HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Jim Furyk noticed there were several more politicians and decision makers on hand than usual when he arrived at Harbour Town Golf Links. And the Heritage defending champion hopes that means good things for the tournament’s future.
The Heritage, played here since 1969, might not return in 2012 if it doesn’t find a title sponsor to underwrite the approximately $8 million a year to hold the event. Verizon, its backer since 1987, pulled out after last year’s tournament.
“Everyone seems positive,” Furyk said Wednesday. “I know they’re working together and working very hard to find a sponsor. I’m not sure what the hang-up is or what you can really find wrong with the area or the golf course.”
Furyk doesn’t see much wrong, especially after the FedEx Cup champion’s Heritage victory last spring. He won in a playoff with competitor Brian Davis called a two-stroke penalty on himself for touching a loose reed in the hazard area left of the course’s signature lighthouse hole, No. 18.
Furyk has had five top 10 finishes at Harbour Town, including the win, two seconds and a fourth, since 2003.
“It’s on a very short list of my favorite events, probably my top three,” said the former U.S. Open champion. “I had a couple of close calls here, and an event I always wanted to win before my career was over. It was nice to close the door last year and finally get that done.”
Furyk will have several top competitors trying to keep him from another victory. Luke Donald, No. 3 in the world, heads a field that includes seven players in the top 20. Graeme McDowell (No. 5) and Matt Kuchar (No. 10) are also entered. The others are Furyk (No. 13), Ernie Els (No. 15), Ian Poulter (No. 16) and Francesco Molinari (No. 19).
Also in the field is Jason Day, who tied for second at the Masters and is playing for the first time since that dramatic Sunday at Augusta National.
Andy Pazder, PGA Tour executive vice president and chief operating officer, says the field won’t hurt the cause courting potential sponsors this week. Player after player told Pazder how much they enjoy coming to the Pete Dye’s layout on Calibogue Sound and Camilo Villegas changed his schedule to make sure he teed off at Harbour Town.
“We extremely confident we can find a long-term partner and title sponsor here,” he said. “We’ve got a number of active discussions under way.”
Tournament director Steve Wilmot feels that confidence, too. “But on the drive home, we still don’t have a sponsor,” he said.
Still, the tenor of negotiations with prospective companies have intensified the last four-to-six weeks, keeping him hopeful despite the scores of pitches he’s made over the past 19 months since Verizon announced its plans to leave.
Several state leaders, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have come down to help with the cause. In July, the Heritage Classic Foundation released a study that found last April’s golf tournament brought nearly $82 million to South Carolina and its coastal region. The survey was conducted by Clemson’s International Institute for Tourism Research and Development with help from USC Beaufort.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said several times she would not use taxpayer money to fund future Heritage tournaments. Duane Parrish, the head of South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, reiterated that stance again Wednesday.
“We’ll find someone,” Parrish said. “This is too great of a price value for an organization to entertain, to get the exposure.”
The Heritage Classic Foundation used $4 million from its reserves for this year’s tournament. Local governments have also pitched in $1 million. That’s not a formula that can continue.
“Do I wish we could announced something Sunday? Sure, but we’re not,” Wilmot said.
Furyk would hate to see the Heritage disappear — and not just because he’s earned more than $2.3 million in prize money in 12 trips to Harbour Town.
Losing this event “probably sends a false message, in my opinion, that the tour isn’t as strong as it has been,” he said.
Day thinks he and his competitors will do their parts to get people talking about Harbour Town. “Hopefully, we can get some good play this week and hopefully, we can pick up a sponsor,” he said.