Bob Gillespie



2012 Heritage a huge success

Posted 4/15/2012 7:17:00 PM

Steve Wilmot couldn’t contain himself. The 26-year tournament director of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing tried to be cool on Friday at noon when Boeing staged a flyover by one of its new 787 Dreamliners. But when the huge passenger jet soared over the 18th green and disappeared behind the main grandstand, Wilmot took off running to follow its path.

Afterward, he explained why with a grin. “My dad (Jack, 81, of Moorestown, N.J.) flew for the Air Force and was a captain for TWA for 36 years,” Wilmot said. “He was in the skyboxes (Friday) and he thought (the flyover) was awesome.”

For the younger Wilmot, that moment symbolized both the excitement of the 2012 RBC Heritage, and the relief that came with successfully finding, and then incorporating into the tournament culture, two new backers in Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing South Carolina. To say the preceding two years, and then the intervening nine months since the sponsors came on board, were stressful for Wilmot would be an major understatement.

Sunday, as the tournament wound down in anticipation of new champion Carl Pettersson being presented the traditional plaid jacket during ceremonies at Harbour Town's 18th green, Wilmot enjoyed a rare quiet moment in his office – and laughingly said the “worst” was yet to come.

“I could take another week of the tournament – this has been great,” he said. “But I dread Monday: It’s ‘when do we get paid’ and ‘where are you moving the portajohns.’ And now all our tournament interns are gone. We’ll still have days that start at 6 a.m. and go until we drop.”

Then he smiled ruefully. “No question, it beats the alternative. We could be doing nothing,” he said.

That scary possibility – “we talked about furloughs and layoffs, it was to that point,” Wilmot said – went away last June with the announcement of a five-year deal with RBC and Boeing. Then, he says, the real work began.

“We got two great partners to work closely with, who were sensitive to each other,” Wilmot said. For example, when Boeing proposed Friday’s flyover (a fixture at the airline manufacturer’s Champions Tour event in Seattle), “we made sure it was OK with RBC – and they said ‘yes’ in about a minute,” he said.

Next came familiarization – not only for Heritage personnel with the new sponsors, but for the sponsors with the tournament’s vibe. RBC, which sponsors the Canadian Open, knew that drill, but had to learn what the drill is at Hilton Head Island.

By all accounts, the marriage has gone smoothly. Officials from both sponsors have entertained corporate clients with stays at the luxurious Inn at Harbour Town, golf and boat trips. “The Boeing people said they were blown away by the experience,” Wilmot said. Both sponsors also were involved with several roundtable functions involving PGA Tour players, among them past Heritage champions Jim Furyk (2010) and Brandt Snedeker (2011).

During play the past four days, crowds have been large and enthusiastic. “There’s certainly a sense of energy and excitement,” Wilmot said. “We’re giving everyone the ‘blue carpet’ treatment (for RBC’s trademark color), and there’s a freshness, a new excitement.”

Officials from RBC and Boeing similarly voiced their enthusiasm for the partnerships. “We’re looking forward – I should say, my 75,000 colleagues and I are looking forward to supporting this great tradition,” RBC president and CEO Gord Nixon said at Sunday’s award ceremony.

Nodding to Nixon, Boeing South Carolina vice president Jack Jones concurred. “We too look forward to the next four years,” he said.

Tournament officials tracking sales and attendance said the crowds are comparable to 2011, though Wilmot said it was too early for conclusive numbers. “But all indications are it’s been a great week for concessions and for merchandisers,” he said. “We’ve had parking and bathroom (overcrowding) issues – which is ‘good’ news,” he added, laughing.

Indeed, the week was a near-perfect convergence of beautiful temperatures, lush conditions and strong play by the field. “The weather couldn't have been better,” said Cary Corbitt, director of sports division of The Sea Pines Resort. “Plus, not only were player compliments on the course very good, but (architect) Pete Dye himself was ecstatic about the conditioning.”

Players like more than just the golf course. The PGA Tour’s annual “spring break” provides players with a low-key, relaxed setting in a self-contained, all-inclusive environment. “I’ve been coming 10 years, since I’ve been on Tour, but it’s the first time I brought my wife and kids, and we love coming,” Petterson said after his victory. “It’s a great family week, a great place, special, friendly. I think we all love coming here.”

Matt Kuchar, a RBC-sponsored player who brings his family here every year, put it this way: “You never really need to leave Sea Pines.”

Perhaps the best moment for Wilmot came during a mid-week roundtable discussion with RBC and Boeing officials, plus Furyk and Snedeker. After Furyk talked about “inside the ropes” issues, the veteran player told Wilmot, “I want to talk about outside the rope, too.

“Jim said he could feel and sense how important this event is to the community. He said, ‘We don’t always feel that at most other events.’ That and things Brandt said told us why the pros voted Harbour Town No. 2” among PGA Tour venues in a poll by Golfweek magazine. “The players helped get us to this point.”

It’s a point Wilmot and others couldn’t have predicted a year ago. “There were times when I had thoughts of doom and gloom,” he said. “How (the loss of the Heritage) would impact restaurants and hotels on the island, how a lot of people come here the rest of the year because they’ve seen it during the tournament.”

Now, after a short turnaround, Wilmot and “the best tournament staff in America” (his words) will begin planning for the 2013 RBC Heritage. Potential clients for next year were entertained this week, and talks have been held with CBS about new ways to present the tournament, golf course and Hilton Head Island.

“And we’ll regroup with RBC and Boeing soon,” Wilmot said, and smiled. “It’s only going to get better.”

The grin on his face looked like that of a little kid. A successful RBC Heritage had that effect on a lot of people this week.