The Heritage looking at dark days ahead
The Heritage was first played in 1969, but as the tournament unfolds this week for the 43rd time, it is on life support.
The tournament has been looking for a title sponsor since last year, when Verizon pulled the plug after having one name or the other on the tournament since 1987. It first was known as MCI and later was changed to World Com.
There is considerable angst among the pros that the much-loved event on the revered Harbour Town Golf Links at Hilton Head Island, S.C., might disappear forever.
"It's a tragedy ... tragedy," Nick Price, who won the tournament in 1997 and now plays on the Champions Tour, told Golf Digest. "I blame the top players, and you know who I mean. It's sad, really sad. That's one of our great tournaments. And it's one of the great courses of all time we play on our tour.
"When I won there I was really on top of my game, and I used every club in the bag. A lot of the golf holes today are taking strategy out of the game. You have that at Harbour Town. I really hope something can be done to save that tournament."
Many of the top players have skipped the Heritage in recent years because it usually has been played the week after the Masters, but it is especially favored by players with young families who enjoy the slower pace.
And fans who have seen the tournament on television love it for the scene around the iconic candy-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse behind the 18th green on the shores of Calibogue Sound.
"It's the anti-Augusta," said Stewart Cink, who won at Hilton Head in 2000 and 2004. "I hope that a company can see how valuable this could be for them, to step in and take the place of Verizon."
Price didn't name names, but he was pointing the finger directly at Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Woods tied for 18th at Harbour Town in 1999 and has not been back.
Mickelson has played in the tournament seven times, but not since he was near the lead after opening with 67-68 in 2002. He finished third, two strokes behind Justin Leonard.
"It's really special to a lot of players, and it's a unique event in a small community where everybody really rallies together," said Brian Gay, the 2009 Heritage champion. "I think somebody will step up and keep it going."
In days past, even the best players came to Hilton Head.
Arnold Palmer captured the inaugural event in 1969. Other names on the trophy include Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Justin Leonard and Fuzzy Zoeller.
Davis Love III virtually has made a second home at Hilton Head, having designed golf courses in the area, but mostly because he has won the tournament a record five times.
"It's just such an iconic tournament," said Love, who will be playing in the Heritage for the 26th time. "If we didn't have such a bad economy, it would be one people would be standing in line for. ... It's a harder search now."
Love will be joined in the field this week by defending champion Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and past champions Cink, Leonard, Gay, Aaron Baddeley and Boo Weekley.
It's not exactly the Masters' Green Jacket, but the winner of the Heritage receives the Tartan Jacket, and Weekley wore it in 2007 and 2008.
"As a player it stinks that the PGA can't help them out," Weekley said last year. "That's my feelings. Why can't the PGA Tour, they help everything else out, why can't they come in here and say, 'We're going to help you all raise enough money to do this?' "
When Furyk and Love were unable to attend Heritage Media Day earlier this year, officials of the Heritage Classic Foundation did not have to look around for a replacement.
Lucas Glover, a native of South Carolina, contacted them and volunteered.
"... It's our only pro sports event (in the state)," Glover said. "I started realizing the economic impact, upwards of $90 million into our economy. We're not a very rich state, so we can't afford to lose that.
"So many guys treat this as their first family week of the year, bring the family, the kids, go to the beach, good restaurants. Guys love the golf course, and I feel the guys will be very upset if we lost it."
To add insult to injury, the Heritage lost its place on the schedule after the Masters this year. The Valero Texas Open had to be played last week because of schedule conflicts at TPC San Antonio.
And the vultures are circling. A story in the Detroit Free Press last month reported that Cadillac is looking to stage a new event at Detroit Golf Club. Since there are no openings on the PGA Tour, the company has its eye on the Heritage situation.
A decision is expected in the next few weeks.
"I think it's fair to say there doesn't appear to be (a title sponsor) that's immediately on the horizon," Stu Rodman, a Beaufort County Councilman, said recently. "... We could be four to five weeks away from losing the tournament."
Rodman has proposed a stop-gap measure in which the Heritage, which has donated more than $20 million to local charities since 1987, could be kept alive if the city, county, state and Sea Pines Resort can come up with $30 million over five years.
The councilman pointed out that the governments collected $12.5 million in net revenue from the tournament last year and that a Clemson University study determined that the Heritage has an annual impact of more than $80 million on the local and state economy.
However, the plan probably is a non-starter because Gov. Nikki Haley is not on board and Rodman's proposal has the state coming up with the lion's share of the money, $18 million through the Department of Commerce, the Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, and/or the Budget and Control Board.
"The governor loves the Heritage, understands how critical it is to our economy and is very focused on finding a sponsor," Haley's spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said. "But let's be clear: Under no circumstances should the taxpayers of South Carolina front the costs of a golf tournament."
In that case, South Carolina can probably kiss the Heritage goodbye.