RBC Heritage working to keep backing

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The RBC Heritage (via Facebook)

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – RBC Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot doesn’t want to return to the dark, sponsor-less days of just a few years ago when his longtime PGA Tour stop didn’t know if it would make it through to the next year. So everyone connected with the event is making sure that won’t happen.

New construction on a $20 million clubhouse at Harbour Town Golf Links started shortly after Matt Kuchar’s chip-in on the 72nd hole lifted him to victory Sunday. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was there early in the week to participate in discussions with lead sponsors Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing to extend backing past the five-year deal that ends in 2016.

There are new parking strategies ahead to help beautify the island that were tested this past week when rain swamped many of the grassy, field areas where spectators and volunteers have parked practically since the tournament began in 1969.

And there’s a new luxury hotel ahead for the grounds to help increase the number of clients and officials sponsors might entertain during tournament week.

“Sea Pines is making a commitment and obviously the Tour has to be in,” Wilmot said. “And then then sponsors. But it’s better than when it was a `no.'”

That came before the 2010 tournament when longtime event sponsor Verizon announced it was ending its ties to the tournament. A search for sponsorship went beyond the 2011 event when the Heritage Classic Foundation had to spend some $4 million in reserve funds along with about $1 million in local government help keep things going that year.

In June of 2011, the tour, state and federal leaders and Wilmot’s organization announced the deal that brought in RBC, which has long sponsored golf, and Boeing, which had recently opened a major manufacturing facility about two hours north of the course.

Things have gone well the past three years. But the island facility knew it faced challenges to keep pace with some of the larger country clubs and made-for-TV golf facilities that host PGA Tour events.

The new clubhouse, which has been there since the tournament began 45 years ago, will increase from 11,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet and have room for 150 full-size lockers. There will also be an art gallery to display oil portraits of RBC Heritage champions through the years, a new restaurant and expanded pro shop among other amenities.

It’s expected to be complete in time for next year’s tournament.

The clubhouse is part of some $50 million in upgrades around the resort for year-round visitors, residents and tournament attendees.

A wrinkle in sponsorship talks could be the pending retirement of RBC chief executive officer Gord Nixon next summer, Wilmot said. Nixon has been a fan of golf and Hilton Head since the deal, Wilmot says, and his departure could impact whether the company goes forward past 2016.

“That being said, Boeing’s a big company and they’re not going away,” Wilmot said.

It shouldn’t hurt the tournament’s cause that four of RBC’s golf ambassadors in Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell and Kuchar have won this event in the past five times it’s been played. Another RBC-backed golfer, Luke Donald, has finished second or third here in five of the past six tournaments.

The RBC Heritage has the strong support of players, many who enjoy the laid-back atmosphere a few days after the pressure of Augusta National at the Masters. Kuchar said he enjoys spending time with his family here, hitting the beach and riding bikes during down time. “It’s one of the nicest stops we go to,” Kuchar says.

There may be less traffic for cyclists to navigate at future events. Heavy rains forced officials to park fans and others outside the Sea Pines gates and bus them to the course. Wilmot said cars parked on grassy areas did not always go with the secluded, picturesque scenes officials want clients and sponsors to see.

“The rain just made us try it earlier and gave people the chance to see it working,” he said.

Wilmot’s confident a new deal will be done and he and others won’t face another doomsday scenario to keep the event afloat. “We can’t do what we did before,” Wilmot said. “So let’s try and take care of our sponsors and make sure they both feel at home.”