Dream fields but no ticket sales have been bittersweet for PGA Tour venues

Rory McIlroy swings a golf club.

Rory McIlroy is making his second-ever appearance at the RBC Heritage.

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Steve Wilmot has been a part of the RBC Heritage for 34 years, dating back to 1987 when he was assistant tournament director and it was called the MCI Heritage Golf Classic. Davis Love III won that year, claiming his first PGA Tour victory out of 21. Love, now 56, is back again this year. So are 113 PGA Tour winners.

In fact, according to PGA Tour Communications, this week’s field of 114 Tour winners is the most in any field of any event in the past two decades (when they started tracking it). The downside? No fans will be there to see it. No extra tickets to be sold. No Rory McIlroy sightings to leverage. That’s been the double-edged-sword reality for tournament directions as the PGA Tour has returned.

“We assumed we would have a good field, but we didn’t really know,” said Wilmot, who has been the tournament director the past 10 years. “We were all pleasantly surprised, and the RBC is thrilled about it, and we are too. Pretty exciting for everybody. I feel for sponsors and ticket purchases who can’t see it, but we’re certainly excited for them for future years.”

The PGA Tour resumed after its three-months-long pause at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, last week, the first of five fan-less events on the Tour schedule. The RBC at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, S.C., is No. 2 in the batting order. For the second straight week, the top five players in the Official World Golf Ranking — McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson — will tee it up on Tour. Rahm and Koepka have never played Harbour Town. McIlroy played it once before, in 2012, Thomas has played it twice and Johnson, who is sponsored by RBC, has played it four times. Other big names are there too: DeChambeau, Fowler, Spieth, Reed, Rose.

One player who won’t be there is Tiger Woods. Many viewed Harbour Town as a potential return for Woods, and speculation only grew when his yacht was tracked heading up the coast before stopping a couple of hours south of Hilton Head on St. Simons Island, Ga. But the deadline came and went and Woods did not commit. He has played Harbour Town just once before.

“It’s wrong to say ‘but no Tiger,’ because we got such an incredible field,” Wilmot said. “Yes, we wanted Tiger and maybe Phil and some others, but we have an incredible field that we are excited about.”

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The RBC was scheduled in its usual spot the week after the Masters in April, but that was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Wilmot looks at this odd summer as one with two tournaments, not one: an RBC that was canceled, and the one happening this week. The former cost about $1.5 million they had already spent on grandstands and tents and ticket productions and other things, not to mention about $800,000 in ticket sales that were expected for the four weeks leading up the tournament. (When the April date was canceled, the tournament offered ticket holders, sponsors and pro-am participants options for a refund, to defer for next year or to donate.) There’s also the local community that takes a hit without fans, as concession vendors miss out on banner weeks and organizations such as the local high schools, which help with things like parking, won’t be able to raise funds either. The new event “is 100 percent from our side of the foundation an expense,” Wilmot says.

But it’s not all gloomy. There’s golf to be played. The Charles Schwab Challenge received big ratings, and there’s no reason to think the RBC Heritage can’t match or eclipse that. Plus, fans watching on TV will see a different course than what they are used to. It’s the same old quirky, charming and ball-striker’s Harbour Town, but there’s no grandstands or hospitality tents to distract. Plus, no one has played the course in three months. It’s pristine, Wilmot says. “When you are watching, you are going to see the golf course.”

And, unlike Colonial, viewers at home who like what they see can actually play it themselves, as long as they are staying at Sea Pines Resort.

“We are excited about this as a TV opportunity and to get golf back, and it opens up all the eyes in the sky to look upon Harbour Town and Hilton Head and Sea Pines and Low Country, South Carolina,” Wilmot says. “And with golf and live sports back, we’re happy to be part of process and part of solution.”

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