In his 28 years with the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing
, tournament director Steve Wilmot has banked countless fond memories from South Carolina’s only annual PGA Tour event. He added another this week during a pre-tournament party held at the Inn at Harbour Town
for guests of sponsors Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing.
“(Defending champion) Graeme McDowell and (Golf Channel host) Rich Lerner were talking about the Ryder Cup, the Europeans and their (recent) dominance,” Wilmot said. “All of a sudden, everyone heard ‘Boo!’ coming from the balcony – it was Tom Watson.”
Watson, captain of this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, and McDowell, a European team regular, then engaged in a vigorous but good-natured debate over the likely outcome of this year’s matches in Gleneagles, Scotland. The reactions of the attendees to the performance by the 2010 U.S. Open champion (McDowell) and Watson, a Hall of Famer?
“The RBC folks called it ‘awesome,’” Wilmot said, laughing.
In its third year under the sponsorship of RBC and Boeing, the RBC Heritage appears healthy, prosperous and assured of a long, steady future and more memories to come. That was hardly the case four years ago, when the PGA Tour event – begun in 1969 and celebrating its 46th year – seemed to be on life support.
The history is well-known: sponsor Verizon ended its affiliation with the tournament after 2010, forcing the Heritage Foundation to dip into reserve funds (with assistance from the community and others) to stage the 2011 event. Those “bad old days” sometimes seem long ago, but Wilmot takes nothing for granted after that two-year scare.
The RBC/Boeing contract runs through 2016, but “we can’t wait until the end to figure out” what happens after that, he said. This week, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was at Harbour Town Golf Links to talk with officials from both companies.
“We need to get working on the future,” Wilmot said. “RBC has been a great partner, and their (PGA Tour) Ambassadors – who aren’t obligated to be here – have been great to have here.” Those include past Heritage champions McDowell and Brandt Snedeker, Ernie Els, Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald most prominently.
As with any contract renegotiations, there are uncertainties. Gordon M. “Gord” Nixon, president and CEO of RBC, has been a major golf supporter (through the RBC Canadian Open and the Heritage), but will retire soon. “We hope before then, he’ll do something for the future,” Wilmot said. Boeing, meanwhile, appears positioned to step up should RBC diminish or end its role.
In the past 12 months, Sea Pines Resort
and Hilton Head
in general have upped their games, too. Some $100 million in improvements to the resort have been made (a new Plantation Clubhouse, a dredging of the Harbour Town marina) or will be. By next year’s tournament, a new Harbour Town clubhouse will have replaced the current building, set to be razed starting this week, and Sea Pines’ new Beach Club should be completed this summer.
Add major renovations to the nearby Westin
hotels as well as upgrades at the Omni
, and Hilton Head is putting its money where its future – and the Heritage’s – can be. “Some (tournament) sponsors sometimes want something new after 12 or 13 years in the same place,” Wilmot said.
“Now, this is not the same venue that it has been.”
Other, less dramatic changes were in evidence this week. When heavy rains left Sea Pines’ temporary parking lots flooded, officials moved parking outside the resort to paved locales and transported fans to the golf course by bus. “The Friday weather was a blessing in disguise,” Wilmot said. “We were going to do something next year anyway.” Reaction from fans was enthusiastic.
What likely won’t change, Wilmot said, are the RBC Heritage’s tradition week-after-the-Masters dates. While not set in stone, that week is set for 2015. In 2011, the tournament was forced to move a week later.
“(That week) works for us. It really works,” Wilmot said. While some players skip the week following a major, others enjoy the tension-reduced atmosphere of Hilton Head, treating the Heritage like a working vacation. “We had 80-90 players’ kids in our daycare,” he said.
Some things might change by 2016, but Wilmot is confident the RBC Heritage has a solid future. Having seen the other side four years ago, he has no complaints.
Kuchar comes back
Matt Kuchar started the RBC Heritage just the way he would've wanted on Thursday. He ended the week even better, holing a bunker shot on the difficult par-4 18th hole beneath Harbour Town Golf Links' iconic lighthouse.
Kuchar, who shot an opening 66 -- his best round to date in the RBC Heritage -- outdid himself again on Sunday with a closing 64, 7-under par and good for a one-shot victory over third-round leader Luke Donald. At one point Sunday, Kuchar trailed Donald by four shots but charged down the stretch.
His winning shot was a hole-out from the bunker in front of the 18th green, a dramatic finish in a week full of them. "I heard the crowd (around the green) go crazy," Kuchar said. "Then I went crazy."
The victory ended a string of close-but-no-cigar Sundays for Kuchar, including a late slump a week earlier at the Masters. Kuchar, one of RBC's "Ambassadors" (players sponsored by Royal Bank of Canada), said he couldn't imagine a better place to end that streak.
"You have a couple of days to unwind after a major, and then Thursday starts and then you've got a chance to play another PGA Tour event," he said Thursday. "Not just a PGA Tour event, but the RBC Heritage classic at Harbour Town. "It's a fantastic venue, fantastic tournament. It's pretty easy to get excited for this."
Local favorites lead off, take off
Two local favorites, popular Bishopville
native Tommy Gainey
product Mark Anderson
, had the dubious pleasure of leading off Sunday’s final round, the result of having the worst two 54-hole scores. Neither was interested in dragging out things: both finished quickly and left Harbour Town before reporters could find them.
It wasn’t all bad news for the duo. Anderson shot a closing 70 to finish 6-over par 290, while Gainey (who finished third at the 2011 Heritage) fired a 3-under 68 – his best score this week by four shots – and finished at 289.
Another South Carolina product, former Columbia
resident Jonathan Byrd
, also had his best round of the week (67) to finish even-par 284. William McGirt
of Boiling Springs
, the first-round leader, matched his Thursday score with a closing 66 to conclude at 5-under 279.