This is not about money. No, sir, not in the least. It’s about saving an institution because it’s the right thing to do. The Heritage has one foot and four toes in the grave and unless someone steps up who is both forward-looking and has a heart for history, this iconic tournament will die a tragic death.
There will be no worse day for the PGA Tour should that happen. Tournament officials are publicly optimistic that an 11th-hour cure can be found, but the patient is on life support and won’t last much longer.
The Heritage had been sponsored for 25 years by telecommunications giant Verizon. But the company pulled out at the end of 2010. This year’s Heritage is sponsor-less, having used $4 million from the now-depleted Heritage Foundation fund, another $1 million from the town of Hilton Head, S.C., and $1 million from surrounding Beaufort County to float the event for 2011.
But that’s as far as it goes. It takes about $8 million from a title sponsor to underwrite a PGA Tour event, which includes the $5 million purse and television ad buys that the Tour requires of its sponsors. Golf Channel reported that insurance firm Aflac was set to be a presenting sponsor this year – which means that they would pay less for less exposure – but pulled out at the last minute because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Seems that 75 percent of Aflac’s business is in Japan.
It also was reported that representatives of eight firms were in Hilton Head last week with each looking seriously into becoming the event’s title sponsor. But none have stepped forward to save the Heritage.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is lobbying the potential suitors but stopped short of saying the state would financially support the tournament. “If we used taxpayer dollars, it would be the ‘Heritage Sponsored By the Taxpayers of South Carolina,’ ” Haley said. “That will kill the tournament.”
The tournament deserves to be saved because there is no other event like it on the PGA Tour. Except for this year, the Heritage has been situated the week after The Masters. Volumes have been written about the low-key Heritage as the perfect antidote for the high tension of Augusta.
Players love the tournament because of the family atmosphere of Sea Pines, one of the best golf resort venues in the country. And Harbour Town Golf Links is simply one of the finest courses, outside the major championships, that the pros play all year. It is universally loved by all who play it. It’s a traditional, tree-lined layout, and if it’s not Pete Dye’s best work, it’s in the top three.
Steve Wilmot is in his 25th year as tournament director and he’s hoping against hope it’s not his last. The Heritage has been his baby and he has loved and nurtured it in good times and lean. The Heritage has a unique opening ceremony on Monday in which the defending champion hits a tee shot, while a cannon fires at the same time. Wilmot admitted to having a few tears during the ceremony.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel next week,” Wilmot told Ron Green Jr. of The Charlotte Observer.
In the current economic climate, at first glance, it would appear there aren’t many companies that love golf and have an extra $8 million on hand. However, it’s estimated that there’s about $3 trillion in cash on American companies’ balance sheets sitting on the sidelines, waiting for something in which to invest.
On the surface, it’s tough to convince boards of directors and shareholders that spending money on a PGA Tour event is being a good steward of the company’s money. On the other hand, the PGA Tour brand is still a valuable commodity. It delivers a demographic, both in person and on television, that you can’t get anyplace else.
If that sounds like shilling for the Tour, don’t misunderstand. If the PGA Tour really wanted to, it would find a way to make it much easier for a potential sponsor to be found. The Tour could waive its rights fees and work out another arrangement for the advertising to be bought, perhaps asking all the other sponsors on Tour to each buy one or two more television ads to make up the difference. The Tour could even draw open its own considerable purse strings for a buffer, should one be needed to finish a deal.
If Commissioner Tim Finchem is smart, he will pull out all the stops to save the Heritage. This should be an all-hands-on-deck situation in Ponte Vedra Beach. If the Heritage goes away, it sends a clear message to other potential sponsors of other events. If a tournament like the Heritage can’t survive, then the PGA Tour isn’t as strong as we’ve all been led to believe.
Governor Haley remains upbeat, but remember, she is a politician. “ ‘Can’t’ is not an option,” she said. “We will get a sponsor.”
At this point, what the Heritage really needs is a savior.