Bob Gillespie



RBC Heritage 2013: A year ago, sighs of relief; this year, moving forward into the future

Posted 2/26/2013 6:58:00 PM

When Steve Wilmot, tournament director of the RBC Heritage for 27 years, convened the tournament’s annual Media Day in February 2011, the continued existence of the event, sponsor-less at that point, was in doubt. And everyone involved, from Wilmot to the 1,200 volunteers, were feeling the uncertainty.

Then last year, with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and airline giant Boeing enthusiastically on board, tournament officials, volunteers and others were able to breathe a well-earned sigh of relief. Now, heading into the second year of a five-year contract with its new sponsors, the 2013 RBC Heritage – April 15-21 at Sea Pines Resort’s Harbour Town Golf Links – and, indeed, the entire Hilton Head Island community has a collective eye focused on the future.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of that, Wilmot said at the recent media day gathering, is not around the Pete Dye-designed golf course – though changes have been and will be made – but rather in upgrades to a number of on-island hotel and resort accommodations, which with the tournament’s future now secured have begun to plan for their own growth.

“Once the announcement was made about RBC and Boeing, we’re seeing some exciting renovations at the Westin, the Sonesta and the Omni,” Wilmot said of area hotel properties. “The commitment to this resort is unbelievable.”

The resort, too, has kicked off its own modernization process. The Plantation Club, home to Sea Pines’ Ocean Course and Heron Point by Pete Dye courses, was recently razed in order to rebuild that clubhouse facility. The Harbour Town clubhouse also is set for demolition following the 2014 Heritage, Wilmot said.

Spectators this April also will find a new amenity at the popular stretch of Harbour Town’s 16th, 17th and 18th holes, which run along Calibogue Sound and end at the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse. CBS-TV has moved its compound from there to the resort’s tennis courts, opening up space for a new “Heritage Lawn,” which will include gathering spots, concessions and premium seating facilities.

“We’ll have a video board showing the broadcast” by CBS and Golf Channel, which will combine to air 18 hours of live coverage as well as Golf Channel’s evening reruns, Wilmot said. The Lawn also will host a Saturday night party featuring local musical group The Headliners, he said.

A highlight of 2012 came was when a Boeing 787 performed a flyover of the 18th hole as Gov. Nikki Haley and other state officials looked on. “I can’t promise that again,” Boeing representative John Maloney said with a laugh, “but the 6,200 employees of Boeing South Carolina are ready to ‘get their plaid on,’” a reference to the Heritage’s Scottish-themed slogan.

All these events and projects are capitalizing on the revival of Hilton Head and its signature event, considered the premier professional sports event in South Carolina since its debut in 1969. “This is all part of the future,” Wilmot said – and a necessary part, he added.

The cozy Sea Pines Resort had seen many of its facilities getting old, Wilmot said, and the area was lacking in premium accommodations. RBC and Boeing, which use tournament week for entertainment and networking purposes, will gobble up much of the area’s top rooms in April, and more will be needed in the future, he said. “RBC has every room in the Inn (at Harbour Town),” Wilmot said. “Boeing has everything at (Bluffton’s) Palmetto Bluff.

“Sea Pines right now doesn’t have the facilities, but this will be a win-win-win for the community. Everyone is stepping up.”

Another reflection both of the tournament’s stability and its new partners is what is shaping up as a strong field. As in 2012, a number of RBC-sponsored “ambassadors” are committed to play, among them Matt Kuchar, winner of the recent Accenture Match Play Championship and now the world’s seventh-ranked player. Others include Luke Donald, 2012 British Open champion Ernie Els, Hunter Mahan, past U.S. Open champs Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk, and Brandt Snedeker, winner of this year’s Northern Trust Open and a past Heritage champion.

For 2013 only, the field will also be larger, 144 players vs. the usual 132. The change is due to the PGA Tour’s revised calendar, with the 2014 season starting this fall following the FedEx Cup Playoffs. “The PGA Tour is trying to find more playing opportunities (with fewer tournaments). We’re not the only event affected,” Wilmot said.

More players also means more caddies, families to feed, lockers and parking – not to mention three extra tee times for the first two rounds, which will stretch available daylight. The larger field also reduces Wilmot’s number of sponsor exemptions – in the past used to invite South Carolina natives and other notables – from eight to four.

Two have already been named: Daniel Nesbit of Australia, winner of the Heritage-backed Players Amateur, and Camilo Villegas, a former Players Amateur winner from Colombia, who in 2011 “changed his schedule to be here to support us,” Wilmot said. The other two exemptions likely will be announced the week before the Heritage.

None of those issues, of course, compares with the angst of two years ago. Ironically, one result of that time of anxiety has been confirmation of the Heritage’s importance to South Carolina and others, as expressed by its sponsors.

“The Heritage is deep in tradition, and RBC is humbled to be involved in that and welcomed into your family,” RBC representative Andy Shibata said. “It’s an honor to be part of that tradition, and we look forward to many more years together.”

Boeing’s Maloney noted that while his company does “big things – sending people into space, jets, the military – we don’t do a lot of sponsorships. When we do, we want quality, and the Heritage represents that.

“(Being a sponsor) lets the state know we’re here to stay. It would’ve been a shame if this were allowed not to continue. We’re proud to be a part of continuing the tradition.”

Those are golden words for Wilmot’s ears, and for other long-time Heritage officials. None would willingly go through that uncertainty again, but ultimately it might have been a good thing.

“For years, the (Heritage Classic) Foundation might’ve gotten a little fat and happy,” Wilmot said. “The fear of all that going away has energized people. That old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’? We were a little broken.

“But change is good when it happens, and this is a part of that wave – of continuing to build on our relationship with RBC and Boeing.”

It’s all about the future of the RBC Heritage – a future that looks bright these days.