Simon Fraser loves playing the Harbour Town Golf Links with his 11 handicap, especially the four majestic and challenging par 3s and hole No. 6. The love of the course runs deep in the entire Fraser family, ever since Arnold Palmer took his first swing at the inaugural Heritage Classic golf tournament on Hilton Head in 1969, pocketing $20,000 as the winner.
Fraser’s father, Joseph, and his uncle, Charles, were shakers and movers from the beginning, and Simon wanted to ensure the family’s legacy by stepping in in the mid-1980s when the tournament sponsorship and the tournament itself were under siege financially and clouded with uncertainty.
Yes, golfing is fun. But golf, especially for a golf course community like Hilton Head that hosts a PGA Tour venue, is big business, too.
Thanks to the Heritage Classic Foundation, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the tournament hasn’t missed a beat — but only barely. Like any world-class champion player who occasionally drives into a water hazard or sees his competitive ranking sink, the tournament has seen its share of struggles.
“It’s important to keep the tradition of the Heritage golf tournament alive,” said Fraser, foundation board chairman for the past 10 years and the foundation’s attorney when it was founded in 1987. He became a trustee a few years later.
“It’s important because of the impact to the community and the charities,” he said. “And there’s a lot of personal history relating to family ties to the tournament. … I’d be fooling myself and everyone else if I didn’t say the legacy is very important to me personally.”
That legacy nearly snapped in the mid-1980s when the Sea Pines Company, the host sponsor, filed for bankruptcy. The PGA Tour reached out to Heritage organizers and said, “‘Listen, we’re not going to sign an agreement with a bankrupt entity to host and sponsor a golf tournament; you’re going to have to provide some financial guarantee,’” Fraser recalled.
The nonprofit Heritage Classic Foundation was founded by necessity in 1987, putting up a $1 million guarantee as host sponsor, enlisting MCI as title sponsor and shaking hands with the PGA Tour to keep the tournament swinging away.
Later, MCI was purchased by WorldCom, which eventually went bankrupt. Verizon snatched up WorldCom in 2006 and backed away from tournament sponsorship in 2010. The foundation dipped into its own pockets and hosted the tournament without a title sponsor the following year.
“A major milestone was surviving 2011 when we didn’t have a title sponsor, and then getting RBC and Boeing the subsequent year,” Fraser said. That RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing partnership remains today.
“The foundation is important because the golf tournament is important,” said Fraser, a partner at Fraser & Allen law firm on the island. “You can’t separate the foundation from the golf tournament.
“Our main focus for the next several years is making sure the tournament is secure moving forward,” he said.
Giving back to the community and its charities always has been a constant for the tournament host sponsor and the foundation.
“Beginning with the very first tournament, we made money to give away to charity,” said Fraser, noting the Heritage tallied its first $1 million in charitable dollars about three years after its PGA Tour debut. To date, the foundation has distributed more than $32 million to about 40 charities.
The foundation’s giving programs award 15 percent matching funds through its ”Birdies for Charity” partnership with the PGA and its Heritage Champions Fore Charity program.
“A lot of the giving today is determined by people who actually give money to be matched,” Fraser said. Over the years, the organization has typically assisted local and regional charities in the fields of health, welfare, children, youth activities and education. It also supports the Players Amateur tournament, the South Carolina Congressional Cup, the Sea Pines Junior Heritage and the South Carolina Juniors Championship.
The foundation also sponsors its own four-year college scholarship program, which has distributed $3.7 million to 267 students since 1993.
After a three-year hiatus, the foundation has restored the Tartan Club this year. Members make an annual contribution to the club and, if interested, can purchase a “high-end hospitality ticket” for the tournament. All donations and special ticket proceeds raise money for the foundation’s college scholarship program, Fraser said.
“We kind of see our role, first and foremost, as raising money for charity, second is its economic impact for our region, and third is frankly, publicity for our region,” he said.
After all, who in Minnesota or Scotland on a cold, rainy spring day hasn’t watched the tournament on TV and wished they could be enjoying Hilton Head’s 75-degree weather, with the glorious lighthouse and Calibogue Sound as a visual backdrop?
For more information on the Heritage Classic Foundation, visit www.heritageclassicfoundation.com.