HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing annually signifies that spring has sprung in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
But this year, the 53rd annual tournament played at Harbour Town Golf Links — the classic Pete Dye-designed layout — took on even more significance.
The 2020 tournament was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was first canceled, but then brought back and played in the third week in June, but with no fans in attendance due to coronavirus concerns.
The pandemic is still a problem throughout the country, but vaccines and pubic awareness seem to be helping as things are getting back to normal. And that was the case this past week with fans enjoying some beautiful weather as they gathered at the Sea Pines Resort to watch many of the best golfers in the world compete.
Steve Wilmot has been the tournament director since 1997 and has been through the ups and downs that his position entails — including running a tournament without a sponsor for a year. But that pales in comparison to what he had to deal with last year with the initial cancellation and then running a tournament with no fans in attendance.
He said the RBC Heritage usually draws around 25,000 fans on tournament days and up to 30,000 on weekends. Although COVID-19 restrictions limited attendance to about 25 percent of capacity, he is happy that things are turning in a positive direction.
“We knew it was going to be tough, and our ticket pricing is a little bit different this year,” Wilmot said in a interview with the Savannah Morning News on Saturday. “The costs of conducting a tournament are still there, whether we have 30,000 or 1,000 fans. Things like security, those costs remain the same no matter how many people are attending.”
Wilmot said one of the toughest parts of running the 2020 tournament without fans was that the RBC Heritage had to stop its charitable contributions, which reach millions of dollars, because of the attendance situation, But with support from sponsors such as Royal Bank of Canada, Boeing and with some help from the PGA, the show went on.
“Collectively as a community, and with support from our sponsors, the PGA and the state we said, ‘Heck yeah, let’s go,’ so we did it,” Wilmot said.
Then they had to plan for the next tournament in nine months, instead of the usual 12.
“It’s been an awesome week,” Wilmot said. “And we’re also in survival mode, trying to get to 2022. The community has been so supportive from the people from Sea Pines being so flexible to the tremendous leadership from the town of Hilton Head and from the state capitol in Columbia.
“The buzz has been great. We have more volunteers than we’ve ever had, and I’m very proud of them and the fact that we’re conducting the tournament with health and safety as our No. 1 concern,” Wilmot said.
“We’ve repurposed some volunteers to make sure people are wearing masks.”
Dressed for the occasion
Scott Richardson was enjoying the scene at Harbour Town on Saturday dressed perfectly for the occasion in a tartan kilt with a red vest topped by a flat cap. He was accompanied by his wife Margaret, also dressed to the nines.
Richardson is a Savannah Country Day graduate who serves as the Heritage Classic Foundation Scholar Committee Chairman. So he and his wife were able to see the action in June when Webb Simpson went low to win the tartan jacket.
“This is huge for the community,” Richardson said of having limited fans back in attendance for this year’s event. “This is more than a golf tournament for us. We have about 1,200 volunteers out of a small town of about 40,000 people. It has a small-town feel, and we love that. We’ve been bottled up (because of the pandemic), and I (think) everyone is excited to be back out here.”
Greg Brannan of Pooler, Georgia, was one of those fans happy to be back at Harbour Town. He had a prime spot next to the 10th tee.
“I just love to come out here and see how far these pros hit it and how precise they are,” said Brannan, a regular at the RBC Heritage. “They are at a whole other level. There are fewer fans out here this year because they’re limiting it. It’s usually packed. The course is in such great shape. They have it set up nice. I walked five holes and it’s beautiful out there. It’s been an enjoyable day.”
With all the behind the scenes work Wilmot has to do, he was glad to see golf take center stage again this week.
“Mother nature has been so nice with the weather this week, and we deserve it,” Wilmont said. “And look at the leaderboard today, when you have a Stewart Cink and a Collin Morikawa up at the top. … I’m energized about it.”
Dennis Knight covers sports for the Savannah Morning News. Contact him at [email protected] Twitter: @DennisKnightSMN