You don’t find much charm any more on the PGA Tour, at least not in the way you can wrap yourself up in it on Hilton Head Island the week after The Masters. The Verizon Heritage, for 42 years, has served as the soft landing after The Masters’ winner has slipped on the green jacket and stopped at the Krispy Kreme drive-through on Monday morning.
The bad news: It’s no longer the Verizon Heritage. After 24 years, the telecommunications giant has decided its money could be better spent elsewhere. And in the current economic climate, it’s hard to argue when big companies are bombarded by stockholders and hedge funds on a weekly basis.
But buying calls, selling puts and covering your shorts doesn’t make up for the more than $20 million that the Heritage has raised for charity since its inception in 1968. It won’t move the stock price, but it will warm your heart, if you have one at all.
The Heritage is the perfect tournament in the perfect place on the schedule. Once players have passed the crucible of The Masters, there is nothing better than the ease of driving into Hilton Head, family in tow. It’s a working vacation, comfortable as your favorite pair of flip-flops, the summertime footwear du jour on the island. The Heritage is not the largest outdoor cocktail party on the PGA Tour – the Waste(d) Management in Phoenix and the HP Byron Nelson in Dallas hold the top two spots. But rest assured a good time is had by all in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
To boot, Harbour Town Golf Links, the tournament site, is one of the most revered courses on Tour. Players always list it among their three or four favorite courses they play every year, right up there with Pebble Beach and Colonial. You can’t just thump it and chase it at Harbour Town. You have to hit shots there, which is why most of the winners on the list know how to carve it around the oaks and pines that frame the layout.
“The Heritage has a great feel because it is a relaxing feel and a relaxing place,” said Davis Love III. “Obviously, if you played in Atlanta the week after The Masters, it wouldn’t be quite as fun as going to the beach. 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. One, it’s a great golf course. Not a whole lot of tournaments have had their whole history on one golf course, a great golf course like this.”
Said former winner Stewart Cink: “I don’t think it’s tough to come here. When you gear up and play a major like Augusta or any of the big tournaments, it makes it a bit more relaxing and easier the next week because your game is already prepared. You’ve already done all of the preparations. And the one thing that’s hard to prepare for at the majors is that intensity of the golf course and the competition and what it means. When you come here the intensity just seems to melt away and enables you to really relax and be at your best. That’s the way I see it.”
Love is the poster boy for the Heritage. He has won it five times and represents everything this tournament is about. He is a major champion – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson have all won the Heritage – and Love is just enough Carolina laid-back to make him one of the most popular figures in Heritage history.
To date, there is no replacement sponsor and the search is on. Steve Wilmot, one of the best tournament directors on Tour, is working diligently along with the Tour to keep the Heritage going.
“We’re very optimistic that we’ll be working with the Steve and the Heritage Classic Foundation, hopefully for another 42 years,” said Rick George, a vice president of the PGA Tour.
Love is serving his fourth term on the Tour’s Policy Board and, according to him, the board and other players are working feverishly to save the Heritage. “It’s tough in this economy, you know, with unfortunately the politicians not really helping us out, saying, ‘We don’t need to be that involved in corporate entertainment,’ ” Love said. “This is not corporate entertainment, this is for charity. Brad Faxon was talking to Steve Wilmot over the last couple of days, the player directors and the players are now getting engaged to try to help out as much as we can.”
The fate of the Heritage will ultimately lie with a big corporation with dollars to spend and the ability of players and Tour officials to convince a new sponsor to come aboard. Certainly, that pitch will take a certain amount of charm. But if they had ever been to the Heritage, the charm would speak for itself.