Behind the Ropes: How the Verizon Heritage Happens
Author: Paul deVere
By late Sunday afternoon, April 20, the Verizon Heritage will (if there’s no playoff, no torrential rain and no wind gusting up to 44 mph) have a champion. More than135,000 fans will have enjoyed at least part of the week that puts Hilton Head Island on the sports pages around the world. Millions more will watch images of some of the best golfers in the world on television (The Golf Channel, Thursday and Friday; CBS, Saturday and Sunday) or be listening to play-by-play coverage on XM Radio.
The pros will be comfortably housed. The hot dogs will be delivered. The buses will run on time. And the hospitality tents will be packed.
While there is an army of volunteers (1,200) and extraordinary help from the Sea Pines Plantation Property Owners Association, the Community Services Association and the resort itself, the ultimate responsibility to pull off this world-class event falls on the shoulders of nine people: the staff of the Heritage Classic Foundation. Tournament Director Steve Wilmot calls them “the team.”
They won’t be “inside the ropes,” that hallowed ground where few but the Tour pros stand. They will be—and have been all year long—“behind the ropes.” In fact, they are responsible to make sure the ropes are there in the first place.
That’s Morgan Hyde’s job. As assistant tournament director he, along with his new sidekick, operations manager, Andy McMillen, Hyde’s job is to “build the site.”
“Our primary responsibility is coordinating everything from the bleachers to trash removal. Everything you see on the golf course is my responsibility,” said Hyde. On the course and off. It also includes coordination of the shuttle system, parking for thousands of cars, and the arrival (and departure) of 200 plus courtesy cars for the pros and PGA Tour officials.
Then there are the power requirements for The Golf Channel, CBS and the electronic scoreboards. The toughest part of the job? “Coordination. To keep track of who’s coming and going,” said Hyde. He started as a weekly intern for the tournament in1995 and joined the staff a year later.
The list of Hyde’s and McMillen’s is much longer, and planning for this one week takes an entire year. But Hyde loves it. It’s the career he thought about since he was a kid, growing up on St. Simons Island. The new man, McMillen, is just as enthusiastic. “It’s a dream job,” he said.
The team member who has been with the tournament the longest is Bonnie Hunt. Wilmot calls her the “team mother.” This will be her 39th Heritage.
“When we moved here from Savannah, I started looking for work. There were two openings at Sea Pines at the time. One was in golf maintenance and the other was with the tournament. I went to that interview first,” Hunt said, laughing. She is now the executive administrator and volunteer coordinator for the tournament—the army of 1,200. “I couldn’t possibly do it all myself. Everything is broken up into committees. We have 18. They cover virtually every aspect of the tournament, including transportation, traffic management and marshals,” Hunt said. “We’ve been rated by the Tour as having the best volunteers, and I think we do.”
Her volunteers man the “will call” booths, direct traffic, drive the pros, keep tabs on the scoring and get to be inside the ropes for crowd control. They’re the ones holding up the “quiet please” signs. They are in the concession stands, doling out food and drink.
During the tournament, Hunt is occupied in “the trailer,” the onsite office and nerve center for the staff. She remembers many stories about the players over the years. Hunt rubbed elbows with the likes of Palmer, Love, Nicklaus and Stewart. “Payne Stewart would always come to the trailer. I remember, way back, I was sitting there and he runs in and locks the door. There’s a stream of children following him for autographs. He laughed and didn’t say a word. Later, he walked out. He thought the children were going to be gone, but they were still waiting. He was such a sweetheart,” Hunt said.
(Note: Payne Stewart won the tournament back-to-back in 1989 and 1990. Always a fan favorite, he was tragically killed in an airplane accident in 1999).
Someone actually has to decide what goes on those “quiet please” signs held by Hunt’s volunteers. That, of course, is probably the least of Marketing Director, Angel McSwain’s duties, but it falls to her. So does all the advertising—brochures, media kits, even the tournament badges. “I assist in all the press releases and distribute them to all the media. I manage the website,” McSwain said. She and Tournament Information Director, Arnie Burdick, work hand-in-hand with the media. “Arnie and I are a well-oiled machine,” she said.
During the tournament, Hunt and Burdick work in the media center, getting the press their credentials and feeding information. “The most fun part of my job during the tournament is when I get to pick up players and bring them to the media center for interviews. I chat them up a little bit to see what kind of people they are, see what they have to say,” said Hunt.
Burdick and McSwain are greatly appreciated by the media. Burdick retired to Hilton Head Island from Syracuse decades ago. He was the well-known and respected sports editor and columnist for the Syracuse Herald Journal. He still uses a typewriter and has no e-mail address. McSwain gets his copy to the computer.
Burdick is something of a legend with the media. Since 2003, a member of that group is presented with the “Arnie Burdick Media Award,” which consists of a pair of black plastic framed glasses, a Burdick trademark. Other than the typewriter business, or because of it, Burdick is known as the “king of the media tent.” When the award was first presented, to Burdick himself, the presentation stated, in part, “to … the most lovable curmudgeon of media relations directors on the PGA TOUR.”
Burdick described how he “landed” his job. “Mike Stevens was director then. He called me and I said, ‘Gee Mike, I’ve done enough of that all my life.’ He said, ‘I need somebody. Just for one year. Then you’re out; you can have some fun.’ One year is now 21 years. They needed somebody with professional background to put the media center together, feed the media the information quickly and accurately. We’ve done that.” Stevens was right about one part. Burdick has been having a whole lot of fun for those 21 years.
Chris LoBello has been putting people and housing together for the tournament for 14 years. “I handle the housing for the pros, sponsors, and media. The pros just love coming here. We’re a unique venue after a pressure-packed week at Augusta. They love to come here and decompress. They bring their families and ride bikes, go to the beach—it’s like a mini-vacation,” LoBello explained.
Ticket Director, Chris Tobia, not only handles the retail ticket sales end of Verizon Heritage, he has two interesting duties during the tournament as well. When a player or caddie needs to cash a check, he comes to Tobia. Essentially he is the pros’ “bank.”
He is also part of a program that was started last year called the Honorary Observer. “It gives sponsors at the executive level a chance to walk inside the ropes with the PGA TOUR processionals for the entire round. I take the special guest over on the first tee box. They’re announced on the tee. It’s pretty cool for these guys to walk the full 18. They go with end-of-the-day group so they’re going off with the leader,” Tobia explained.
Bill Wagner knows sponsors. He describes his job as raising money for charity. As the sales director, he goes out in search of corporate hospitality sponsors and exhibitors. “I ask the question, ‘Why do you want to do this and what are your goals?’” Wagner said. He joined the staff in 2004 and had all the right credentials. He had been on a sponsorship side for many years, first at the Westin, then at Crowne Plaza.
“The toughest part of the job is finding the right sponsors that fit the tournament, the people who would benefit best,” he explained. His job is to see that the hospitality tents have sponsors, that the sky boxes—there are two new ones on the 13th and 15th greens—have sponsors.
But in the end, Wagner has one thing in mind. “While my main goal is to fit the right sponsorship with the right sponsor, what it really is about is raising as much money as possible for charity” said Wagner.
Tournament Director, Steve Wilmot, the final member of the team, likes to emphasize that fact. “In 2007 we distributed $1.8 million to charitable organizations, the arts, medical institutions and for college scholarships. That’s what the Verizon Heritage is all about,” Wilmot said.
That, and teamwork.
Verizon Heritage Ticket Info
When: April 14-20th
Where: Harbour Town Golf Links
For Tickets: www.verizonheritage.com or call (800) 234.1107