Players, fans hope this isn't last Heritage

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. --- Tune in for today's final round of The Heritage and enjoy the views of the iconic lighthouse behind the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links and the tranquil surroundings.

Luke Donald carries a one-shot lead into today's final round of The Heritage, which does not have a sponsor.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Luke Donald carries a one-shot lead into today's final round of The Heritage, which does not have a sponsor.
John Boyette
Sports Editor
Twitter: @johnboyette
E-mail | 706-823-3337

It might be the last time a PGA Tour event is held here, although fans, golfers and tournament officials hope that's not the case.

One of the PGA Tour's most popular stops is in danger of becoming extinct. Verizon ended its sponsorship of the tournament in 2010 after a 24-year partnership and, despite the best efforts of all involved, no new title sponsor has emerged.

Rumors have circulated about a new sponsor for months, and several potential ones are being courted this week.

"I think it will get done because it's a top priority for us and for the state of South Carolina," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said. "There are a numbers of reasons we want to get this done. Players love the golf course. It's also a good golf course to watch on TV. And to top it off we've got a long history there."

Even the Palmetto State's top elected official is doing her best to save an event in a state where tourism is king.

"We'll save this great event by doing it the way we always have. We'll get a sponsor," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said on the Golf Channel. "Can't is not an option. We will get a sponsor."

On Saturday, it was business as usual as thousands of fans turned out for the third round under perfect weather conditions. Some fans roamed the golf course in search of shade and good vantage points, while others anchored vessels in Calibogue Sound with a clear view of the 18th green.

Even though most were there to soak up the sun and have a good time, the importance of finding a sponsor has not gone unnoticed.

"I think it's very important for the state as well as the local community," Wesley Parks, of Camden, S.C., said. "People here and on Daufuskie Island depend on income from the tournament."

Still, the prevailing sense is that a sponsor will be found for 2012.

"I think the vibe is very optimistic," said Angela McSwain, who is the tournament's marketing director. "It's easy to be optimistic when you're caught up in the middle of it, with a great atmosphere and fantastic leaderboard."

A who's who of golf's elite have been associated with The Heritage and Harbour Town from the beginning, including the Jack Nicklaus-Pete Dye collaboration on the design. Arnold Palmer won the first event in 1969, and the list of winners since then has included such notables as Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Fuzzy Zoeller, Greg Norman and Davis Love III.

This year, 54-hole leader Luke Donald is poised to take over the No. 1 world ranking if he can win today.

The Heritage lost its traditional spot -- the week after the Masters Tournament -- for this year, but PGA Tour officials have told the tournament it will return to its normal slot in 2012 if it is still around.

Most players seem to prefer the week after Augusta, but for some it's not a deciding factor.

"I love the event and I always said it didn't matter what week of the year it was for me, I always want to come here and play because I love the golf course," said Furyk, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "It's easy for me, too, because I drive to the Masters and drive home and I drive here from home, it's only three hours. For somebody that maybe lives on the West Coast, from Augusta, you fly home, it's going to be a pain in the rear end to fly back."

Matt Kuchar, who lives in St. Simons Island, Ga., thinks it makes more sense for the Masters and Heritage to run back-to-back.

"It's a great follow-up to Augusta. It's easy to drive. A bit of a mess with the tour schedule as far as the jumpiness," Kuchar said. "We went from Texas to Georgia to Texas to South Carolina to Louisiana the next week, back to North Carolina the following week. I would like to see a little more sense as far as locations and drivability from a player's standpoint."

The tournament was able to go on this year by using its reserves and getting $1 million commitments each from the Town of Hilton Head and Beaufort County, S.C. Tournaments rely on sponsorship money to help pay the purse and other associated costs with putting on the event.

With four decades of tradition and a roster of well-known champions, most fans are eager to see it continue.

"Compared to other golf tournaments I've been to, it's just a real laid-back crowd," Bob Williams, of Camden, said. "Not quite as serious as some places, and the golfers are a little more accessible. You couldn't have it on a prettier place."

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