last Heritage," Wilmot said during media day in March. "We know our work's cut out for us. We feel positive we will be here for years to come."

The cost to put on the tournament is roughly $8 million, and Wilmot said the Heritage Classic Foundation can put on the tournament in 2011.

South Carolina's Legislature even voted in March to provide a $10 million loan for the tournament next year -- the money would come out of the state's insurance reserve fund -- but PGA Tour officials say that won't be necessary.

"As far as the loans from the state, that's not something that the Foundation or the Tour would ask," said Rick George, the PGA Tour's executive vice president and chief of operations. "It's very much appreciated, but I don't think we will need that. I don't want to go in that direction; we think the business center is the right way to address the title sponsorship of this event. That's what we intend to do."

Wilmot and George are not alone in their efforts to find a sponsor. Several PGA Tour pros with ties to South Carolina and the Heritage have stepped forward to help.

Chief among those is five-time Heritage winner Davis Love III, who lives in Sea Island, Ga.

"It's just such an iconic tournament. If we didn't have such a bad economy, it would be one people would be standing in line for," Love said earlier in the week. "We have to find the right fit, and it's a harder search now. But hopefully something will come up sooner than later to give everybody a little comfort."

The struggle to find, or retain, title sponsors on the PGA Tour has been a recurring theme in recent years. But earlier this year the San Diego event picked up Farmers Insurance as its sponsor, and Love and others were instrumental in RSM McGladrey signing on as the sponsor for a new event at Sea Island this fall.

While speaking about prize money at the Masters is considered taboo, the Heritage doesn't mind throwing numbers around. This year's purse is $5.7 million, up considerably from $1.5 million in 1997, and charitable donations have reached nearly $20 million since the not-for-profit foundation was created in 1987.

That's why the loss of the tournament would sting beyond Hilton Head, said Charles Warren, a former Clemson golfer and Columbia native who received a sponsor's exemption to play in this year's tournament. The Heritage is also one of the top tourist events in a state that thrives on that industry.

"A great purse, one of the best golf courses, a great field and you've got a great date the week after the Masters," Warren said. "If you were to tell any other tournament they could have that, it's the perfect storm for a great event. I just think someone's going to see the value in that and the future's got to look great for this tournament. It's got so much to offer."

Even without top attractions such as Masters winner Phil Mickelson (he last played the Heritage in 2002) or Tiger Woods (his lone appearance came in 1999) the tournament still boasts a strong field. After the pressure-cooker of the Masters -- the Heritage has followed Augusta on the schedule since 1983 -- it's the perfect way for players and their families to unwind.

"This one has a great feel because it is a relaxing feel and a relaxing place. Obviously, if you played in Atlanta the week after the Masters, it wouldn't be quite as fun as going to the beach," Love said. "You get to go to Hilton Head, and it's a fun week for the kids, it's a fun week for the wives and it's a great tournament for the players."

Tournament facts and figures

- Arnold Palmer was the inauguaral winner in 1969

- According to statistics, 48 percent of spectators attend for four or more days

- Since the first tournament, the only golfers who have won a major and haven't played at Harbour Town are Ian Woosnam and Paul Lawrie.

- Champions combined have won 67 major tournaments.

- Champions have combined for 391 PGA TOUR victories (prior to the start of play in 2008).

- Davis Love III (1991-92), Payne Stewart (1989-90) and Boo Weekley (2007-08) are the only defending champions to repeat. Love is also the tournament's only five-time winner.

Source: www.verizonheritage.com