HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – If the weather forecast and trust funds hold, this Harbour Town weekend will look like so many others when the PGA Tour makes its annual stop beneath the famous lighthouse.

Boats will bob on the water, jewelry will sparkle in the sunshine and a golf tournament will unfold among the palm trees and cocktails.

But even Hilton Head and the Verizon Heritage are not exempt from the economic flu that has staggered the country.

“I felt like we were going to be OK,” tournament director Steve Wilmot said Tuesday morning. “We’re the biggest sports event in South Carolina. But it’s worse than I anticipated. No question.”

A cynic or someone without access to the gated sanctuary known as the Sea Pines Resort might wonder how bad it can be at Hilton Head. The Calibogue Sound is still on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other and there are moss-draped rows of dreamy homes in between. It’s not the people with the vacation homes and yachts in the marina who get hurt by the decline in sponsorship dollars at the Heritage this year. It’s the people in and around this lowcountry island who don’t have as much who will feel it.

After giving approximately $1.8 million to charity each of the past two years, Wilmot said the Heritage Classic Foundation will generate approximately $1 million for charity this year.

Somewhere between 75 and 100 charities will cope with what they’re not going to get this year. For some, it means a $2,500 program will go away. For others, it could mean a $10,000 donation won’t come.

It’s not just happening at Hilton Head. It’s happening at PGA Tour events all over.

Across the board, Wilmot said numbers are down about 20 percent. The good news is the tournament has generated about $300,000 in new business and there’s reason to believe Verizon is interested in extending its title sponsorship beyond 2010, when the contract ends.

This year, though, local sponsorships are down. Ticket sales are down. Some pro-am spots went unsold.

Not long ago, the headmaster of the Sea Pines Montessori Academy put a message in a newsletter to parents, explaining how important the golf tournament is to the community in general, the school in particular.

Through the years, the school has received more than $650,000 from tournament donations. The new playground at the school, the one the kids spend recess on, came from tournament donations.

Being a destination resort, Hilton Head draws most of its spectator traffic from visitors rather than locals. It will likely rebound next year and beyond but, for now, it’s different. There aren’t as many skyboxes, which means catering is down which means you can follow the dominoes from there.

One corporation honored its commitment but asked for its skybox not to be built. How about a few more tickets, instead?

Conspicuous corporate consumption is out of style, in case you haven’t heard.

Tour players, even those cocooned by their entourages, know what’s happening.

“We have to do our part a little more,” Steve Flesch said. “Maybe we need to be more approachable, maybe we need to go to more sponsor tents after the rounds. We need to do the little things that make us more attractive and help the sponsors justify the money they’re spending.”

On Tuesday night, defending champion Boo Weekley, Brandt Snedeker, Lucas Glover and Billy Andrade were among the players who attended the pro-am draw, something they don’t often do.

Before the recession hit, Wilmot and tournament officials had already begun discussions about re-branding the tournament. It’s not just about hanging out with the beautiful people on the weekend, drinking it all in, literally and figuratively. It’s about charity, too.

“This community got somewhat fat and happy,” Wilmot said. “I think some people started to think, ‘When am I going to get my check and how much is it for?’

“Despite everything, we’re going to have a great week here. The eyes of the world will be on us and we’re one of 40-some PGA Tour events in the world. But it just goes to show that nobody is protected.”

Even in paradise.



(c) 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

Visit The Charlotte Observer on the World Wide Web at http://www.charlotte.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-15-09 1950EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.