April 2007

A Conversation with Steve Wilmot

Author: Paul deVere

Tournament Director of the Verizon Heritage

In the middle of February, Celebrate Hilton Head writer Paul deVere caught up with Steve Wilmot, tournament director for the Verizon Heritage (the biggest show in town) and executive director for the Heritage Classic Foundation (possibly the biggest—and least known—show in town). The golf tournament will celebrate its 39th birthday this year. Wilmot, who figured he was looking at a 10-month stint when he joined up with the Heritage in 1987, is celebrating his 21st Heritage.

What you probably know about Steve Wilmot: His rating as a “nice guy” is about 99.5% (No one is perfect.). He and his staff (“It’s all teamwork.”) are totally committed to the success, beyond expectations, of the Verizon Heritage.

What you probably don’t know about Steve Wilmot: He was a football, basketball, baseball kind of guy, not golf, when he got his “10-month” job. Prior experience was, among other things, in the front office of the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in the now defunct USFL (United States Football League). He also sits on the boards of the Savannah Golf Foundation, the South Carolina Golf Association, the PGA Tour.

What Wilmot is most proud of is what the Heritage has given to the community where he lives, in the state where he lives. What is still a frustration is that people, both locally and statewide, don’t realize that the Verizon Heritage is run by the Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization, and the tournament is one big (really big) fund-raising event.

CHH: What do you think is the least understood about the Verizon Heritage?

WILMOT: The giving aspect. There are still so many people who look at this tournament as a for profit event. When you look at this small market and know that we gave in excess of $1.9 million to local charities last year, it’s phenomenal.

CHH: You just returned from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism & Travel. How does the rest of the state view the Heritage?

WILMOT: The Foundation in this community is looked upon a little differently in the state. Everyone thinks we’re very self-sufficient down here and that we don’t need the help and support when, in actuality, we need all the help and support we can get. Look at the economic impact this event brings to our community and South Carolina. We did a study with Clemson University two years ago. The impact is close to $90 million statewide. That study also showed that for the week of the tournament, over 1,000 people were hired on Hilton Head. Around the state an additional 1,000 plus people were hired to help towards the efforts of the tournament.

CHH: Some might consider this a dream job. What do you like best about it?

WILMOT: I have buddies call me the day after the tournament and ask what I’m going to do for the rest of the year. This is a 53 week a year job. What I like is that it’s something different every day. From this office we handle sales, marketing, advertising, operations, accommodations, everything. If you just look at operations, its phone lines to power, to bleachers, to Port-a-Johns, to tents to rope and staking, to trash, to transportation—you name it, we do it. We have 1,200 volunteers, whom Bonnie Hunt organizes. By the way, this is Bonnie’s 38th Heritage. The state highway patrol, the bus drivers, our sponsors—it’s all handled through us. I enjoy people; I don’t care if it’s the bleacher guy or the director of CBS Sports, I enjoy the time with them because this is a team effort. It’s not about me or the Foundation. The Heritage is truly a community event.

CHH: Is there any one thing that stands out in your 21 years at the Heritage?

WILMOT: There are thousands. They seem to happen every day. Jay Hass is a good example. Because we are an invitational and we are a limited field event, one of the toughest parts of my job every year is the exemptions And this year, for the very first time in 30 years, I discovered Jay Hass would need an exemption. He is a Champions Tour player, but he’s also “Mr. South Carolina,” and he’s done an awful lot for us. He’s played 29 consecutive years here. Twenty-nine years ago he played on a sponsor’s exemption because his uncle, Bob Golby, who was a past champion, asked for one for his nephew. We don’t solicit spots and I’d never done this, but I called Jay’s agent and made an offer for an exemption. Jay called back last week and turned it down. He told me, “It’s time to give these younger kids a spot.” Jay Hass is a class act.

CHH: Is there anything new we can look forward to this year?

WILMOT: A couple of things. We’re going to move the opening ceremonies in front of the bleachers. I’m not sure why we didn’t do that before. People can sit in the sky boxes, in the bleachers and have a perfect view. We’re also going to have a church service every tournament Sunday. It’s been a tradition when Easter Sunday and the tournament coincide. Last year it was packed. We’re working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, as well as Dr. Howard Edington of the Providence Presbyterian Church.

CHH: Last year was a sellout. Why not sell more tickets?

WILMOT: Could we sell more? Yes. But we want to keep the intimacy of this event. Unlike other tournaments where there is only one way in and one way out, we have 100 percent access. Every home on this golf course has access. While we do have challenges with a sellout, limiting ticket sales makes for a unique venue and very special tournament for everyone.

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