Will 2011 Heritage be its Last Hurrah?


Because of the lack of a title sponsor the Heritage on Hilton Head Island, S.C., might not return to the PGA Tour schedule in 2012.

The $5.7 million event, a fixture on the tour after it debuted two weeks after the Masters in 1969, may be in dire straits after Verizon dropped its 25-year sponsorship at the conclusion of last year's tournament.

Since Verizon pulled out following its quarter-century of sponsoring the Heritage, the tour hasn't had any luck finding a replacement.

"We're approaching the 12th hour," tournament director Steve Wilmot told The Associated Press on Monday. "There's a sense of urgency." Wilmot estimates that about $7.6 million is needed to finance the event at the Pete Dye-designed Harbour Town Golf Links, a popular stop for the touring pros and their families.

"It's the anti-Augusta," said two-time Heritage champion Stewart Cink at last year's event.

"It's imperative for the long-term future of the event to secure a title sponsor," added PGA Tour vice president Ty Votaw.

Over the past two seasons the tour has renewed or replaced 27 sponsors, and a similar effort will be needed to save the Heritage, which will be held April 21-24.

The tournament enjoys quite the pedigree of champions. Previous winners include golf Hall-of-Famers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, the late Payne Stewart, Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, Nick Price and Greg Norman. Davis Love III has won five times. Jim Furyk will return to defend his title after winning last year's Heritage in a playoff.

"We know we have the support of the players," said Wilmot said, who admitted the quest to get a new sponsor has been taxing. "I've had to keep up on my blood pressure medicine."

A study last year commissioned by tournament organizers determined that the Verizon Heritage resulted in nearly $82 million being spent in South Carolina and its coastal region. The survey was conducted by Clemson University's International Institute for Tourism Research and Development, with assistance from USC Beaufort.

Backed by the local Heritage Classic Foundation, the organizers were able to raise enough money - $4 million - to guarantee the 2011 event. However, according to Wilmot it depleted much of its reserves in underwriting that amount. The town of Hilton Head will also contribute up to $1 million for the tournament if a sponsor can't be found.

Among those voicing support for the Heritage is South Carolina's new governor, Nikki Haley, who has said she'll help Wilmot and the foundation find a backer.

In a few weeks Wilmot will travel to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to discuss with tour officials what can be done to ensure the tournament's return in 2012.

"We hope to be able to make a lot of people happy over the next several weeks if those conversations continue in the manner they have," Votaw said, who expressed optimism that the Heritage will maintain its place on the tour's rotation.


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