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Renovations at Sea Pines Resort and across Hilton Head Strengthen Heritage Golf Tournament

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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In 28 years with the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, tournament director Steve Wilmot has seen the good and bad of running a PGA Tour event. The bad, of course, came in 2011 and the run-up to that year, when previous sponsor Verizon departed and forced Wilmot and Hilton Head Island officials to scramble just to put on that year's event.

The good might be the past four years with Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing in place - and what he hopes is a stable, promising future, for both the tournament and the island that stages it and cherishes that week each April.

As he looks at all the upgrades happening at Sea Pines Resort and its signature property, Harbour Town Golf Links, Wilmot can't help but acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that has enhanced both Hilton Head and the tournament. Would Sea Pines' RiverStone Group ownership have committed around $60 million to a new Harbour Town clubhouse and other properties had the Heritage gone away after 2011? Perhaps.

For sure, though, those upgrades and more to come should go a long way toward assuring the RBC Heritage remains a staple of the PGA Tour's spring schedule and the highest-profile sporting event in South Carolina.

"Back three, four years ago," or about the time everyone was holding their breath about the tournament, "we were realizing that a lot of our facilities - Sea Pines, other hotels on the island - were getting a little older," Wilmot said. "I remember telling the Chamber of Commerce about emails I was getting from the (PGA) Tour, saying ‘we know it's out of your hands, but some of those (island) properties need to be blown up.'"

During recent years, most of them have taken that advice. Several Hilton Head hotels - the Westin, the Omni and Sonesta Resort (a former Crowne Plaza) - have been sold, renovated or completely reconceived. That, in turn, gave Wilmot more ammunition in negotiations with potential sponsors and the Tour, who had voiced desires for more entertainment and accommodations options.

Now, those investments are paying off. "It's the selfish side for me as director, but that only helps what the RBC Heritage is about," Wilmot said. Even as players at the 2014 event had to maneuver around pre-construction areas in place for the post-tournament razing of the Harbour Town clubhouse, "they realized those inconveniences were indicative of the resort's commitment to the tournament."

The tournament, in turn, has upped its game. New, larger skyboxes ("padded chairs, bar backs, cocktail round tables, sofas," Wilmot said) now tower over regular fan gathering spots at the 15th and 18th holes. Though the contract with RBC and Boeing has two more years to run, negotiations for a new pact have already begun, Wilmot said.

In many ways, the quality of Harbour Town in the past had lured players who would've liked more and better amenities. The "spring break" aspect and relaxed atmosphere notwithstanding, the golf course couldn't be the only reason to play here.

Davis Love III, a five-time winner, credits RBC and Boeing for "putting new energy in the tournament; it's nice to see them excited about golf and the Heritage." Love also gave credit to Sea Pines and Hilton Head. "For a few years they were on a tight budget, but now they've really stepped up, done a great job, (making) plans for the new (Harbour Town) clubhouse."

For Wilmot, a year-round island resident, the RBC Heritage and Sea Pines' improved facilities are a hand-in-hand deal. "This is a community event," he said. "We want to put our best foot forward every year."

Thanks to solid sponsorship and improved business morale - and the resulting facilities upgrades - that figures to be the case for years to come.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.