Hilton Head Island’s RBC Heritage tournament finds a partner it can bank on

It’s been a stressful couple of years for the tournament directors of the RBC Heritage slated for April 12-15 on Hilton Head Island.

Anchored by a candy-cane striped lighthouse at the foot of a yacht basin, the Heritage PGA Tour golf tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links in The Sea Pines Resort has been television eye candy and a harbinger of spring for millions of visitors and viewers since 1969.

Defending champion Jim Furyk launches a shot into the Calibogue Sound to start the 2011 Heritage tournament. Photo by Heritage Foundation

But this year’s tournament almost wasn’t.

A temblor hit in 2009 when Verizon announced after 24 years that 2010 would be the last year it would pony up a couple million dollars to be title sponsor.  Tournament director Steve Wilmot wasn’t worried about finding another sponsor. PGA Tour pros adore the course and love bringing their families every year to Hilton Head Island.

Television viewership has always been strong and more than 100,000 attend the tournament every year. He thought he had nothing to fear. He was wrong.

The Great Recession and intense scrutiny of corporate spending pushed golf tournaments out of favor. The months rolled by and no title sponsor stepped forward. A year went by. Rumors of a new sponsor rose and died, time after time. The possibility, as horrible as it was to consider, was growing that the Heritage tournament would be no more.

With one last gasp, the cavalry arrived in the form of $1 million each from the Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County and virtually everything the Heritage Foundation had in reserve. But the uncertainty prompted the PGA Tour to slot another tournament in the Heritage’s traditional place on the calendar, the week after The Masters. The Heritage was played one week later, at the same time as the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in nearby Savannah. But they did it. The 2011 tournament teed off and enjoyed excellent ratings on CBS and very vocal support from the players. After the tournament, it still had no sponsor and there were no financial rabbits left in the hat.

April went by, then May. For tournament director Steve Wilmot, the ability to sleep was only a dream.

Meanwhile, knowing time was quickly running out for one of South Carolina’s premier events, public leaders started working the phones and pulling in favors. The tournament thanks Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and many others for helping to convince Royal Bank of Canada that its name belongs in front of “Heritage” for the next five years. Boeing, with a massive new facility in North Charleston, will be a presenting sponsor. The tournament is safe until at least 2016.

That warm breeze you feel? It’s a massive sigh of relief. Life is good, life is normal, once again in Sea Pines Resort, at Harbour Town Golf Links, on Hilton Head Island and in South Carolina.

Even the PGA Tour understands the tournament’s importance. It returned the RBC Heritage to its rightful place on the calendar, the week after The Masters. That weekend belongs to Hilton Head Island. The RBC Heritage lives on.

Come see that tournament that is so important to South Carolina and Hilton Head Island. Come join the gallery April 12-15 at the RBC Heritage at Harbour Towns Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.

We can nearly guarantee a warm breeze.