CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Normally these would be the busiest of days for Steve Wilmot, tournament director for the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Just a few weeks from the scheduled PGA Tour stop, Wilmot’s time would be consumed with the build-up to the annual event.
Instead, the infrastructure around the Harbour Town Golf Links course is coming down and the fallout from the tournament’s cancellation is being assessed.
“I’m still in shock. Who would ever imagine this?” Wilmot said less than two weeks since the reaction to coronavirus fears caused widespread nixing of PGA Tour events. “There’s no playbook for this.”
Tournament officials for the events that have gone by the wayside in 2020 note that among the various fallouts will be significant loss of funding for local charities that the golf tournaments generate.
“There won’t be as much to charity, that’s a given,” said a communications director for an impacted tournament.
With the RBC Heritage slated for April 16-19, it was about a month away when the first cluster of tournaments was scratched. About 75 percent of the buildout with tents and signage had been in place around the course.
The tournament already spent more than $1 million in services rendered.
“The marketing and collateral is gone,” Wilmot said.
Wilmot, who chairs the PGA Tour’s tournament advisory council, said the correct decision was made regarding the tournaments though “we optimistically held on as long as we could.”
For the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort, it was a blow to the Tampa Bay area. That tournament was next up, less than a week away from welcoming golfers and visitors.
“We still are gutted for our fans, volunteers and community,” tournament director Tracy West said while understanding the tour’s decision. “So much work by so many people goes into staging a tournament.”
Charities among hardest hit
The Valspar Championship generated $2.27 million for charity in 2019, topping the $2 million mark for the fourth year in a row. Funds were doled out to more than 75 area charities.
In December, the Wells Fargo Championship announced that almost $1.9 million had been raised for Charlotte-area charities.
The funding of charities has been among the biggest concerns regarding each of the canceled tournaments. It goes beyond those dollars that are distributed on a formal basis.
Wilmot said it’s the sense of civic pride and community service that won’t be on display in the normal manners. There will be impacts on numerous groups that counted on the revenue from the tournament.
“It’s the Hilton Head High School that parks cars so it can go to camps in the summer,” Wilmot said. “It’s the civic organizations that run the concessions. We’re not going to sell one hot dog this year.”
By all accounts, the PGA Tour has taken a leadership role in terms of guidance amid the uncertainty. Monday’s conference call delved into various issues, and based on multiple sources was well-received and offered a degree of encouragement.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” said a tournament official who was part of the call. “They’re all sharing ideas.”
Golfers have taken an understanding tone.
“On the golf side, it’s sad to not compete,” PGA Tour standout Webb Simpson said in response to the cancellations. “… Like many of my peers have said, golf is very small right now compared to what’s going on around the world.”
Enormous economic fallout
Each of the canceled tournaments was in various stages of preparation. The Wells Fargo Championship (April 30-May 3) and Byron Nelson (May 7-10) in Dallas were in better positions to pull back some of the physical structural aspects of the tournament planning.
Still, ticket refunding and sponsors must be addressed.
Depending on the tournament, sponsors cover payouts to the golfers. There will be no such purses for these events so that’s money not spent from the sponsor level.
While tournament officials are anxious to appease sponsors, they also know that executives with many of those companies have their attentions on other matters for the time being.
The tournaments are generally offering refunds for tickets purchased (some happening automatically), though the ability to apply used funds toward 2021 events is often an option.
“This is uncharted waters with all tournaments,” Wilmot said. “We’re all in different phases of our planning.”
RBC Heritage was slated for its 52nd edition. Wilmot has been around for the past 33 tournaments, and this would have been his 24th version as tournament director.
The event is South Carolina’s only stop on the PGA Tour. Total output attributable to visitor spending was listed $102 million during the April 2019 tournament week, including direct spending of more than $65 million.
“You try to tell yourself it’s just a golf tournament, but it’s more than that,” Wilmot said. “I know how important this event is in the community and in South Carolina. We’re an important week in this community. But we’ll be back.”
It’s not that simple for the Wells Fargo Championship. It won’t return to Charlotte until 2022 because Quail Hollow Club, which was the site of 2018 PGA Championship, will be the locale of the Presidents Cup in the fall of 2021. Because of that, the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship is slated for TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm in Washington, D.C.
For Wilmot, the thought of playing a round of golf in the weeks prior to his tournament hadn’t been a consideration for the past few decades. Yet there he was on a recent Saturday on the tournament layout, albeit not putting much concentration on the round.
After all, bleachers were being torn down.
“It was a sobering feeling,” he said.
–By Bob Sutton, Special to Field Level Media