The Harbour Town lighthouse, one of the PGA Tour's most enduring icons, stands sentinel over a flotilla of yachts and gleaming cruisers. It was jarring, therefore, to see well-heeled galleryites at last week's Tour event fighting back tears over the news that their 42-year-old tournament, the Heritage, still hadn't found a title sponsor for 2012.
Nostalgia? It was as plentiful as Spanish moss. In 1969, Arnold Palmer won the inaugural Heritage, which was invented to promote vacation travel and real estate on South Carolina's thinly populated Hilton Head Island. Subsequent winners ranged from the solid (Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo) to the stolid (Doug Tewell, Bill Rogers, David Edwards, Glen Day), with local favorite Davis Love III winning a record five times. The tight, demanding Harbour Town Golf Links rewarded shotmakers, while the Sea Pines Resort kept their families amused with its beaches, bike trails, horseback riding and boat trips.
"It's on a short list of my favorite events, probably in my top three," defending champ Jim Furyk said last week. "It's like the fifth major to me," added D.J. Trahan, one of 16 South Carolina--connected players in the field.
Unfortunately, sentiment followed longtime sponsor Verizon Communications out the door when the phone company chose not to renew beyond 2010, leaving tournament director Steve Wilmot to find a replacement in recessionary times. It took $2 million in local-government loans and $4 million from the Heritage Classic Foundation to save this year's event. Asked about persistent rumors that a big company with extensive Low Country investments is coming to the rescue, Wilmot said, "If I had a nickel for every rumor I've heard about BMW or Boeing, I'd be the title sponsor."
Time to shutter the lighthouse? Not quite. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and COO Andy Pazder provided visible and vocal support last week. Wilmot took prospective sponsors on tours of the island. Virtually every South Carolina politician above the rank of Eagle Scout descended upon Harbour Town, including Governor Nikki Haley and U.S. senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham. Their objective: to keep a firm grasp on the estimated $82 million a year that the Heritage brings to the state and regional economy.
"The Tour is engaged, the politicians are getting involved, and the players are with us," Wilmot said. "There's a real momentum change."
Momentum noted. But with no title sponsor signed up as of week's end, Brandt Snedeker wriggled into the Heritage champion's blazer suspecting that he might be the last jubilant golfer to look bad in plaid.
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